Is censorship, or the threat of censorship, always bad for art? Or does the threat of censorship force the artist to become better at what he does, more subtle, and, in the case of political art, less crudely propagandistic. Ashes and Diamonds, Andrzej Wajda’s third feature length film, was made in 1958, shortly after Stalin’s death. That Polish filmmakers could now make films outside of the official guidelines for “socialist realism” by no means gave them permission to attack the Communist Party. On the other hand, the betrayal of the uprising in Warsaw in 1944 still rankled, and the conservative, nationalist “Home Army” remained popular, even 14 years later. Wajda, therefore, had to strike a delicate balance. If he made an openly anti-Communist film, it wouldn’t get through the censors. But if he made a film from the point of view of the Communist Party, it would be dull, uninspired, state propaganda. What he made was Ashes and Diamonds, widely considered to be the greatest film ever made by a Polish filmmaker.
Ashes and Diamonds takes place over the course of 24 hours. We are in an unnamed Polish city on May 8th, 1945, the day Germany surrendered. For people in the United States, it meant celebrating the victory over fascism. For people in Poland, it meant exchanging one group of occupiers for another. Two men, Maciek and Andrzej have been assigned by the Home Army to assassinate the communist official Szczuka. Szczuka is not a fool or a Russian Quisling. He’s a former volunteer in Spain. He wasn’t involved in the Katyn Forest Massacre. He had nothing to do with the Soviet betrayal of the Warsaw Uprising in 1944. He is, in fact, quite a sympathetic figure. After Maciek and Andrzej assassinate two innocent cement yard workers, Szczuka realizes he was the real target target. The people of the town aren’t communists or nationalists. They’re just want the violence, the hell that Poland had been living in since 1939, to end.
“I’d be a bad communist if I reassured you as if you were children,” Szczuka says. “The end of the war isn’t the end of our fight.”
After initially stacking the deck in favor of the Communist Party, how does Andrzej Wajda make the two heroes, Maciek and Andrzej, sympathetic characters? They’re professional killers. The film opens with their murder of two innocent men, one of whom he just gotten out of a Nazi forced labor camp. They’re skulking around town waiting to assassinate a government official most of the town’s people seem willing to accept.
People in Poland in 1958 would have been familiar with the history of the Home Army in a way most Americans weren’t. They would have known that Maciek and Andrzej had fought in the Warsaw Uprising in 1944. In spite of the ongoing coverup, they would have known about the Katyn Forest Massacre. There was a deep undercurrent of resentment against communism and against the Soviet Union that persists today. What’s more, Wajda also cast Zbigniew Cybulski, who was known as the “Polish James Dean,” as Maciek. You don’t cast a major film star as a character you want people to hate. True, Kevin Spacy played a cold serial killer in Seven and Woody Harrelson has recently played a brutal thug in Out of the Furnace, but a good actor like Al Pacino can make even a morally reprehensible character like Michael Corleone sympathetic.
As the film proceeds, Wajda subtly tilts its bias in favor of the Home Army and the two assassins. As with Jules and Vincent in Pulp Fiction, the narrative brings us around to the perspective of two brutal killers, although, unlike Jules and Vincent, these killers aren’t only brutal killers. They’re civilized men who are acting out of patriotic duty, not personal loyalty to a gang leader. They have the somber dignity of people who know they’re doomed. If Poland stays communist, the only thing that awaits both of them is a jail cell or an execution. When Maciek falls in love with a barmaid named Krystyna, he begins to question his mission altogether. He’s sick of killing. He just wants to get married, and live out the rest of his life with some kind of “normality.” He’s become one of the people who witnessed the murders he and Andrzej had committed earlier. He no longer cares about politics. He wants to nightmare to end.
For an American, the choice would be easy. Maciek and Krystyna should run away together, forget about the Home Army, and live happily ever after under the communist government. It’s almost a moral requirement in the United States that “you shouldn’t talk about politics or religion.” But Poland is not the United States. When Krystyna tells Maciek she doesn’t like to think about unpleasant things, even about her father who died in a Nazi concentration camp, Maciek laughs at her. It seems absurd. They go for a walk in the rain. Eventually they end up at a crypt, an ornate, gothic old tomb with the statue of Jesus hanging upside down, and the famous poem by Cyprian Norwid that inspired the film’s title inscribed on one of the walls.
“So often, are you as a blazing torch with flames
of burning rags falling about you flaming,
you know not if flames bring freedom or death.
Consuming all that you must cherish
if ashes only will be left, and want Chaos and tempest
Or will the ashes hold the glory of a starlike diamond
The Morning Star of everlasting triumph.”
Inside the crypt, unbeknown to either of them, are the corpses of the two men Maciek had murdered the day before. Krystyna screams in horror. Even Maciek is shocked, not only by his own guilt at having killed two innocent men, but by the prospect of his own death. He realizes that there’s no turning back, that his dream of marrying Krystyna is just a passing fancy, that, even though he has no idea what the flames mean, he has to push on anyway.
But there is nothing heroic about the resolution of Ashes and Diamonds. Maciek’s assassination of Szczuka just seems beside the point. Nobody’s interested in overthrowing the communist government. Szczuka’s death almost certainly means that he’ll be replaced by someone worse. What’s more, just before he’s killed, Szczuka is revealed to have an estranged son who, like Maciek, is a conservative nationalist and a member of the Home Army. He’s been captured by the communist authorities. Szczuka is killed when he’s on the way to negotiate his release, favoritism and “privilege” perhaps, but something that transforms Szczuka from a communist bureaucrat into a sympathetic father figure. After Maciek guns him down, he falls forward, gasping for breath, hugging the dark, spiritual twin of his own son as he expires, becoming one with his murderer.
For Maciek there’s nothing left. By killing Szczuka, he’s also succeeded in killing himself. He could escape the town at the end of the film, but he knows it means more of the same, killing, then hiding, then emerging only to get a new assignment. He understands that, eventually, he’s going to die a violent death. Why not right away? He runs into a detachment of soldiers. They shout out for him to stop. He keeps running. They shoot him in the back, and, in the film’s most famous scene, he continues running as he dies. Eventually, he finds himself in a landfill that seems to go on and on. Any Pole, and even most Americans, will immediately think of Warsaw in 1945, a city that the Nazis leveled after killing 200,000 people. For a communist, the message is clear. Maciek threw himson Capitol Hillelf on the trash pile by killing a communist official. But for a covert sympathizer of the Home Army, the message is equally clear. Poland under communism is just one big landfill.
Out of this contradiction, Wajda conveys a deeper message. The conflict is not between communism and Catholic nationalism. It’s between life and death, between Eros and Thanatos. Maciek, sympathetic character though he may have been, chose Thanatos. Try to imagine Lee Harvey Oswald in the Texas Book Depository. He’s interrupted by a pretty girl. He hides the gun. He waits for her to leave. Then he goes back to the window and pulls the trigger.