The War Trilogy (Three films by Andrzej Wajda)

Second Run Blu Ray


The two most famous war trilogies in cinema are still Roberto Rossellini’s (Rome Open City, Paisan, Germany Year Zero) and Andrzej Wajda’s (A Generation, Kanal, Ashes and Diamonds).  You can certainly detect Rossellini’s influence on Wajda – especially in the rough-hewn exteriors of the opening of A Generation (1955) and later in the direction of street crowd scenes in Kanal (1956).  Only with Ashes and Diamonds (1958) we have more of a clean break from neo-realism.

Heroic endeavour is explored in both trilogies: though Wajda makes it a central theme as he navigates away from neo-realism to his own stylised reality and confident auteurship.  Steeped in Polish literature, art and history Wajda both critiques and respects heroism and rests it on a artistic mid-point: uneasy about its often tragic link with nationalism but admiring individual bravery.  This gives Wajda’s films a sensual, romantic (even baroque) edge.

Polish romanticism is back-grounded in Wajda’s debut feature A Generation.  Wajda is on record as saying “People are heroic through their modesty.” However its protagonist Stach (played by Tadeusz Lomnicki) lives impetuously in the moment and is very impressionable.  Dorata (Urszula Modrzynska) the more emotionally stronger and grounded communist believes in “everyday resistance”.  When she learns that Stach (who she’s attracted to) has murdered a German soldier she warns him to not take risks: that they (The Peoples Army) must retain humanity and keep this humanity after the war.

Admittedly A Generation is compromised.  In 1955 the cultural authorities made Wajda stress communists over the Home Guard, as the more virtuous liberation group fighting the Nazis, but Wajda still transcends the clichés – no Soviet-realist dramatics and no strident leader stereotypes (Urszula Modrzynska gives a radiant and touching performance.) Jerzy Lipman is the film’s photographer and there are many dazzling visuals.  Stach’s friend Jasio (Tadeusz Janczar), trapped by the Germans, commits suicide by throwing himself down from a communal staircase.  It’s a moment shot as if the camera was a gun loaded with bullets of expressionist power.  In A Generation Wajda was, as a director, finding his feet to deliver an excellent film about Polish youth fighting fascism.  It prepared the ground for two masterpieces.

Kanal (Polish for sewer) is set in September 1944, during the last days of the Warsaw

Uprising.  Lieutenant Zadra leads a unit of 43 soldiers and civilians.  He is ordered to retreat from heavy bombardment by going into the sewers in order to reach the city centre.  They are soon disorientated by a lack of oxygen, the stench of the sewer and the lingering remains of a German gas attack.  It’s obvious that Wajda must have seen The Third Man made in 1949.  Yet compared to that film’s brilliant chase sequences this sewer is not a place for swift pursuit but a wearisome slog.

At one point the delirious officer cadet Korab (Tadeusz Janczar) says to his female guide Stokrotka / Daisy (Teresa Izewsksa) that it’s like walking through the fields to paradise.  She replies no, we are wading through a hell of stinking shit.  It’s an odd exchange reinforced by the often dream-like state of futility everyone is experiencing: a harrowing situation that produces moments in Kanal more akin to a horror film than a war story – the dark excrement-stained hands that reach out to grope; the nightmare appearance of a huge pipe through which people fall and an elderly dying soldier whose frightening sounds are mistaken for a monster.

The group contains a composer Michal (Vladek Sheybal) who quotes from Dante and begins to go crazy, imagining the first musical notes of a dark composition he’s working on.  Kanal has correctly been called Dantesque: that the unit are the dammed trapped in the circles of hell.

This bleak, tragic, very humanist film has an intense rawness that I suspect influenced Elem Klimov in the making of his searing 1985 war film Come and See.  In that film suffering bombards you in the fields and along the plain.  In Kanal it’s pushed underground: no doubt it was a military error to try to escape through the sewers.  Yet the German’s massive street bombardment would have crushed the unit anyway.  Of course the whole unit is doomed for Kanal’s opening voice-over has already informed us of their fate.

War historians employ the phrase “the fog of war” to convey the chaos and uncertainty of military conflict.  In Ashes and Diamonds we are on the pivot of potential change or entering the mistiness of a coming but troubled peace.

“The film, on the other hand, takes place in a little over twenty-four hours, one day and night, and into the dawn of the following day.  I sensed that the situating of the action during the final night of the war and the dawn of the first day of peace, with all the hopes engendered by that situation, coupled with everything that would go toward destroying those hopes, would have an unexpected shock effect on the viewer.”

Andrzej Wajda – 1989

Home Army soldiers Maciek (Zbigniew Cybulski) Andrzej (Adam Pawlikowski) and Drewnowski (Bogumil Kobiela) prepare to assassinate Szczuka (Waclaw Zastrzezynski) the secretary of the communist Polish Workers’ Party.  The ambush fails and the attackers learn that they have mistakenly killed two innocent people.  The soldiers’ superior Major Wanda orders them to make a second attempt.

The story is simple but what transpires up to Szczuka’s eventual murder is complex, ambivalent and morally muddled.  Andrzej asks Major Wanda if the killing is necessary and he’s rebuffed.  Maciek, eager to complete the mission, is attracted to Krystyna (Ewa Kryzewska) a barwoman, and over the next few hours realises he’s in love with her.  Maciek’s expresses his tiredness of warfare and destruction.  He’s ambivalent over carrying out more killing.  Like Krystana he’s lonely and needs to connect, have emotional stability again.  Drewnowski gets drunk and wrecks his communist career chances at a hotel party held for the end of the war.  Szczuka is informed that his son is a member of the opposing Home Army and has been arrested.  And the hotel guests, stuck in a heroic nationalist past, dance and stride away as if hypnotised: their leader declaiming a new future based on outdated ideals.

By setting the action over this significant night and morning Wajda beautifully realises the dilemma of a betwixt and between moment in Polish history.  But the tragedy is made more Maciek’s than the nation’s.

I love Cybulski’s intimate sex scenes with the bar woman; his warm reminiscences over dead comrades as he sets fire to glasses of vodka; his anger when reproached by the church guard as he tries to mend the heel of Krystana’s shoe; the way he holds the shot and dying Szczuka – who has staggered towards Maciek to be embraced in a father and son manner.  And in the morning Maciek’s own death, by suspicious soldiers, avoids any false heroics to convey the real agony and disbelief of a young man’s end.  Cybulski (an actor forever branded as the Polish James Dean) bleeds in agony on a rubbish dump echoing the terrible climax of Bunuel’s Los Olvidados, that pitiless blend of surrealism and naturalism.

After Ashes’s international critical success Zbigniew Cybulski became a super star (those dark glasses, leather jacket and machine gun helped) of the arthouse film circuit: an icon of rebellion for the young in the sixties (Do seek out Cybulski in Has’s How to be Loved and The Saragossa Manuscript).  The anarchist Mick of Lindsay Anderson’s If…(1968) is a progeny of Maciek.  Yet ‘punk’ violence to one side, Cybulski’s range, as an actor, was considerable.  And Wajda was able to pull out of a very intelligent actor all the changes of mood that the confident, then self doubting, Maciek character required.

Above all Wajda’s trilogy goes beyond its Polish roots to achieve a universal importance.  It remains a compelling achievement looking beautiful in this new 2K restoration.  Old often viewed cinematic treasures are preserved for us.  And if you’ve never seen these films before then I envy you the visceral experience of that first time shock and surprise.

Alan Price © 2022.