Gathering Resistance: Andrzej Wajda’s “A Generation” (1955)

A stylized shot from Andrzej Wajda's "A Generation", depicting the protagonist as he observes Nazi soldiers walking towards him. There is text of the director's name and the film title.

It is always interesting to watch a film trilogy where one can see the progression of a director’s talent. However, unlike Krzysztof Kieślowski’s Three Colors Trilogy, which consists of three film narratives interdependent upon one another, Andrzej Wajda’s War Trilogy connects only through its similar theme—resistance. Before Kanal and Ashes and Diamonds, Wajda directed A Generation, which is set around the survival of a group of young men during the Nazi occupation of Poland. The film’s straightforward narrative details a young protagonist, Stach, who joins an underground communist resistance movement once he learns what little value his wages offer vis-à-vis those his employer makes off his labor. Young enough to still carry idealism, it is this idealism that Stach uses to comfort his depressed mother who lives in squalor with a rabbit that runs loose. He reassures her that he will find work, and in doing so, this young, idealistic man joins the resistance believing that this will be for some greater good because, as is, life can’t get any worse.

The opening scene contains Stach’s first-person voiceover informing us that he grew up in a slum outside Warsaw, and that to entertain himself, he and his friends (one played by Zbigniew Cybulski from Ashes and Diamonds) flick knives into the haystacks. The three seem to be enjoying this last moment of playfulness as rebellious youths who were forced to grow up too fast:

I was born here in the slums, on the outskirts of Warsaw. I grew up in poverty. Here I made my first friends and had my first lessons. I often had it rough as a kid, because I couldn’t tell my friends from my enemies. I was too trusting and relied on my swift legs and strong fists. My Ma kept me on a short leash and tried to push me off to work. But I took it as typical women’s nagging, preferring to play knives with my buddies instead.

Already, we are presented with a strong narrator whose ‘tell it like it is’ approach offers the impression that his ambitions are greater than his fears. Then, when a German train passes by, the trio decides to climb onto it and steal coal until one of them is shot and killed by a German soldier. Here, a life of thieving and early death defines this generation. Will this be all they’ll ever know? Polish pride runs strongly throughout this trilogy, where characters are presented with the moral question of individual benefits versus that which benefits the collective (or benefits the generation), and where does one individual’s privilege end and another’s begin? War always seems to evoke the idea of forced sacrifice, where individuals have no choice but to attend to their duties and responsibilities in place of their desires. (This point is no better witnessed than in Ashes and Diamonds when Maciek decides to carry out the assassination despite wanting to remain with Krystyna.)

Later, when Stach encounters the resistance’s strong female leader, Dorota (played by Urszula Modrzyńska), he narrates:

Dorota. She supplied us with pamphlets and guns. She gave us advice. My respect for her collided in my thoughts with a longing to stroke her hair.

Dorota shares similarities with both Daisy from Kanal and Krystyna from Ashes and Diamonds in that all three attractive women carry a self-awareness that surpasses the men, with a strength that overtakes them. We get a sense that the men must offer their respect, despite seemingly and simultaneously wishing to romantically engage with them.

‘What is a man without a job?’ the film asks, as though humanness itself is not enough to achieve validation—one must find work. At one moment Comrade Sekula even mentions that Karl Marx ‘once wrote that workers were paid just barely enough to renew their strength.’ Except if only this were true: ‘These days we don’t even get that. We have to scrounge to survive,’ he says.

One can see that it is not difficult to make idealized decisions when there is presumably nothing to lose, save for one’s life, but what has life become? When the group of young resisters hijacks a truck to implement support for the Jewish rebels within the Ghetto, they stop and pull men from the sewer until they are approached by Nazi soldiers who chase and corner one of Stach’s friends, Jacek. Much like the other two films within this trilogy, there can be no happy ending, and this is most notably seen when Jacek suicides from the top of a spiral staircase, which is by far the film’s most memorable image. Later, when the Gestapo captures Dorota while Stach is out purchasing bread and flowers, he witnesses her arrest while hiding in a shaded corner. His life has been spared but hers has not. Much like Maciek and Krystyna in Ashes and Diamonds, their romance must undergo an early end.

However, this will not be the end of the resistance, as not long after Dorota is taken, Stach is approached by another young group of resistance fighters—Do you sell down feathers? they ask. This is of course the code that Dorota said would identify them. He says that he does and cannot help but cry.

A Generation is a good film, albeit one that shows early talent, and sets the precedence for Wajda’s later works—Kanal and Ashes and Diamonds. Yet as with any developing quality artist, each film flourishes in depth and complexity, where the characters remain stuck within a certain limitation, be it physical or political, attempting to survive. Life’s demands will persist if one wishes to thrive. How can we know? This is the only constant within this gathering resistance that fights for a generation.

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More from Jessica Schneider: Perilous Betweens: On Andrzej Wajda’s “Ashes and Diamonds” (1958), Labyrinth of Hell: On Andrzej Wajda’s “Kanal” (1957)Traveling Ephemera: On Michelangelo Antonioni’s “The Passenger” (1975)