James Dean and the Polish Night: Andrzej Wajda’s “Ashes and Diamonds” (1958)

Legend has it that the nineteenth century poet Cyprian Norwid descended to such dire circumstances that he took his abode in a crypt. One of the luminaries of Polish literature thus had to suffer for his art in a highly, on the paper, romantic fashion. After his death in 1883 he was hit by the even crueller destiny of being forgotten. It would be decades until he was read again. It was as he wrote in one of his poems: when one is like a glowing torch it is hard to know if the fire will bring freedom or death. He continued: all will burn to the ground, and leave only ashes, ashes that might contain chaos or storm, or a star-like diamond ascending to the heavens in triumph.

Poland, May 1945: a landscape of ashes. A nation divided, imploded, invaded, demolished to ruins. Millions had died. And although the war was over, the fight continued. Part of the polish home army turned their weapons against the Soviet forces that had first invaded, then liberated and now occupied the country. In the film Maciek (Zbigniew Cybulski) and Andrzej (Adam Pawlikowski) recieve the order to ambush the communist commissar Szczuka (Wacław Zastrzeżyński). He has just returned from Soviet exile to participate in the nation’s puppet government. By mistake Maciek and Andrzej shoot two completely innocent workers instead of Szczuka. They are forced to seek to complete the bloody execution of their mission in a small city preparing for the party to mark the end of the war.

The workers of Poznań decided, in the summer of 1956, to strike. The response of the authorities was similar to that in Berlin three years prior: tanks and machine guns. The event created a split in the domestic leadership. In October of the same year the more liberal wing launched a de-Stalinisation campaign that had been made possible by the Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev’s speech in February. Prisoners were released and the secret police reined in; society experienced increased freedom. The Polish government was, however, balancing on a line. If they went too far the same would happen with them as had happened to the Hungarians in the same year. It was during this time that Andrzej Wajda could record his maybe best film, Ashes and Diamonds, which would premier in 1958.

Wajda’s game with death and love, Eros and Thanatos, is dizzying. The seeds of doubt in the character Maciek are sowed in his meeting with the bar girl Krystyna (Ewa Krzyzewska). They wander around in the ruins of the polish night as Maciek awaits a good opportunity to take out Szczuka. After some time they enter a church. In the crypt they can read the lines of Cyprian Norwid on the wall. There they also see the two workers that Maciek has shot by mistake in the botched assassination attempt. Which Poland shall rise from the ruins in triumph? Or is it all an irredeemable chaos?

The strangest element of Wajda’s film are the strong references to Marlon Brandon and James Dean in the character Maciek. Cybulski makes Maciek, fantastically, into an American “rocker” with sunglasses in 1945 Poland. But Wajda is not guilty of some simple or innocent borrowing from American popular culture. It is, rather, possible to see Maciek as a bridge between the forties and the fifties. It was, after all, those that were young in 1958 that could identify with the ashes or the diamonds that had sprung out of the Polish post-war history. Through the references to Norwid Wajda also goes beyond the war and reconnects two romantic movements: the suffering poet and the young man of the 1950s with all his death drive. The important difference between the two is that the latter appears to be inextricably caught in a conflict with the father figure (in the film represented by Szczuka). The mother in the Oedipal drama is, evidently, the home country.

Cybulski’s acting and appearance wedges symbolism into a realistic cinematic edifice inspired by Italian neo-realism and film noir. Wajda’s genius is in his ability to balance the symbolic and the realistic to reach a fruitful tension between outer and inner realism. The two languages meet in a well-directed encounter in which they can represent different times that  exist synchronically without mixing, as poverty and genius in the figure of Norwid. In this binary world Wajda manages to paint death and its twin: love. Diamonds may come out of ash, at first be ash, but we are not granted the knowledge of how that transformation happens. Art can, however, give us an image of the game between opposites and is therefore, as in Wajda’s film, maybe the only thing that can represent deeply complex historical moments

(translation of an article published by Tidningen Kulturen 16 January 2012)

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