A Great Polish Film About Political Assassination and Love
A masterpiece of world cinema, Ashes and Diamonds was initially released in 1958. The movie was co-written and directed by Andrzej Wajda, who in the year 2000 was given an Academy Award for "five decades of extraordinary film direction." Ashes and Diamonds tells its story with a rare combination of strong narrative and poetic lyricism. The film's star is the charismatic and intense Zbigniew Cybulski, who has been dubbed the Polish James Dean.
The movie is set in a Polish town on the day World War II ended in Europe, and the Soviet Union is establishing a puppet Communist regime in Poland. The protagonist is Maciek (Cybulski), a member of a resistance movement fighting for an independent Poland. Maciek has come to the town to assassinate a regional Communist leader, but while waiting for an opportunity to carry out his mission, he meets and falls in love with a pretty barmaid. This awakens in him the desire to lead a peaceful life, and he begins to question whether he is doing the right thing.
Ashes and Diamonds is rich in detail and has several memorable scenes. One is where Maciek and his superior officer commemorate their slain brothers-in-arms by setting fire to half a dozen glasses of vodka. Another is when Maciek machineguns to death an innocent man at a chapel. A third shows Maciek and his newfound love in a bombed-out church where a dislodged statue of Christ hangs upside down.
Tragic Portrait of a Proud, but Troubled Nation
Poland suffered Nazi occupation for over five years during World War II, and Germany's surrender on May 8, 1945, gave Poles reason to celebrate. But the characters in Ashes and Diamonds are ambivalent because their nation is in the process of becoming a satellite of the Soviet Union and the new Communist regime is brutally suppressing any opposition.
The film's townspeople have mixed feelings as they mark the end of World War II at a shabby hotel. They drink at the bar and dance in the ballroom, and a woman stirs patriotic feelings by singing about Polish soldiers helping to defeat Germans at the 1944 Battle of Monte Cassino. In a large back room, the town's Communist mayor hosts a banquet for his cronies and supporters, but this ends in debacle when his drunken assistant sprays the attendees with a fire extinguisher.
With the night finally winding down, the hotel band attempts to ad-lib a version of the famous "Polonaise in A-Major" by Chopin, arguably the most celebrated Pole of all time. The music is out of tune and off key, but the locals gamely improvise a dance to it anyway. As dawn breaks, the dancers look drained and worn-out, and the hotel porter unfurls the Polish flag for a new day.
The film's title is explained in a scene where Maciek and his lover come upon an inscription by 19th-century Polish poet Cyprian Norwid. The gist of the inscription is that under some conditions heat and pressure can produce a diamond, but it's also possible that "only ashes remain, and chaos, whirling into the void."
Below I have listed all the details for the single-disc barebones DVD containing Ashes and Diamonds that Criterion released in its Essential Art House series. The movie is also available as part of the DVD set Andrzej Wajda — Three War Films.
Release Date: June 16, 2009
Feature Film Runtime: 1 hour 42 minutes
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Aspect Ratio 1.66:1, Black and White