Ashes & Diamonds

Starring: Zbigniew Cybulski, Ewa Krzyzewska and Waclaw Zastrzezynski
Arrow Films
RRP: 17.99
Certificate: 12
Available 28 May 2007

For some the last day of World War II does not mean an end to fighting. Unwilling to trade the tyranny of a fascist dictatorship for a Soviet Communist one, Maciek Chelmieki, a member of the Polish Home Army has been ordered to assassinate the incoming commissar. Having failed in his first attempt, to the cost of two innocent lives, he is ordered to complete his mission. He checks into a local hotel where he meets and falls in love with Krystyna. This chance meeting tears Maciek between two desires, the choice of a normal life with Krystyna and his need to carry out his orders. Whichever choice he makes, he looses...

Ashes and Diamonds (1958 - B&W) was directed by Andrzej Wadja and adapted by Wadja and Jerzy Andrejewski from Andrejewski's original novel. The film was nominated for a BAFTA in 1960 and won a prize at the Venice Film Festival in 1959.

This is a much lauded film, partly because of the constrictions under which it was made. At the time of the film's creation the Soviets were spending a great deal of time trying to discredit the Polish Home Army - an organisation much beloved of the Polish people. This lead to a problem for Wadja. If he made Maciek too much of a hero, then the film would never be seen. His attempts to tarnish his hero, enough for the film to pass the censor, can be seen in the opening sequence, where, not only does Maciek kill the wrong people, but does so with a level of violence to deter most people from seeing him as a hero. Worst still, in a deeply religious country, he does not stop shooting the man even though he has reached the sanctuary of a chapel. Likewise the Communists are usually shown as polite and intelligent, which is in stark contrast to the representative of the free press, who is depicted as little more than a drunk. Obviously, there is a view that anything made under the constrictions of a totalitarian government gets extra star points.

There is no doubt that Ashes and Diamonds is a good film, and an important landmark in the re-emergence of the post war Polish film industry, but it is not a film without faults. For me, the most telling problem is the cinematography. For a film set in the last twenty-four hours of World War Two its use of stark contrast looks and feels very much like a product of Hollywood in the sixties.

Zbigniew Cybuski, who plays Maciek, looks like an uber cool James Dean character, and was often favourably compared to him. The bar in which many of scenes are played out in would not have looked out of place in a Cliff Richard film. I would not pretend to be an expert on Polish social history, but the well fed, well dressed actors is not what I would have expected to see from a country which was invaded then reinvaded during the course of the war. Cybuski is very effective in his antihero role and pretty much carries most of the film.

The film is in Polish with burnt in subtitles. The 4:3 print is surprisingly free of artefacts. Audio is stereo, though it is not the type of film that would have benefited from anything else. There are no extras on the disc, which is a shame as a retrospective look at the importance of the film both to Polish people and to the country's movie industry as an art form, would have been invaluable for western audiences to gain some perspective.

Charles Packer

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