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Ashes and Diamonds

Ashes and Diamonds DVD


Ashes And Diamonds
cast: Zbigniew Cybulski, Ewa Krzyzewska, Waclaw Zastrzezynski, Adam Pawlikowski, and Bogumil Kobiela

director: Andrzej Wajda

102 minutes (12) 1958
Arrow DVD Region 2 retail

RATING: 8/10
reviewed by Paul Higson
It's too easy to jump to assumptions on Polish cinema. It's all grim, negative, and heavily politicised, isn't it? There is a reason the nation's youth are fleeing. The cities overflow with modern sculptures pushing the population out, the kids vanishing abroad. The Second World War was particularly devastating for the Polish caught between a rock and a hard place, its capital encouraged by the west to fight back against the German and Russian invaders, and then left to be slaughtered.

Today the young Poles are back in my hometown where there is a precedent. They follow an earlier influx that escaped to here in the 1940s, a generation that now largely occupies a corner of the cemetery down St Thomas' Road. The surnames prevailed. The new migrants are pleasant and immediately identifiable as polite, slim and strange of appearance, resembling no one of identifiable caste. The SPK continues to function but the new crowd prefer the Tut and Shive. There is national opprobrium over the jobs taken but here they have automatically integrated. That is either down to the local history or very welcome good manners. They belong here more than they do to Poland, which still populates the mind as a grim harbour, even more dour than these northern towns of ours.

Andrzei Wajda's Ashes And Diamonds (aka: Popiól i diament) from 1958 is an auspicious surprise as it suggests that there is a lost Polish cinema, one of a vibrancy of youthfulness tinctured by a regret and by dark shadows, not unlike our polite invaders. Ashes And Diamonds is not outrightly a tale of youth though at its centre there is a love story percolating between Macha (Zbigniew Cybulski), a young assassin in sunglasses and leather jacket, and a beautiful ice-cream blonde barmaid called Krystyna (Ewa Krzyzewska). The action occurs during 24 hours in May 1945. It is the eve of Polish liberation and there are continuing murderous tremors amid the jubilation. The film boisterously jostles the commercial and the political with worrying yet gleeful results. Andrezej (Adam Pawlikowski) and Macha are Polish army officers who have taken to civilian threads while they assassinate those they believe have sold out the Polish people to the communists.

The film opens on the curtailing of a vehicle and the slaying of its occupants by the two. The attack has been planned with Drewnowski (Bogumil Kobiela), personal assistant to the local mayor, who has no knowledge of this murderous collaboration. Unfortunately, the vehicle carrying the intended victim, Szczuka (Waclaw Zastrzezynski), rolls up some minutes later and it is only once the assassins are embedded in the local town at the Monopol Hotel, where all are staying, that the error is uncovered. The hotel is the venue for a celebration.

It is announced that the Mayor has been appointed to the regional committee and the night turns into one long unbroken bout of cheer and drunken revelry, which allows the assassins to complete their murderous mission. The last thing the pop mental murderous Macha expects to do is fall in love. They reside in dangerous days and Krystyna follows him to bed with little coo. They take a nighttime walk through the horribly fantastic ruins, alighting on the church with its inelegantly upended cruciform Christ. Part of the church survives and when Krystyna breaks a heel Macha looks to mend it, oddly oblivious to the lyke wake in the room. He finds himself staring the innocent dead in the face, the victims of his raining machine gun. Andrezej will not allow Mucha to withdraw from either the night's duty or the continuing fight beyond the next killing. As a fantastic morning light bleaches the streets Macha has completed his mission but will pay the price.

Noir thrillers, and other Hollywood examples evidently influence Ashes And Diamonds though, stylistically, it is its own creature. The Killers and To Have And To Hold come to mind but Ashes And Diamonds wanders into areas that would never have been allowed space in Hollywood thrillers where they would have been keen to keep to the plotting. It would be easy to read the French new wave into the film were it not for the fact that the trend was as new as this film at the time, hence, Ashes And Diamonds is of independent realisation. Zbigniew Cybulski is dressed for future natural cool in leather jacket and sunglasses after dark. He banters with the old hotel clerk as a fellow Warsovian though this is likely to be a lie on Macha's part, earning himself a upgrade while burying himself in untruths. Cybulski's performance is one of the few problems in the film as he is over the top. His gesticulations make William Shatner look paraplegic and like the Shat he will really milk that death scene. This overplay is permissible by dint of several performances intentionally entering comic territory, though those players are more precise and not victim to exaggeration. In this, Bogumil Kobiela is great as the jittery Drewnowski.

He becomes more embarrassing on drink as the debauched night progresses, slipping between bar and private function with an equally reckless gatecrasher reporter. The opening murder has an air of Bergman about it, the relaxed, lazying killers in the grass, the stops and starts of the violence, but again, The Virgin Spring was yet to come. You expect Max Von Sydow to turn up. The real star of the film though is cinematographer Jerzy Wojcik. A beautiful, crisp transfer entreats the viewer to some of the finest black and white photography to be found on screen. Night is lost to day and you briefly mourn the opportunities thought lost. Then come the last ten minutes and shifts between the parching, shocking white light of day to the interiors of the hotel and a swirling sea of dust as ray-beams search for the last of the revellers as they tiredly dance through the ground floor. It turns this routinely entertaining film into a masterpiece. You will dread blinking for missing a frame. It's a film not to be overlooked.

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