Ashes and Diamonds (Popiól i diament, Poland, 1958)

Extraordinary cinema

 Jonathan Rosenbaum makes the point that while this film is about the forties, it’s set on the day of the Nazi surrender, it’s overlayed by a fifties’ sensibility. This is evident through the James Dean-like Zbigniew Cybulski (though Rosenbaum cites Brando) but also in the European Art cinema style in which its shot. The ‘heavy’ symbolism of the still above is a good example. Add to that the melodrama of the young man, who’s fighting against the Communists and wrestling with his conscience whilst falling in love with the beautiful, and melancholic, barmaid, you have cinema made for me.

This blu-ray edition looks terrific and so emphasises the wonderful cinematography with stunning Expressionist lighting. Director Andrezj Wadja was clearly influenced by Bergman, I love the horse that simply walks into the mise en scene, but also Welles, particularly his use of deep focus.

The film brilliantly dissects a moment in history when everything for Poland was going to change (except in a way it didn’t as they, once again, became dominated by a foreign power). The possiblities of the time, those grabbing power, the splintering of families due to the war, are all portrayed in an affecting human story. Cybulski plays Maciek who’s been sent to assassinate a Communist Party official; he fails but has the night to fulfill his task except that’s when he meets the barmaid.

The official’s son is part of the reactionary forces that are opposing the Russian takeover, however the bourgeoisie’s grab for power is in full swing anyway, shown by the small town major’s celebration at being appointed a minister. The climax of the party, where they are all drunkenly dancing to a bastardised version of a Polish national song, is truly surreal. As is the denouement for Maciek, in a setting worthy of Bunuel.

I’m not sure if Wadja’s in or out of fashion at the moment, very few of his recent films have been distributed in UK; he’s still making them and is 86 next Tuesday. Ashes and Diamonds forms the third in his ‘War Trilogy’,  A Generation (Pokolenie, 1955) and Kanal (1957); there are all must-see films. The first two, the narratives are unconnected, have a pronounced debt to neo-realism; Ashes and Diamonds is a triumph of expressionist cinema.


  1. Roy Stafford

    It’s a great film. You prompted me to look for any material I’d got on the film. I found something I’d written which also referred to expressionist camerawork – but then I discovered a statement by Wajda himself (Double Vision: My Life in Film, faber & faber 1989) in which he tells us that Kanal and Ashes and Diamonds appeared in the context of Rossellini’s Rome, Open City and René Clément’s The Battle of the Rails. These are both realist films, deep-focus being a possible function of neo-realist cinematography on location (as long as there is sufficient light). In the Wallflower 24 Frames series, Janina Falkowska admits that the film has been seen as “surrealist, neo-realist or baroque” but also as a “realistic and accurate portrayal of the post-war realities of Poland”. And it’s apparently the best example of the “Polish school’s romantic-expressionist paradigm” (as noted by Ewa Mazierska). Falkowska also points out that the opening scene begins with a reference to a famous Polish painting and she reminds us that Wajda has an art background. Later on she refers to Wajda’s background in learning about filmmaking in the context of the ‘socialist realist’ tradition.

    I suppose I’m just suggesting caution in your certainty about the references to Bergman and Welles.


    • nicklacey

      Wajda was certainly influenced by neo realism in his first two films but, in relation to ‘Ashes’, stated that he was most influenced by Welles. I’m not sure whether Bergman featured as a direct influence; his ‘The Seventh Seal’ tied with ‘Kanal’ for the Cannes Jury prize.


      • nicklacey

        The cinema of Andrzej Wajda: the art of irony and defiance
        By John Orr, Elżbieta Ostrowska. Ford is also cited; obviously because of the use of deep focus. Don’t forget my Cineaste tomorrow! (please)


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