Tuesday, April 14, 2020

Ashes and Diamonds

Andrzej Wajda’s Ashes and Diamonds (l958) takes place on May 8, l945, the day of Poland’s liberation. From the first scene of the movie a series of leitmotifs are suggested. The camera pans up to the cross at the top of a church on the threshold of which the first murder will take place. The machine gun fire is so fierce that the body goes up in flames. Fireworks appear later in the movie at a celebration taking place after the murder of a Communist leader and glasses of vodka are set on fire. Then there’s a hilarious scene in which the secretary to the town’s mayor drunkenly employs another kind of fireworks, mowing down the guests at a banquet with a fire extinguisher—which effectively extinguishes his own career. Black humor is one of Wajda’s devices and it’s part of the mirroring that runs throughout the movie. A poster of Stalin is juxtaposed to what looks like the Polish leader, General Pilsudski. "You can go from one side to the other," intones a drunken journalist. The mirror reflection or the shadows of characters are part of the music which includes the scene of a mock waltz to the tune of a "Polonaise." Almost all the action of the film hinges around Maciek (Zybigniew Cybulski) , a feckless resistance assassin who initially misses his mark, murdering two innocent workers from a local cement factory. Maciek's signature piece of attire is a pair of sunglasses which symbolize the parodox of seeing that is both compromised and enhanced. Cybulski apparently had his own mythology, dying young in a freak accident, a kind of Polish James Dean. However, he also anticipates Jean-Paul Belmondo, the ill-fated gangster in Breathless (l960) and numerous tortured existential heroes, populating New Wave cinema. The beauty of the composition of the scenes reaches a dramatic crescendo with light filtering through windows as in Vermeer, in a way that suggests either dawn or twilight, birth or death. Maciek has fallen in love with a beautiful barmaid Krystyna (Ewa Krzyzewska) who makes him question his mission in life. As he attempts to seduce Krystyna,  he's also scouring the floor for bullets. In the end the lovers are in a crypt like the one in Romeo and Juliet only this time the bodies are those of the innocent young men whose lives are lost in the first scene of the movie. Krystyna begins to read a poem engraved in a wall. As she struggles to finish a verse, her lover intones the final words of the poem by the l9th century poet Cyprian Norwid, “Or will the ashes hold the glory of a starlike diamond..." 

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