The following is one of the entries from my 100 Greatest Films from the Soviet Union, Russia, Ukraine and Eastern Europe list, which I invite you to visit on this site if you haven’t already done so. — Dennis
What critics anointed as such, he has said, Andrzej Wajda never intended: the “war trilogy.” Indeed, Wajda’s next film after completing the trio of films—A Generation (Pokolenie, 1954), Kanal (1957), Popiól i diament—returned to the topic of World War II, albeit in color rather than black and white. This was Lotna (1959), whose hallucinatory atmosphere generates a sense of defeat and despair, over Poland’s military backwardness, encroaching upon tenuous hope. Lotna’s centerpiece is a brilliant tracking shot that presents an almost surreal panorama of war’s carnage and horror: the survey of a battlefield on which killed horses and killed cavalrymen lie bloodily equal. The inexorably slow pace of the camera evokes a seemingly endless stretch of slaughter. Nonetheless, Popiól i diament is the prize of the quartet.
Written by Jerzy Andrzejewski and Wajda from the former’s novel, this film catches Poland at the very moment that fate cancels reprieve. 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. Prior to executing their mission, Maciek, the younger assassin, endures a long, dark night of the soul, during which, for once a bit lost, he questions the whole idea of Pole killing Pole. He also experiences fleeting romance. Soon after the assassination the next day, the boy himself is shot and dies an agonizing animal death amidst war’s rubble.
The film’s centerpiece is the tremendous acting by Zbigniew Cybulski as Maciek Chelmicki, which ensures the film’s heart-piercing humanity. Adam Pawlikowski is likewise brilliant as Maciek’s seasoned companion. Romantic, passionate, and grounded in Cybulski’s legendary performance behind dark eyeglasses, Ashes and Diamonds is also famous for its stormy imagery and compelling symbolism—for instance, the upside-down Christ in a bombed-out church.
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