Wajda - 2013 08 22 - Ashes and Diamonds

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(Popiól I Diament)
Poland 1958
Directed by Andrzej Wajda
Running time: 104 minutes
Format: 35mm

Peter John Dyer was the editor of the Monthly Film Bulletin in the early ‘60s. It was an influential periodical published monthly by the British Film Institute. He criticized ASHES AND DIAMONDS for its style soaked “baroque excesses.” In it, Zbigniew Cybulski (pictured above) plays Maciek, an assassin in the Polish Home Army (Resistance Army). Maciek is a kind of self-aware James Dean type, who’s plagued more by his perspicacity than he is tormented by the opacity and magnitude of his desire. He’s unrelentingly cool. His suave and toothy grin exude a kind of jouissance in the absurdity of reality. Resisting the temptation to engage the semantics of “baroque excess,” as if it were not a redundant phrase capable of qualifying in a non-deleterious manner, let me propose the following: if one subtracted any of Wajda’s artificial excesses, one would be left with less than a whole work. So let’s reclaim “baroque.” “Excess.” “Artificial.” These are art’s possibilities. And their significance is that of the inter-subjective Real, unstyled at the level of experience.

Wajda’s sense of space is mannered and sophisticated in its diagrammatic use of long takes that comprise multiple compositions. The Italians come to mind. There’s Fellini’s penchant for tableau style shots that rearrange themselves as a character leaves and re-enters the frame. There’s Rosellini, in his expressionistic mode, who wrings every last shade of grey from reality’s rag in service of a pro-filmic whose interiority runneth over. Wajda captures space in a way that renders many distinct spheres of pathos, like so many marbles in a jar. His is a deep action that evades Wellesian deep focus, resulting in perspectival shots that grow impressionistic as one penetrates the vanishing point.

All of this style works in service of a character torn from time. Maciek undergoes a transition from American ‘50s wild child to ‘60s European art film existential martyr, all set in ‘40s Poland, which was undergoing its own political transition after the war. As politically skeptical as I am of arcs that terminate in existential dilemma (starting there is better), this is a tremendously fascinating setup. It’s a film that narrates the political conditions of its own emergence from the war-torn cultural nexus that was mid-century Poland and reignites those conditions in the person of Maciek through violence, anger, remorse, love and death.

KURTISS HARE
22 August 2013