In the depths of the ash

Criterion releases ‘Ashes and Diamonds,’ a potent reminder of the power of Polish cinema

‘Ashes and Diamonds'

Two men wait outside a church. They are armed and tasked with an assassination mission. The mark approaches, and the men leap into action, gunning their target down as he opens the doors to the chapel. Mission accomplished. The date: May 8, 1945. By nightfall, news of the Axis surrender will reach this rural area, and the two Polish assassins of the Home Army will be free of Nazi rule. Except that the man they just killed wasn’t a Nazi. He was a Communist. Furthermore, he was the wrong man.

So opens Andrzej Wajda’s 1958 masterpiece, Ashes and Diamonds, considered by many to be one of the greatest Polish movies ever made. Top tier, no doubt. And a large part of the praise goes to the theatricality Wajda employs throughout the film. When Maciek (Zbigniew Cybulski) opens fire on the innocent man outside the church, the bullet holes in the man’s coat erupt into flames. Realistic? Absolutely not. But it’s catches your attention. To take one’s life is to take your own. And when Maciek heads to the hotel where he will spend the rest of the movie, you don’t have to strain too hard to see the strata of heaven and hell joined via shabby staircases and boozy bars.

In addition to his work behind the camera, Wajda was a renowned director of the stage, and it shows. He also studied painting and romantic Hollywood cinema. Both lend themselves to the rich chiaroscuro compositions Wajda and cinematographer Jerzy Wójcik craft.

But images are inert without performers, and Ashes and Diamonds has Cybulski. Looking like a young Warren Beatty, Cybulski wore his own clothes and dark glasses for the film, situating his character as a product of 1958, not 1945. It made him an instant icon with Polish audiences, and his psychologically wracked and physically fraught performance is in league with Marlon Brando and James Dean. You believe every tortured word coming out of his mouth. The Dean comparison goes tragically further: On Jan. 8, 1967, Cybulski died while trying to jump aboard a speeding train. He slipped and fell under the wheels. He was 39.

Coincidentally, Cybulski has a brief role in A Generation, Wajda’s first film from 1955, where he jumps aboard a speeding train. That movie is also set during World War II, as was his follow-up, KanalAshes and Diamonds concludes this informal trilogy, imbuing the three with moral resonance. You’ve got to see all three, if for no other reason than to watch a promising artistic talent mature into a world-class filmmaker in three years.

Ashes and Diamonds takes its title from a poem by 19th-century Polish poet Cyprian Norwid: “Will only ashes remain, and chaos whirling into the void. Or will the ashes hold the glory of a starlike diamond, the Morning Star of everlasting triumph.” Maciek knows the poem; he recites it from memory when he and Krystyna (Ewa Kzryżewska) come across it inscribed on the wall of a bombed-out church. Maciek used to be a student. Now he’s a soldier. He would give anything to go back to being a student, but it’s not in the cards. Wajda and co-author Jerzy Andrzejewski would give anything for Poland to be its own sovereign nation, but in the late 1950s, they had about as much optimism as Maciek. As soon as the Nazis surrendered in 1945, the Communists took over, and things went downhill from there. Starlike diamonds may form in time, but it’s ashes in the chaos dragging us all toward the abyss until then.

ON THE BILL: A new 4K digital restoration of Ashes & Diamonds will be available on Blu-ray from The Criterion Collection on Aug. 24.