One of the films many of us cherish is Andrzej Wajda’s Ashes and Diamonds (Popiól i diament, 1958), which completes what others, not Wajda, have called his “war trilogy,” beginning with A Generation (Pokolenie, 1954) and Kanal (1956). This searing film catches Poland at the very moment fate cancels reprieve; for, on the day that war with Germany ends, two partisans, underground assassins, target the Communist district secretary, who represents the nation’s new order of political woes. The boy Maciek, one of the assassins, prior to executing his mission, briefly after which he himself, shot, dies an agonizing animal death, suffers a long, dark night of the soul where, a bit lost for once, he questions the whole horrible idea of Pole killing Pole. The film’s centerpiece, Zbigniew Cybulski’s tremendous acting as Maciek Chelmicki, ensures the heart-piercing humanity of Wajda’s greatest film. Also, Wajda’s stormy imagery and symbolism commend the film—for instance, an upside-down Christ in a bombed-out church.
Romantic, passionate, and grounded in Cybulski’s legendary performance, Ashes and Diamonds, in haunting black and white, is generally regarded as irresistible. Wajda’s next film, his first in color, however, has met with considerable resistance. For instance, in their Cinema: The Magic Vehicle Garbicz and Klinowski, who rank Ashes and Diamonds the most outstanding film of 1958, relegate Lotna to the third rank of films. But Lotna is a very beautiful piece of work, however distanced and difficult for many it has proven to be.
It also is about the Second World War, although there is a feel to it of the Great War, which is perfectly in keeping with Lotna’s theme: Poland’s vulnerability from its backwardness. In September 1939 Poland can do no more than muster an outdated cavalry defense against invading German tanks. (Wajda’s own father was a cavalry officer killed in the war.) Thus Poland found herself, on the verge of the war, stuck in the past. And at the point in time that the film covers, she had no future she could count on.
Like Ashes and Diamonds, only more so, the film is rich with symbols and visual metaphors, the chief one being Lotna (translation: Volatility), an impassive Arabian horse which, called (rightly) “fabulous,” infuses an aspect of fable into Wajda’s canvas of war. The dying aristocrat who gives up this spectacular dun mare represents Poland’s entrenchment in the Old Order that at last is losing its grip. (Perhaps another reason why the war feels like the First, not the Second, World War is the world-weary aura of Jean Renoir’s La grande illusion, 1937, hanging about the film.) The horse is plainly momentous; it comes like fate to the captain who commands the cavalry regiment that the film follows. With it also comes a dream of foreboding; the captain, correctly convinced now of his imminent death, arranges to pass the horse on. A simple contest executing fate determines the “winner”: a lower ranked officer over a first lieutenant—a confounding of hierarchic privilege. With the horse now seems to come terrific good fortune; amidst bombings, the young officer quickly courts and weds a village schoolteacher whom his superior also is in love with. Ominously adjacent to a farm slaughterhouse, the brief festivities are like a magical respite from war’s insanity and bloody chaos. (This anticipates the dance in the woods in Miklós Jancsó’s magnificent The Red and the White, Csillagosok, katonák, 1967.) But when the bridegroom rushes out after Lotna just after his wedding night, his luck doesn’t hold; he goes down to enemy fire. Now the horse passes on, finally, to the first lieutenant; but it is stolen from him in short order. In the pursuit its leg breaks. Lotna is destroyed. For the time being, after all, it is the end of Poland.
This is a strange, impressive film—not as opaque in its national symbolism as Wajda’s later (and gorgeous) The Wedding (Wesele, 1972), but somewhere in the same cool, mystical pool. Some of it is more than strange. In a charge aborted by the first appearance of the tanks, for instance, the cavalrymen look absurd on their high horses, like posturing and gesticulating marionettes. Clearly, though, the image is at the service of Wajda’s thematic interest. And some of the film is extraordinary. An hallucinatory atmosphere generates a sense of defeat and despair encroaching upon tenuous hope; a brilliant tracking shot provides an almost surreal, expressionistic panorama of war’s carnage and horror: made bloodily equal, killed horses and killed cavalrymen. The shot isn’t long; we’re far here from the traffic stall in Jean-Luc Godard’s Weekend (1967), the height (and length) of satiric savagery, and quite possibly the single most stunning shot in all of cinema. Nevertheless, the pace of Wajda’s tracking camera is so inexorably slow that we feel we are witnessing an endless stretch of slaughter. Encapsulating one of Wajda’s themes, another shot shows an invading tank—invisibly driven, a carnivorous machine—crushing as it rolls over a cavalry horse: an emphatic shot, to be sure, but also an unshakable one.
