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November

Walks you out of an emotional underworld back into the light —Marty Mapes (review...)

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Zbigniew Cybulski has been hailed as the Polish James Dean, and his finest role, so they say, is in Ashes and Diamonds.

Ashes and Diamonds is now out on a DVD from Facets. It is being released with Kanal, also directed by Andrzej Wajda. Together with A Generation (not yet released on DVD), these three films make up Wajda’s War Trilogy, which looks at Poland during World War II.

Re-Assassinator

"Polish James Dean" in a morally ambiguous landscape
"Polish James Dean" in a morally ambiguous landscape

Ashes and Diamonds is set on the last day of the war. For Poland, that means the German occupation is over and the Russian Communist influence has not yet asserted itself. It is a country in transformation. The people have been uprooted by the war and the country has not yet decided which political direction it will follow. This anchorless society is the backdrop for our morally ambiguous story.

The movie opens on an assassination on a lonely road by a rural church. One of the gunmen is our protagonist Majek (Cybulski). He is working for the anti-communists, and his target is the local Party chairman.

Their job done, he and his partner Andrzej (Adam Pawlikowski) head in to town before leaving for their next assignment. Just as Andrzej is calling in his kill confirmation, Majek notices their target walking into the hotel, all in one piece. They must have killed the wrong man.

Now Majek has to decide whether to abort the mission or to try again to assassinate the chairman, in town for a well-attended party. Complicating matters further is the bartender Christine (Eva Krzyzewski), for whom Majek thinks he might change careers.

Third Time’s a Charm

Hailed as a masterpiece by others, Ashes and Diamonds failed to capture my imagination. I had seen the film on Turner Classic Movies not long before and I honestly didn’t remember much about it. I figured a masterpiece deserved a second chance, so I watched the movie again on DVD. Even a partial third viewing has failed to pique my interest.

For one thing, the story is hard to follow. Whether that’s a problem with the subtitle translation or with the movie itself, or with my own mental wiring, I don’t know. Two similar-looking men and similar-sounding names had me hitting the pause button to straighten things out with my wife, who apparently pays better attention than I do.

I was always able to follow the immediate action, but I had a hard time trying to keep straight the Communists, anti-communists, double-dealers, mercenaries, and red herrings. No doubt, this confusion is partly intentional on Wajda’s part. Poland was in transition, and from that chaotic center it’s hard to assess the big picture. The changing emotions and loyalties of our hero reflect that uncertainty.

Most of the positive reviews have praised Ashes and Diamonds as a landmark movie that defined a generation of Poles. And while that may be the case, as an American, removed from that defining moment by two generations and half a world, that reason alone doesn’t seem enough to make me appreciate the film.

I hate to sound like a lowbrow clod, but the cinematic mastery of Ashes and Diamonds eluded me.

DVD Extras

The Facets DVD includes a gallery with still photos and original movie posters.

Picture and Sound

A quick watch of the movie is satisfactory. The picture could have been cleaned better, but the tonal range seems right, and the sound is, overall, fine.

Look closer, however, and the frayed edges of Facets’ DVD production become visible.

There are some scenes where the subtitles are badly timed. For example, the quick banter back-and-forth between the bartender and Majek moves faster than the subtitles do, so we’re still reading the conversation after it’s already finished. There were also a few typos in the subtitles — a flaw that is easily overlooked, but indicative of a certain sloppiness.

In a few places stereo effects are introduced into what must have been a mono mix. In one case, the phone rings on the left speaker but switches back to the center before the last bell has finished ringing. In another, an off-screen voice comes from the left speaker, but only when no other sounds are on the soundtrack. While a stereo mix might have helped the movie in 1958, a halfhearted attempt at basic stereo sweetening is misguided.

Conclusion

Others have praised Ashes and Diamonds as a masterpiece of Polish cinema. No expert on Polish cinema, I hesitate to disagree. However as a movie lover, I don’t see much about Ashes and Diamonds that is remarkable. Perhaps yet another viewing would give me an epiphany, but I’m more inclined to move on and see what else is out there.

  • z: The story is hard to follow for YOU, you uneducated dumbass July 30, 2009 reply
    • Marty Mapes: Ah, well that straightens that out, doesn't it. Thanks for the clarification. July 30, 2009 reply
      • m: There is kind of a point to what he said. The movie requires close attention and it isn't some kind of Hollywood action movie. Regardless of your personal knowledge of this specific history (it certainly helps to know some of it) the movie has astounding imagery and unforgetable scenes in addition to great acting.The depictions of struggle are universal as well. Wajda's movies are very polish and there is no apology for it. However you don't need to be part of that generation of poles or even polish to appreciate the film. It is a masterpiece of not just polish cinema but cinema as a whole and one of the greatest movies ever made. August 9, 2010 reply