A Generation was the second feature length film of the Polish director Andrzej Wajda. Unlike Jean-Pierre Melville’s Army of Shadows, which is a polished masterpiece of world-historical significance, A Generation is an apprentice work. It’s an ideologically confused jumble of messages wrapped up in a film that, while showing flashes of brilliance, often strains credibility, relies too much on ham-fisted melodrama, and concludes on a note far too personal for Nazi-occupied Poland.
As isolated as the Polish cinema was from the west in 1954, it’s clear that the 26-year-old Andrzej Wajda was thinking along the same lines as Nicholas Ray in Rebel Without a Cause. Stach Mazur, played by Tadeusz Łomnicki, who bears some resemblance to James Dean, is a street punk living in Wola, a rough working class suburb of Warsaw. It’s 1943. Wola, which would, only a year later, be the sight of one of the worst massacres of the Second World War, is still intact. No group of people could be different from Melville’s high-bourgeois rebels in Army of Shadows. Yet Mazur and his friends still act out a ritual of patriotic rebellion by stealing coal from German supply trains heading east. When one of them is killed by a German sniper, Mazur concludes he’s probably getting too old for an aimless existence as a petty thief and gets a job at a small factory as an apprentice carpenter. There he meets an older worker, who gives him a basic less in Marxist economics.
“You work six hours for the price of two,” he tells the younger man.
Anybody who wants a short lesson about surplus value could do worse than watch A Generation. But it’s not the idea of alienated labor or even the German occupation that pushes Mazur to join the resistance, it’s a pretty girl, Dorota, played by Urszula Modrzyńska. Dorota, who’s a member of the Armia Ludowa, the Communist Party’s “People’s Army,” and not, significantly, the London-backed Home Army, appears one day at Mazur’s Catholic school. She gives a fiery speech, tosses a handful of Communist Party leaflets in the air, extorts Mazur and his fellow students to resist the Germans, and vanishes. It’s love at first sight. Mazur is now determined to find out who Dorota really is. That means joining the resistance, and, in turn, the Communist Party.
Jean-Pierre Melville has remarked that for him, as a Jew, it was not an act of courage to join the French Resistance. He was already on the death list. It would have been pretty much the same for a Pole on the outskirts of Warsaw in 1943. The idea of joining the rebellion to impress a girl is perfectly believable in James Dean’s California, or even, perhaps, in Poland in 1980, but, in 1943, in Wola, it’s a heavy handed melodramatic narrative forced onto a far more fascinating history. Nevertheless, you can see exactly what Wadja is trying to do. Stalin had died in 1953. Wadja had graduated from the Łódź Film School, where he learned a more western style of film making than was usually taught in the Eastern Bloc at that time. A Generation was his chance to break away from the “socialist realism” that was dominant, even required under Stalin. So he made a film that was, on the surface, pro-Communist, but, in its aesthetic choices, looked to the west, to Italian neo-realism and American “troubled youth” melodrama.
If Wadja turned out, later in his career, to be an anti-communist, then he, like John Ford in Grapes of Wrath, is a conservative who knows how to lay on the communist propaganda with shovel. It’s 1943. The Jewish ghetto is about to be liquidated. The Communist resistance, unlike Mazur’s employer, who’s a member of the nationalist Home Army, intends to run guns and food to the Jewish resistance inside the ghetto. When Mazur’s boss chuckles that “the Yids are rebelling at last,” Mazur stands up and gives his version of the “first they came for the Jews” speech. One by one Mazur’s friends fall trying to help the Jews in the ghetto. In the film’s best known scene, one of Mazur’s friends is trapped by the Gestapo at the top of a a spiral staircase and, after shooting it out, falls to his death. Mazur’s older Marxist mentor is last scene entering the sewers, preparing to die with the Jewish uprising, the fiery blond Dorota is taken away by the Gestapo, and, presumably, either shot, or sent to a concentration camp.
With this kind of propaganda, I’m sure Wadja could have slipped any kind of formal experimentation by the censors in Communist Poland. A generation as a clear message. The Communist resistance helped the Jewish uprising. The London-backed Home Army sat it out and laughed at them from the sidelines. Wadja’s next film, Kanal, would have a very different message, that the Soviet Union stabbed the Home Army in the back in 1944, perhaps reflects the confidence he felt only a few years later that Stalinism wasn’t coming back.
But even in A Generation, Wadja ends on a personal note. In Melville’s Army of Shadows, the French Resistance members who are tortured to death by the Gestapo are unambiguously heroic. Even resistance members who are unintentionally compromised have to be killed in order to protect the network. For Jean-Pierre Melville there is no life outside of the resistance. For Wadja, however, even though the Nazi occupation of Poland was far more severe than the Nazi occupation of France, resistance doesn’t mean suppressing the individual. Indeed, in the final shot, Mazur puts his head down and cries, too distraught over Dorota’s execution to go on. He’s no longer interested in being a member of the rebellion. He’s not a soldier but a lost youth, a “rebel without a cause.”
Note: A 22-year-old Roman Polanski makes a brief appearance as one of Mazur’s friends. He looks more like 16. So if you want to see Roman Polanski when he was still young enough to date the kinds of women he likes to date, here’s your chance.