Labyrinth of Hell: On Andrzej Wajda’s “Kanal” (1957)

A stylized shot from Andrej Wajda's 1957 film, "Kanal".

What to say about the passion of human resistance and the desire for survival? How could a film accurately portray this—the passion, albeit not the triumph, of human resistance? I watched Andrzej Wajda’s Kanal once before, but admittedly it hit me more the second time. While an excellent film, I found myself cringing throughout and even had to pause a few times. Kanal tells the story of the Warsaw Uprising where, surrounded by German soldiers, the citizens have been forced to revolt. But unlike most Hollywood films that would instead detail the battle scenes from start to finish, we’re presented with the after-the-fact—a war-torn city with tired insurgents who will be undergoing the last few hours of their lives. How we know this is that the prologue informs us. Already, there can be no happy ending.


What remains of this tattered, Polish city is burned-out buildings, broken rock, and only a small window of time. The Germans are approaching and soon the citizens will be surrounded. So, in a desperate attempt to save his men, Lieutenant Zadra instructs them to take refuge in the sewers. Now, even without the prologue’s words, this already seems like a doomed attempt. Firstly, setting aside the health hazard of wading through filthy water polluted with feces, oxygen will be limited, claustrophobia will take hold, flashlight batteries will likely run out, and it is too easy to get lost. One might think it better to just take their chances above ground, but roughly 30 minutes into the film, the men and women descend underground and this is where the real hell begins. 


Much like Sidney Lumet’s 12 Angry MenKanal demonstrates an excellent use of dialogue within a small, crowded maze. However, humans move about like rats, desperate and undignified. Dead bodies litter the water, floating in this dark, inhumane space. At times, the group thinks there will be signs instructing on where to turn, but they only encounter graffiti likely put there by someone equally as desperate as they.


Together, the group begins traversing, but individuals fall behind. Some are concerned that the Germans have dropped gas into the tunnels, but this is likely the overpowering stench and lack of oxygen. When they hear muffled sounds from the tunnels, they fear it might be Germans, but Daisy, their young, intelligent guide, reassures them, ‘No Germans will come down here.’ Then, as the groups separate, Daisy helps Korab, her weakened, sick lover, traverse the kanal as she relays that she knows where the exit to the river is. Indeed she does, however, upon arriving at the kanal’s end, their exit is blocked by bars. 


Other attempts to escape are greeted with German soldiers firing gunshots, or escapees entering what appears to be a prison camp. Another exit is greeted with hanging grenades. Hence, more doom. Meantime, several men begin slowly losing their minds, and wander off in the tunnels alone. Then, one of the young women shoots herself when the man with whom she shared her first sexual experience informs her that he has a wife and child. Not believing him at first, he puts on his wedding ring as proof, only to have it taken away upon capture. 


Kanal was initially greeted with negative reviews, as many felt this was a pessimistic depiction of the Warsaw Uprising. Rather, Polish viewers preferred to see battle scenes depicting an idealized fight with colored flags, not a doomed, undignified expedition. The film, based on real events, was more an accurate depiction of the Uprising, Andrzej Wajda felt, since the Uprising resulted in failure. What more sadness and defeat can be found when one dies within a sewer? If anything, the film succeeds in portraying the desperation of life preservation, as these many men and women are young and willing to undergo anything to survive—even traversing this stench-filled, unsanitary labyrinth of hell.


Two films came to mind upon rewatching this overlooked classic. One is the aforementioned 12 Angry Men for its strong use of dialogue within a claustrophobic space, but unlike Lumet’s film, which results in an uplifting end in the service of justice, Kanal does just the opposite—instead, we are presented with what occurs in the absence of justice. The other is of course Aguirre, the Wrath of God where a group of explorers set out on a doomed expedition. As with Kanal, nature and humans are the enemy, and it is only so long before hunger, thirst, illness, fatigue, and madness set in. 


Perhaps what is most notable about Kanal’s narrative is the end where Lieutenant Zadra emerges from the sewer, only to lower himself back down again upon word that his men had gotten lost—that they weren’t following behind as he thought. An exchange takes place involving gunshots, which you’ll have to watch to see. Furthermore, let’s not forget what Andrzej Wajda achieves through use of shadow and light, where we are made to feel the dampness, stench, and filth overtake and overcrowd those who remain. 


Ok, so now for the real question. Where were the kanal scenes filmed? Was it a real sewer? According to a post on IMDB: 


The sewer scenes were shot in the backyard of a film studio in Lódz. The actors had to wander there and forth in welded bathtubs full of water for several weeks. In order not to contract pneumonia, all of them had to drink vodka after getting out of the water.


Who would have thought that cinema trivia could yield medical advice? Andrzej Wajda’s Kanal is an excellent, concise, and overlooked film, and it is the second work within Wajda’s War Trilogy. One of the opening scenes will always stick with me: it is the image of an attractive woman on a gurney speaking to a flirtatious soldier. ‘My mother is dead,’ she says, matter of factly. When she is lifted, we see that she is missing half a leg. Beauty and tragedy. Traverse the hellish labyrinth and one will likely not survive. What is consequence but a mess of chance?


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More from Jessica Schneider: Traveling Ephemera: On Michelangelo Antonioni’s “The Passenger” (1975), Stones & Tears: on Werner Herzog’s “Aguirre, the Wrath of God” (1972)Delusional Yet Determined: On Martin Scorsese’s “The King of Comedy” (1983)