Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Art House in the Middle of the Street #1: Ashes and Diamonds

There's no grand philosophical project behind Charge Shot!!!'s new feature. Jordasch's mom got him Janus Films' absolutely untouchable Essential Art House box set, and he's going to watch the whole thing. It's a behemoth set, collecting 50 films released since 1956 by one of the first distributors to bring honest-to-goodness world cinema to U.S. shores. The films contained in the collection serve as a crash course in world cinema, encompassing everything from major works of the French New Wave and the Italian Neorealist period to films from lesser-known corners of the filmmaking world, including Brazil and Poland. The collection is 50 discs, weighs 16 pounds, it's dark, and we're wearing sunglasses. Hit it.

I should have known it was a bad idea to base my decision of where to start this project on the screen cap on the DVD label. The picture on the front of the disc for Andrzej Wajda's Ashes and Diamonds shows a sunglasses-clad young man gleefully firing a World War II-era submachine gun. "Ooh, this looks like it could be fun. Maybe it's some kind of Polish gangster flick. Like Goodfellas with kolacky."

The gun-toting twentysomething on the front of the DVD is a Polish revolutionary named Maciek (Zbigniew Cybulski). It turns out that the ballistic moment depicted is one of only two moments in the film where any character fires a weapon. The scene's the first one in the film, where we meet Maciek and his partner Andrzej (Adam Pawlikowski). Andrzej is impassive, as he remains for most of the film, while the two of them lie on the side of a hill waiting for a car carrying a communist commissar and his staff to arrive. Andrzej seems merely to be waiting, but Maciek seems to exult in the quiet moment. He takes a flower from a farm girl who's loafing around the hillside and sniffs it rapturously. Then the car arrives. Maciek sloughs off his peacenik pose and pulls out his gun. He and Andrzej quickly dispatch the passengers and are on their way. Maciek seems to enjoy the execution as much as he did the flower.

The mission proves not to be the success it appeared. The two men in the car were workers at a local cement plant, not the Communist officials Maciek and Andrzej were looking for. We learn this in a tense scene where Commissar Szczuka himself discovers the bodies of the cement workers. He soberly informs the other onlooking workers that this was an assassination attempt by members of Poland's Home Army, a revolutionary force that spent the balance of World War II opposing the German occupiers and serving the Polish government in exile. Now they've concerned themselves with resisting the invading Soviet armies. The workers seem as shaken as Szczuka himself. "How much longer will the violence last?"

You might think, from this exchange, that Ashes and Diamonds will unfold as an examination of the morality of terrorism, a la Munich or Gillo Pontecorvo's The Battle of Algiers. The setting, on the other hand, hints that the film will chronicle the unforgiving life of those who serve a government in exile, much like Jean-Pierre Melville's masterfully grim Army of Shadows.

Ashes and Diamonds is something different altogether, however. Maciek and Andrzej discover their mistake and agree to finish out their mission. Luckily, they've ended up at the Monopol Hotel in Krakow, the same place Szczuka's decided to stay for the night.

Wadja spends most of the film following around Maciek as he gives in to impulse after Epicurean impulse. Buy a few drinks, steal a few more, set them all on fire (?), hit on a pretty blonde waitress in the hotel bar: Maciek seems more like a curious kid than a hardened killer. His disposition is erotic. He wants the greatest things in life, and he wants them all right now. He's a romantic, a charmer, and hopelessly lost.

Zbigniew Cybulski plays Maciek as a rakishly handsome rogue, a wild card who'd just as soon fuck and avoid the messy business of assassination. He confesses his exasperation with the revolutionary cause to Andrzej late in the film ("I can't just go on killing"). Andrzej, always the good soldier, is unsympathetic.

Something, however, brought Maciek to revolution in the first place. Andrzej probably joined the cause simply because he thought it was the right thing to do. Adam Pawlikowski's performance doesn't give the impression that Andrzej is callous, merely that he's focused.

But Maciek was in it for the romance, the sexual allure of war and violence. After all, what's sexier than giving your life for a cause you love? For the moment, he's retreated to the safer realm of plain old sex. He beds that pretty blonde from the bar (Ewa Krzy┼╝ewska) and, in a series of striking closeups, the two lay in bed quietly falling in love. He hints that he'll have to leave soon, but maybe he can do "something that will change everything." Maciek ends up doing what changes nothing, however, and shoots Commissar Szczuka. Sex isn't enough for him, so he goes for the death. Communist soldiers chase him through a field of rubble at the end of the film and gun him down.

"Love Among the Ruins," Robert Browning's poem about choosing love over war kept popping into my head as I watched Ashes and Diamonds. After they make love, we see Maciek and Krystyna hop around the Krakow rubble. Maciek makes grand declarations about their love and what they'll do together. And, for a minute, we believe him. Cybulski was called the Polish James Dean, and it makes sense, considering how convincing he is as a doomed dreamer. "Oh blood that freezes, blood that burns, Earth's returns," Browning says towards the end of the poem. "For whole centuries of folly, noise, and sin, shut them in. With their triumphs and their glories and the rest! Love is best." Maciek knows he's right. But he chooses the triumphs and the glories anyway. He thought he'd always be the guy on the front of the DVD, killing in the name of Poland and having a blast doing it. He actually just ended up dead.

- Photos via Posterman and 100 Years of Polish Film