Poland was behind the Iron Curtain as an Eastern Bloc nation in the late 50s when Andrzej Wajda made Ashes and Diamonds. Subject to tight oversight and even censorship, Polish cinema benefited from the cultural thaw under Khrushchev after the death of Stalin which opened up Soviet art and film with greater latitude and global exposure. Along with his Polish compatriot Roman Polanski, Wajda was able to make movies that could gently jab the communist regime that were unthinkable a few years before in the same period that Mikhail Kalatozov made The Cranes are Flying.
On the very last day of Poland’s involvement in the Second World War, three men wait outside a church for a communist official to come by in a car to assassinate him. They end up killing the wrong man without realizing it and make off to plan their next steps in life. All three characters, Maciek, the anachronistic James Dean type, Andrzej, the dedicated partisan, and Drewnowski, a mole in the mayor’s office who wants little to do with practical action, are trapped in between the past and the future, and that really defines everything about them.
Maciek is the main character, the one who gains the most focus, as he discovers that Szczuka, the official they meant to kill, escaped their plan, gets the hotel room next door, and conspires with Andrzej on how to kill Szczuka. He also has time to flirt with the attractive barmaid at the hotel bar, and this all is happening as everyone around them celebrates the end of the war. The conflict that demanded the assassination of Szczuka is over. The rest of the country seems to be moving on in different ways, most particularly manifested by Drewnowski’s boss, the mayor, accepting a job as a minister in the new national government. At the same time, Maciek has this girl, Krystyna, comes to visit Maciek in his hotel room where they have a small tryst meant to be no more than a physical act, but they spend more time together, wandering through a bombed out church, where they grow more affectionate and even in love with each other. But Maciek has to make a choice. He can either kill Szczuka, the action demanded in the past, or run off with Krystyna, the hopeful action of a new future.
While all of this is going on, the new communist government is forming, and none of the three end up involved. Maciek is too concerned with a fight that doesn’t matter anymore. Andrzej has given his orders to Maciek and is ready to depart to continue the old fight in a new place. Drewnowski gets blackout drunk and invades the proper banquet put on to honor the mayor’s promotion to minister. Along with a disfavored reporter, Drewnowski makes a complete fool of himself and destroys his own career, kicking him out of the government and keeping him from any position of influence after holding such a promising post that could have turned into so much more.
What I see in these three characters is a mixture of adherence to the past and subservience to current desires that they give up the future to other forces. They fought for a free Poland during the war, but their myopic vision ends up ensuring that they’ll have no say in the future at all. They’re giving up their country to a communist dictatorship.
This is a tragic vision of a country dealing with a power vacuum that does not have any easy answers, and I think that’s most particularly exemplified by Maciek’s relationship with Krystyna. Maciek’s future with Krystyna would not have been one of great impact. They would have married, raised a family, and just been small people in the world, but Maciek would have had more if he had done that than if he had gone on to kill Szczuka in the street at night, which, in some very tangible ways, led to his panic and death that ends the film. It’s a film that looks at the end of the partisan resistance in World War II with deep sadness at lost promise.
One of the things that people talk about with Ashes and Diamonds is the movie’s use of symbolic imagery, and it’s pretty heavy. There’s a crucifix suspended upside down in the bombed out church that represents the lost sacrifice. Right after Maciek shoots Szczuka, the fireworks of celebration break out above them with Szczuka lying dead in the street. And, in what seems Fellini-esque before Fellini really embraced the conceit, there’s a group of partiers who go on into the next morning that feels carnivalesque and almost grotesque in their continued celebrations as their future was decided in another room, and it’s nothing to celebrate.
Richly and intelligently written, beautifully filmed, very well acted, and moving, Ashes and Diamonds is a great film.