Saturday 26 January 2013

1,001 Films: "Ashes and Diamonds" (1958)

In the final hours of World War II, two Polish hitmen assigned to murder a Government minister who's been accused of Nazi collaboration mistakenly attack the wrong convoy; the Minister escapes unharmed and, on the day of the German surrender, checks into the same hotel the hitmen are themselves staying in. Most of the action in Andrzej Wajda's drama Ashes and Diamonds unfolds that night, as the hired guns - one with a deep-seated sense of responsibility to the Resistance's aims, his junior (the sparky Zbigniew Cybulski, more commonly known as "the Polish James Dean") keener to chat up the hotel barmaid - hole up and bide their time while deciding how necessary it is for them, now that the War is over, to carry out their orders.

What follows doesn't quite work as the gripping morality play the premise might suggest, because Wajda - here completing the Resistance trilogy he started with 1955's A Generation and 1957's Kanal - often seems more interested in tangential business. His interest lies in sketching studies of those characters who would come to make up "the new Poland": grieving widows and haughty ministers, tipsy hacks and disillusioned footsoldiers, would-be impresarios and over-compensating hosts. As we wait for the central impasse to be resolved, Wajda's camera turns away, looking further yet afield, watching the tanks rolling out of the streets and the military leaving their posts, and offering up some very striking directorial flourishes. 

A statue of Christ hangs upside down from the rafters of a ruined church. Fireworks light up the scene of an assassination attempt. The title derives from a local saying, equivalent to "every cloud has a silver lining". And yet we grasp some silver linings - like the end of occupation - arrive amid clouds; what the film describes is a long, dark night of the collective Polish soul. The evening drags on, leaving us with a clear sense of a nation left shell-shocked by both the conflict, and the bullets that started to ring out in the cold light of peacetime. A prolonged death scene sees one of the leading players becoming tangled up in washing lines, suggesting the sheets weren't ever going to be kept as clean as the authorities might have liked.

Ashes and Diamonds is available on DVD through Arrow Films.

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