On first reading Kazimierz Brandys’s novel Samson, I remembered the drawings by Gustave Doré I had seen as a child, and I started dreaming of making a modern film version of the great Biblical tale. What the novel demanded of a director, however, was simplicity, modesty and, above all, respect for details.
From the first day of shooting to the final day of editing, I remained torn between the two extremes. As veterans of Ashes and Diamonds both of us, [cinematographer] Jerzy Wójcik and myself, realized the power of narrative shortcuts and the impact of symbolism on the screen. We wanted to continue in that direction. Brandys’s novel, however, contradicted and desperately resisted our concepts. — Andrzej Wajda
Samson is a strong film: immense—a little too immense, maybe; dark; powerful; illuminating. It charts the odyssey of a Pole as he runs and hides from “the law.” He is imprisoned for accidentally killing a schoolmate in a fight that targeted him during a Nazi youth rally on campus grounds. With the outbreak of the Second World War, he is passed from one prison to another: the Warsaw Ghetto. He escapes his German captors and must now navigate his imperilled way in a Gentile world. Jakub Gold is Jewish. That is his crime—“the crime of existence.” On the run, he is ever poised to be punished for it.
Andrzej Wajda directed from a screenplay by the author of the novel, Kazimierz Brandys, and himself. He is correct that charged symbolism and detailed realism do not make for a perfect marriage. It’s a stormy, turbulent marriage, but a gripping one.
The sealing off of the Warsaw Ghetto occasions one of the film’s most unimaginable/imaginable moments—a glimpse of activity as captured by historical memory, to which the solemn, haunting voiceover is correlative. (Whose voice is it? Wajda’s? Brandys’s? The credits do not tell.) First, there is the ghostly march of Jewish citizens into the specified confined space, the Star of David patches visible on back shoulders. It is a march of anonymous, defeated humanity, and Wajda (perhaps with the wonderful closing shot of G. W. Pabst’s 1931 Die Dreigroschenoper in mind) precisely portrays the point where human lives intersect with the dehumanization to which captors consign their captives. Next, there is the nailing and hammering of the boards into place, to seal off the space from the rest of Warsaw. The camera is behind those doing the hammering as the Jewish citizens facing them, and invisible to them as they do their mechanical work, disappear from our own view board by board. They are being buried alive, perhaps echoing the memorable shots in Mark Robson’s Bedlam (1946) in which the villain is also buried alive upright, brick by brick, inside a wall. Behind the Ghetto wall, Jakub locates his mother in the street. She is already dead—heartrending reality; monumental symbolism. The reunion/nonreunion, the thwarted event, provides irony; but, beyond this, it evokes the fate to which these disrupted Jewish lives are headed. Effortlessly. Jakub gathers his mother’s corpse in his arms and carries her in the street.
After Jakub makes his escape, his life becomes, with the help of others (including some he knew inside prison), one of hiding in other confined spaces, including partly beneath street level in a dark cellar from which, during different seasons, falling snow and the legs of a child skipping rope are visible to him. Jakub fears discovery and denouncement, battles illness, descends into his own soul. Leaving the freedom of his captivity, the captivity of his freedom, one day he mounts the brick wall on one side of the Ghetto. It is an armed graveyard that he sees there now, with the bodies of dead Jews strewn about. There is nothing, then, for him to return to.
The crux of the boy’s dilemma had been this: to maintain communal integrity by embracing an historic fate in solidarity with fellow Jews; contrarily, to escape—to live, and thus keep a part of that community alive. Or try to. After seeing so many films in which comparable or similar dilemmas are rigged and rendered rhetorical, because the filmmakers know (they believe) exactly how people ought to behave, one is refreshed and moved by Samson, in which young Jakub doesn’t know what the hell is the right thing to do. Wajda has made a humane film, not a smug, sanctimonious one.
A Jewish girl passing for a Christian outside the Ghetto, with whom Jakub was romantically involved, unbeknownst to him drops her pretense and turns herself in. Under other circumstances, Jakub also embraces his fate, taking with him, without fanfare, a roomful of Nazis. The schoolboy incident that had resulted in a single accidental death has been transformed into a redemptive, self-sacrificial act of mass killing as Jakub submits to an historical imperative. To say the least, this conclusion adds an interesting wrinkle to our confrontation with recent suicide bombings. The closing shot, which surveys the brace of dead bodies, including, somewhere, Jakub’s own, is among Wajda’s finest. The whitening out of the dust-soaked image haunts with its intimation of eternity.
Serge Merlin is very good as Jakub Gold. However, Wajda’s preeminent collaborator, besides Brandys, is black-and-white cinematographer Wójcik, whose work here at the very least matches his work in Ashes and Diamonds (1958). Too, Tadeusz Baird contributes a delicately mournful score.