Lotna abounds with visual echoes. The bride’s white veil, disentangled indoors from the snag caused by the coffin the bride brushes by (itself an echo of the wedding-funeral association in Erich von Stroheim’s Greed, 1924), becomes a sheer image of doom—like the horse in motion—once, outdoors, the veil is susceptible to the wind’s full force. The motif is picked up again after the bridegroom’s death, when the veil, twisted and stretched, reappears, caught, among tree branches amidst a field of corpses. Another echo: Lotna’s final spasm recalls a tableful of fish twitching towards oblivion. In sum, this echoing of images suggests war’s killing repetitiveness—and more: a hopelessness admitting no
escape, a closed abyss of mirrors and half-mirrors: a reflection of Poland’s fate then, with an added hint (from Wajda’s vantage) of her postwar fate.
There is yet more to the film’s visual achievement. Helping to blur fever dream and waking reality, a metaphor of war’s assault on consciousness, low, upwardly tilted cameras also show horses and humans looming preternaturally and heroically large while, ironically, at the same time, setting these creatures against an illimitable sky that mystically becomes the repository of their struggle and death: a cumulative eternity of sorrow: Poland’s modern history, and Wilfred Owen’s “the pity of War.”
Finally, there are the unbearably beautiful autumnal landscapes in which these horrible events unfold; Nature is shown (for me, unexpectedly) full and ripe, reminiscent of its character in Aleksandr Dovzhenko’s Earth (Zemlya, 1930), lending a shimmering note of melancholy and pure regret and, at the last, wedding to Nature forever the fallen bridegroom who, hours earlier, seemed to epitomize Polish youth and hopeful spirit.
So much else commends the film: for instance, for all the gripping grandeur of the battle scenes, a complete absence of irrelevant anti-German sentiment. (This, let me tell you, is hard to come by in films of this kind!) Of course, the film isn’t perfect. Wajda’s films often lack refinement; compared to the nearly mathematical precision of Krzysztof Zanussi’s masterpiece, Constans (The Constant Factor, 1980), Wajda’s work can seem messy—and does here. Also, Wajda can be “arty” and ornate; some of Lotna undeniably veers toward the mannerisms of Luchino Visconti’s (nevertheless brilliant) The Damned (1969) ten years hence. Still, there is in Lotna none of the overwrought silliness of Wajda’s Yugoslavian film, Siberian Lady Macbeth (Sibirska Ledi Magbet, 1961), nor is Lotna any more “artificial” than Ashes and Diamonds—and it’s a good deal less so than Kanal.
Then why are harsh judgments so casually leveled at this film? Is Lotna really as lifeless as Eric Rhode (in A History of the Cinema) suggests, or as marred by “abortive symbolism” and “wooden acting” as Garbicz and Klinowski would have it? I do not mind the distancing; I do not require that films come out after me. I have seen more active and complete symbolism (in Eisenstein’s October, 1927, for example), but, combined with his brand of expressionism, I find Wajda’s symbols sufficiently resonant to formally embody all kinds of intriguing ideas. And what of the acting? It is true that Jerzy Pichelski brings nothing of interest to the role of the captain. And, yes, Jerzy Moes, playing the young officer, lacks Cybulski’s glowing charisma. So? Nowhere does Moes fall short of what the role requires, and his acting is better than any done by countless other pretty-boys (Tom Cruise, Tom Courtenay, Johnny Depp, Troy Donahue). He’ll do. And Adam Pawlikowski, as the first lieutenant, and Mieczyslaw Loza, as the sergeant-major, are both excellent; the moment they share over the shooting of the horse is the height of piercing delicacy. One wonders just what kind of acting the carpers want in a war film. Sir John Gielgud—who, incredibly would pop up in a Wajda film, dubbed, twenty years hence—intoning amidst the devastation?
It’s time for the nonsense to stop. In quality, Lotna is much closer to the high watermarks of Homer’s Iliad and Goya’s war etchings than it is to the vacant images of The Longest Day (1962), the florid sentimentality of Oliver Stone’s Platoon (1986) with its ridiculous misreading of Melville’s Moby-Dick, or the trick narration and slick literalism of Steven Spielberg’s indefensible Saving Private Ryan (1998). Lotna doesn’t belong in a critical glue factory. This astonishing work is the most unfairly disparaged film in the history of the greatest art form of the twentieth century. It is therefore up to the twenty-first century to set the matter right by giving Lotna its due. It’s up to all of us.
B(U)Y THE BOOK
MY BOOK, A Short Chronology of World Cinema, IS CURRENTLY AVAILABLE FROM THE SANDS FILMS CINEMA CLUB IN LONDON. USING EITHER OF THE LINKS BELOW, ACCESS THE ADVERTISEMENT FOR THIS BOOK, FROM WHICH YOU CAN ORDER ONE OR MORE COPIES OF IT. THANKS.