Perilous Betweens: On Andrzej Wajda’s “Ashes and Diamonds” (1958)

A stylized shot from Andrzej Wajda's "Ashes and Diamonds", depicting an upside down crucifix.

Before an abandoned church in a patch of sunned, country grass, two men wait to assassinate the Secretary to the Polish Workers’ Party. The assassination takes place, except their target is the wrong man.

This is the opening scene of Andrzej Wajda’s Ashes and Diamonds, the third installment within Wajda’s War Trilogy. (The first two are A Generation and Kanal, respectively.) Based on the novel by Polish writer Jerzy Andrzejewski, I immediately was struck by the film’s presence of hierarchy. For what does one exist? Is individuality merely a function of action? Through the effective use of shadow and low shots, an astounding modernism pervades throughout that, much like Orson Welles’s Citizen Cane, creates a bleak interior landscape. Set on the last day of World War II in Poland, the Germans have lost and are vacating the city. Despite this time of celebration, there is, however, something tragic about not only the ending of life when history indicates it should be a beginning, but also the dearth of opportunity for the protagonists. Following Wajda’s earlier film, Kanal, Ashes and Diamonds introduces a more complex sphere of human nature—not just survival, as is the case within Kanal, but the prevalence of power and to whom should one answer?

The film stars Zbigniew Cybulski as Maciek, who is as impulsive as he is charming while he saunters about in an open jacket and dark glasses. Cybulski, considered to be the ‘James Dean of Poland,’ matches the American actor not only in sexual allure but also in his early death—one that involved an oncoming train. And impulsive Maciek is. In fact, it is his impulsiveness that seems to be the source of his doom; upon accidentally ambushing the two innocent civilians rather than the man he was supposed to kill, Szczuka, who is the secretary to the Polish Workers’ Party. Lounging in the sun only moments before, and believing the political assassination a success, Maciek and his superior later learn that the operation failed and that Szczuka is still alive.

Already, we are witness to the tension that Maciek will face and what he must choose—carry out the execution correctly this time, or deny his orders and instead remain with Krystyna (Ewa Krzyżewska), a young woman upon whom he chances while she is serving drinks at the hotel where he resides. Maciek flirts with her and invites her up to his room. Taken in by his handsome charm, Krystyna obliges and the two engage in a love affair that will last less than 24 hours. ‘I could never fall in love with you,’ she tells him. ‘Why complicate that which is already complicated?’ she asks while he waits for her in the background.

A shot from Andrzej Wajda's "Ashes and Diamonds", depicting Maciek and his romantic interest.
Longing without forgetting.

Maciek faces a taxing dilemma, as he transitions—even if for just a short while, into a person more pensive and thoughtful. When Krystyna asks why he wears the dark glasses, he doesn’t offer a straight answer but mentions how he spent too much time in the sewers. Indeed, his life seems to have been one of chance and resistance, living for the ‘greater good’ of Poland, or perhaps as a martyr for the Uprising.

Meanwhile, Wajda’s use of cinematic shade, angle, and reflection contributes to the film’s ambient symbolism, as he utilizes the presence of religion—both via abandoned churches and foreboding crucifixes—including the upside-down Christ that hangs perilously as though a ritualistic murder has taken place. And while the romance between Maciek and Krystyna is short-lived, it is nonetheless there; representing the many potential could have beens. Has Maciek merely lived his life for some abstract notion—some idealized Poland that might never be? Here, he is presented with a reality, that is, a present romance in the flesh that could be, perhaps, if he let it. Interesting, however, to have the notions behind his so-called political responsibility be a nebulous fantasy and the romance itself the tangibility.

The film’s title is taken from a poem by Cyprian Norwid, a 19th Century Polish poet:

Will only ashes remain, and chaos whirling into the void. Or will the ashes hold the glory of a starlike diamond, the Morning Star of everlasting triumph.

Krystyna reads the poem aloud from the carvings on a church wall, but when part of the words is obscured, Maciek is able to finish the verse by reciting from memory. This moment showcases his tender side that up until now has been slowly evolving. Is Maciek merely the ash, while Krystyna the diamond he’s uncovered within his mechanic life? He informs her of his high school degree and that maybe he could attend some technical school. Or could he, with his sensitivity, be a potential artist? Krystyna has become the catalyst for his desires, where he now is faced with a choice, fueled by the fact that his life has been up until now nothing but automated action in service for something, some grandiose ideal. What is it? Only he could guess.

But perhaps Maciek could get away—if only he could change his plans. But upon relaying his dilemma to Andrzej, his fellow companion remains unsympathetic to Maciek’s romantic plight, and instead informs Maciek that he would be a deserter were he not to carry out the assassination. Throughout, Wajda creates a unique tension where the man Maciek must kill is not the Communist brute that one might imagine, but rather, someone who might serve as a father figure. Twice Maciek lights a cigarette for him. Is it harder to murder someone one does not hate? After Maciek shoots, Szczuka falls forward into his assailant’s arms, wounded, helpless, and dead.

Once again, I question: For what does one exist? Is individuality merely a function of action? Wajda never explains why Maciek feels like he has no escape—certainly, couldn’t he merely run away with Krystyna on the next train, or might that be too easy? Or has his impulsiveness returned to full force, making him unable to think the situation clearly through? Or is it his pride getting in the way? We don’t know. Rather, Maciek is shot by Russians and injured—left to die in a landfill, but not before bleeding into the hanging white sheets, moments before, which he wraps himself in as he hides. But in already meeting his fate, hiding is pointless. He will ultimately bleed and die.

A shot from Andrzej Wajda's "Ashes and Diamonds", depicting sheets billowing in the wind.
Sheets billowing in the wind.

Red and white are the colors of Poland’s flag—a symbol, a martyr for his country is he? How tragic to live for the collective, rather than for one’s desire. Where lives the person amid the political sacrifice? Wajda has created a great film that encompasses the politic within the personal, the illumination within the silhouette. Where goes one’s power within these perilous betweens? The Romance is real—red and white; the flag of Poland.

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More from Jessica Schneider: Labyrinth of Hell: On Andrzej Wajda’s “Kanal” (1957), Traveling Ephemera: On Michelangelo Antonioni’s “The Passenger” (1975)Stones & Tears: on Werner Herzog’s “Aguirre, the Wrath of God” (1972)