Wednesday, 31 August 2016

Ashes and Diamonds (Popiol i Diament) (1958)

Aske og diamanter
I know zip about Polish cinema. “Popiol i diamant” or “Ashes and Diamonds” is the first Polish movie I have ever watched. Unless you count Krzysztof Kieślowski’s movies, but those are in French and are more of an international kind. No, with “Ashes and Diamonds” I am truly breaking new ground.

That makes me incredibly curious. What would movies look like in a country that has recently been screwed over repeatedly? The answer is: surprisingly interesting and technically adept. Somehow this should not come as a surprise. The golden age of German cinema was those dismal years after the first world war.

The story of “Ashes and Diamonds” takes place on the night Germany finally surrendered. It is a day of celebration, but in Poland the reality is confused and painful and celebrating seems the height of hypocrisy. Poland suffered like no other country in the war. First screwed by the Russians and the Germans combined, then wholesale slaughtered by the Germans, then betrayed by the Russians when the nationalists rose to free the country and finally under the Russian thumb enforced a ruling class not to everybody’s liking. Poland is literally in ruins, physically, mentally and emotionally. People are still struggling and fighting as has been the mode of survival during the war, but who are they fighting now?

This is a tired place, weary but instinctively fighting on. The communists who are currently on top is celebrating the victory. The nationalists are fighting the communists hoping against odds that they can topple a government backed by the Soviet and most people just want to survive or to close the eyes and forget the suffering.

Maciek (Zbigniew Cybulski) is a young man waking up from the war. Full of nervous energy he is ready to explore life, love, art and all the great things in life. But Maciek is also a veteran soldier of the nationalist army. He fought in the sewers of Warsaw during the ill-fated uprising the year before when Warsaw was finally destroyed by the Germans while the Soviet army was waiting for the Germans to finish the job. Maciek is on an assignment to kill the new communist leader of the region, a job we see botched in the opening. Now Maciek has rented a room in the hotel where the communist leader, Szczuka (Wacław Zastrzeżyński), is staying and where the victory celebration is taking place and he is under pressure by his commanding officer to kill Szczuka this very night.

That is essentially the movie. The war and the celebration. Life and death. Eager to explore life Maciek wants out, but he cannot. In one night he finds love, hope and beauty, but also death and destruction.

This is not so much a movie with an exciting forward moving story, but instead a snapshot of that existential crisis Maciek is in, which in turn was the crisis of the Poles as a people. Expecting action you would probably be disappointed, but there is a lot of other things happening. The party for example is both hilarious and creepy. It reminded me of the party held by the pigs in “Animal Farm”, lavish amidst the general ruin, with an insistence on having fun. When the party is interrupted by a very drunk secretary and his new best friend it can best be compared to Peter Sellers “The Party” or the embarrassment in “Festen”. It is one of those parties where you do not know whether to laugh or to cry and you probably end up doing both.

 Zbigniew Cybulski as Maciek is another highlight. Obviously he was instructed to act like James Dean, but even with that in mind there is something very open and vulnerable about his character. You can read all the pain and all the joy in his face. He is impulsive and act immediately on his feelings (James Dean?) and for a person caught in the conflict of celebration of life and death and destruction this is exactly the right reactions. I read that Cybulski was much used by the director and I might look up his other movies. Well, I know I will because I bought the entire War-trilogy.

The question I ask myself is how this movie was considered in Poland in 1958. It did win awards in the West, but in Poland I can imagine the reception would have been guarded. The communists, well known for their iron grip, cannot have been too happy with the way the communists and their opposition is described here. Yes, the nationalists are painted as misguided fools, but also as heroes who fought the Germans in the uprising and Maciek, the centerpiece of the movie is firm in his allegiance to the opposition.  And Poland as the ruined victim of a gang rape cannot have been a happy memory.


  1. The only think I found problematic in this movie is the longest, most drawn-out death scene in film history. Otherwise, I think this is a masterpiece.

    1. It was advertised as spectacular, but I found it rather anticlimactic. It is enough to know that he dies. The it is a miserable death seem unnecessary.