Martin Scorsese Presents: Masterpieces of Polish Cinema
“There are many revelations in the ‘Masterpieces of Polish Cinema’ series and whether you’re familiar with some of these films or not, it’s an incredible opportunity to discover for yourself the great power of Polish cinema, on the big screen in brilliantly restored digital masters.” – Martin Scorsese
Hailed as one of the definitive masterpieces of the Polish Art cinema movement that occupied the brief space between Italian NeoRealism and the French New Wave, Andrzej Wajda’s Ashes and Diamonds has lots none of its impact over the fifty-five years since its initial release in 1958. The Polish cinema of the era was known for its complexly ambiguous sentiment, the nation still staggered by the devastating effect of the Second World War. Ashes and Diamonds is set in a small Polish town on the night of Germany’s surrender on May 8, 1945. There’s rowdy celebrations in the streets, although the Polish people, segregated into Nationalists and Communists, seem as shaky in victory as they were in oppression.
Maciek (Zbigniew Cybulski) and Andrzej (Adam Pawlikowski) are Nationalist underground solders with the task of the assassination of Communist Commissar Szczuka (Wacław Zastrzeżyński). Failing their first attempt, and accidentally murdering two civilian cement plant workers instead, Maciek and Andrzej bide their time at a local hotel and banquet hall, where Szczuka is staying, waiting for another chance to kill him. Over the course of the night, violence, romance and the bittersweet celebrations of a war ended merge into an tensely uncertain atmosphere.
Cybulski’s performance as Maciek dominates the film. Often acknowledged as the ‘Polish James Dean’ – an understandable but not entirely accurate conclusion – Cybulski was a revelation at the time. His eyes almost permanently hidden by shades and his demeanour somehow simultaneously oafish and slick, there’s an enigmatic energy to Maciek that drives the film through a night of tumultuous passion and murderous conspiracy. Over the course of a sentence, Cybulski can transform from gently charming to explosively animated.
Wajda uses deep focus heavily throughout the film, as characters come in and out of the scene, sometimes unconsciously interacting with one another. Set almost entirely within the confines of the hotel Monopol, Ashes and Diamonds makes use of almost every inch of the space, the filmmakers drawing each room together cohesively with the omnipresent music of the band in the banquet hall. The now famous ending, which will not be ruined here, maintains its impact, offering little closure regarding both the characters and the themes that permeate the film.
Ashes and Diamonds will be playing as part of ACMI’s Martin Scorsese Presents: Masterpieces of Polish Cinema from Sunday 5 October to Sunday 26 October 2014.