Ashes and Diamonds
This is one I heard about but had never seen until now. I'm glad I did. Ashes and Diamonds is the final film in Polish director Andrzej Wajda's trilogy of films that cover Poland in the second world war and its immediate aftermath. The other films in the series are A Generation and Kanal so I'll be watching the trilogy in reverse order. That's just how things worked out.
Ashes and Diamonds tells the story of Maciek, a young Polish partisan. It's 1945 and Germany is about to surrender. For some of the partisans the fight has now turned against the Russians and the communists. Maciek and his superior ambush a jeep carrying what they think is a communist party member. It turns out to be a mistake. Their target arrives in town a short while later. Maciek is assigned to assassinate the man. While he waits he spends time with a barmaid named Krystyna and begins to question his life and what he's doing.
Ashes and Diamonds is a showcase for it's lead actor Zbigniew Cybulski who has been called Poland's answer to James Dean. A post on IMDB seems to take issue with that comparison but after seeing the film, it's hard not to see the similarities. For starters both of them excel at playing alienated young men. The alienated youth can be annoying but done right like in East of Eden, Ashes and Diamonds, or Hamlet it can be extraordinary. Maciek doesn't really understand the politics around him and what he does know isn't that appealing. Both the communist and anti-communist forces are portrayed as hypocritical. Maciek's commander is a pampered army officer who is leaving the country along with his aristocratic friends. This final operation makes no sense and seems motivated by spite. The only character who acts with honor and intelligence is Maciek's target.
The James Dean comparisons also extend to their mannerisms and acting style. Maciek, like Dean is fluid and alive on screen. There's a great seen at a bar where gazes at shot glasses full of vodka. I know I've seen Dean perform similar bits of business in his movies. This film is also incredibly sexy. I thought it was even sexier than And God Created Woman. There were moments when I thought maybe this film was the inspiration for those black and white Calvin Klein ads in the '80s and 90s.
The acting is so good it almost outshines the direction which is top notch. The setting is realistic but the bombed out churches and buildings take on a Gothic feel. The photography is nothing short of stunning.
This is a vital movie that earns its status as a film classic. Directors should study Wadja's use of lighting and set design as well as his deft hand with the actors. The script is a very tight, very complex story. It's an excellent standard for a beginning writer.