Ashes and Diamonds is a 1958 Polish film directed by Andrzej Wajda, based on the 1948 novel by Polish writer Jerzy Andrzejewski. It completed Wajda’s war films trilogy, following A Generation (1954) and Kanal (1956).
The title comes from a 19th-century poem by Cyprian Norwid and references the manner in which diamonds are formed from heat and pressure acting upon coal. Wajda presents a strong anti-war statement in this movie and is widely regarded as Wajda’s masterpiece and as “the supreme achievement of postwar Polish cinema.”
This story is about the internal strife that divided Poland at the end of the war against the Nazis. It is set in a provincial town celebrating the end of the occupation and the beginning of a new social and political order. Maciek is the protagonist, who as a young idealist had fought in the anticommunist Home Army, is given one final order—to kill the district secretary just appointed by the new communist government. The spark of hope offered by Maciek’s brief love affair at his seedy hotel turns to ashes. He at first resists his assignment but finally carries out the assassination, is shot himself, and dies in agony on a garbage dump
This film ends the last of the Wajda’s trilogy, gripping and a suspenseful story. This movie has the dimensions and the shape of high tragedy as its intense and focused in a single day storyline; built around the call of contradictory forces: war and peace, love and hate, death and life. Moreover, as the flavor of Poland’s national epic, showing individual destinies being reshaped in the turmoil of a great debacle, and the film asserts its connection with the great romantic tradition in Polish art—a tradition that at its most extreme personifies Poland itself as saint and martyr among nations and views the artist as the country’s conscience and prophet
The film was attacked for its elaborate effects and its negative and fatalistic spirit; thou it may also be understood as an appeal for national solidarity, which goes otherwise with the ideological conflict. However, even reviewers who disapproved of the film recognized its stature as “a spellbinding, stirring work which imposes its own view of the world.” Zbugniew Cybulski, who plays Maciek, became with his dark glasses and unruly hair as much a personification of disaffected postwar youth as James Dean did in the West.
Ashes and Diamonds is not without irony, such as the moment when Maciek and the Party official fall almost ludicrously into each other’s arms as the one kills the other amidst fireworks; and the victory banquet at the hotel where the polonaise Farewell, My Homeland is played and where some know their careers are at an end while others prepare to accept government posts in Warsaw.
Is the title of the film taken from romantic poetry: ‘Will there remain among the ashes a star-like diamond, the dawn of eternal victory?’ Wajda doesn’t attempt to answer this question. And it is the film’s ambiguities, as the film-maker tries to come to grips with the myths and legends of the era that continue to render it fascinating. Besides, “Ashes and Diamonds” enchant the exploration into the post-war Polish psyche and the characters share a vision of a brighter, better, independent Poland, a vision which they know will not come true during their lifetimes but which they pursue all the same. Perhaps it was the work of men like these that eventually gave rise to Solidarity and a finally independent nation, but history has no use for such easily disposable parts.
Ashes and Diamonds is lovingly photographed, and would be a prized piece of any collector. As the final moments of the work concluded, I was struck by how bleak, terrible, and excellent this film noir truly can be. Also But this movie is a must-have for connoisseurs of European cinema and well worth a look for anyone who wants to see a profound work of cinematic art and a great story well told at the same time.
- Directed by Andrzej Wajda
- Produced by Roman Mann
- Written by Jerzy Andrzejewski
- Casting: Zbigniew Cybulski, Ewa Krzyżewska & Wacław Zastrzeżyński
- Distributed by Janus Films
- Release dates: October 3, 1958
- Running time: 110 minutes
- Language: Polish