Andrzej Wajda Explains Surplus Value

A Generation was Andrzej Wajda’s first major film, made in 1954 when he was 28-years-old, the year after Stalin’s death. Since the Polish government in 1954, still headed by the Stalinist Bolesław Bierut, required its filmmakers to stick largely to the principle of “socialist realism,” Wajda did not yet have the artistic freedom he would acquire after the ascension of Władysław Gomułka in 1956. A Generation, therefore, contains a heavy dose of communist propaganda.

One happy accident of the Bierut government’s restrictive censorship laws and the necessity for Wajda to inject a heavy dose of Marxism into a film about a troubled youth in German occupied Poland was a result of how Wajda knew how to explain Marxist concepts in a simple, lucid manner. The idea of “surplus value” isn’t the most difficult Marxist concept. It still takes some time and effort to learn, but in A Generation, when an older worker, who’s also a communist organizer, explains to the film’s hero Stach Mazur why he’s being screwed at his first real job, the director makes it all look ridiculously simple.

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Man of Iron (1981)

In 1976 the renowned Polish director Andrzej Wajda released a film called Man of Marble. Starring Krystyna Janda as Agnieszka, a young filmmaker based loosely on his assistant Agnieszka Holland, Man of Marble had a complex narrative structure modeled on Citizen Kane, a technique the cagey Wajda used to get around Communist Party censorship. Unlike Welles’ Jerry Thompson, Agnieszka was not looking for the secret past of a well-known man, Charles Foster Kane, a multi-millionaire press baron and politician, but rather the secret history of her country’s past as embodied by an obscure man named Mateusz Birkut. Birkut was a construction worker who had gotten his 15 minutes of fame in the 1950s for the Stakhanovite feat of laying a record number of bricks during the construction of Nowa Huta, a gigantic housing project outside of Kraków. Then he had simply disappeared from history. It was a clever approach. The Polish government couldn’t easily censor their best-known filmmaker’s decision to make a movie honoring a hero right out of the Stalinist tradition of socialist realism. Birkut’s difficult personality, however, the fact that he turned out to be an angry malcontent, allowed Wajda to criticize the corrupt Polish establishment without openly breaking with communism.

In September of 1980, 17,000 workers at the Lenin Shipyards in the Baltic port city of Gdansk went out on strike. Led by a 37-year-old electrician named Lech Wałesa, the Gdansk strike sparked a social movement with demands that went beyond wages, bread and butter to the idea of independent trade unions and multi-party social democracy. For a filmmaker like Andrzej Wajda the rise of Solidarity meant an almost western level of artistic freedom. Suddenly the Polish government had more important things to worry about than whether or not a movie toed the communist party line or not. Wajda, who was never really satisfied with Man of Marble, decided to remake it. Racing against time – he was much too smart not to realize that while the one party state in Poland was doomed, the end wouldn’t come in 1980 or 1981– he quickly assembled a film crew and a cast that included both Krystyna Janda and Jerzy Radziwiłowicz, who played Man of Marble’s Mateusz Birkut. Man of Iron, which came out in July of 1981, was released just in time. Although it would go on to win the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival, it was banned in Poland after Wojciech Jaruzelski’s December 1981 declaration of martial law, and wouldn’t be seen again in its home country until the end of communism in 1989.

If Man of Marble is the Polish Citizen Kane, the Man of Iron is the Polish Medium Cool, Haskell Wexler’s revolutionary film about the 1968 police riot at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago. Like Wexler, Wajda creates a fictional cast of characters then throws them into what will soon become an important historical event, filming while the story is still on the evening news, letting his actors get lost in a crowd of historical actors until they become part of the very history they witness. Unlike Wexler, who was a great cameraman but not necessarily a great screenwriter, Wajda is not only witnessing a genuine revolution (as opposed to a violent police riot). His characters have already been fully developed in an earlier movie. The result is something we haven’t seen since the Golden Age of Hollywood, when real life western legends teamed up with cinematic geniuses like John Ford, or the Second World War, when Sergei Eisenstein filmed Ivan the Terrible even as the Soviet Army was holding the line at Moscow and Leningrad against the Nazi invasion.

Man of Marble’s Agnieszka was a heroic character, an artist who wouldn’t compromise her principles to get ahead. Although she reappears in Man of Iron, she is replaced as the narrative anchor by a character named Winkel. Played by Marian Opania, Winkel is anything but heroic. Critical of the state as a very young man, Winkel has become not only a reliable propagandist for Communist Party television, but a wretched, self-hating alcoholic. He knows his life is a sham, but he can’t find the strength to rebel. After the strike erupts at the Lenin Shipyards, however, and all of Gdansk becomes a no-go area for the Communist Party, Winkel suddenly becomes useful, as a snitch. Indeed, even though he’s a 1970s communist journalist in Poland, Winkel seems remarkably like a corporate reporter assigned to cover Occupy Wall Street in New York in 2011. His employers at the television station, feeling that his past as a half-hearted dissident might get him into the Lenin shipyards – where the strikers have banned Polish state owned media – give him a bottle of vodka, a bag of money, rent him a hotel room, and assign him to dig up dirt on Maciej Tomczyk, Wajda’s fictional stand in for Lech Wałesa and, as it turns out, the son of Man of Marble’s Mateusz Birkut. For Wajda to put himself into the shoes of a compromised little worm like Winkel instead someone like Haskell Wexler’s rebel cameraman John John Cassellis is a radical move. Poland’s greatest filmmaker is abasing himself before the revolution, apologizing for the compromises he has made over the decades to get by the censors, admitting that there’s a fine line between documenting an uprising and being a snitch. It’s too bad those two little assholes at the University of Missouri couldn’t have recognized the same thing.

As Winkel half heartedly attempts to carry out his job as a provocateur an informer, he follows the same path Agnieszka did in Man of Marble, uncovering the buried past, Citizen Kane style, through a series of extended interviews, learning the history of Maciej Tomczyk the way Agnieszka learned the history of Mateusz Birkut. Winkel’s first interview is with Dzidek, an old friend of Maciej from his university days who Winkel once helped to land a job in television. We learn about Maciej’s stormy relationship with his father. Played by the same actor, they are lookalikes. Wajda manages to use body doubles, cutting, pasting and editing to make their arguments look realistic. In 1968, we learn, there was a general strike by Poland’s university students, a strike Mateusz and the workers at the Lenin Shipyard refused to support because they were sure it would fail. Two years later, in 1970, a similar strike by the workers themselves failed, partly because the university students decided to sit it out. They were still angry the workers hadn’t supported them in 1968. After Winkel moves on from Dzidek to Wiesława Hulewicz, an elderly woman who witnessed the events surrounding the strike in 1970, we learn the secret that Wajda was never able to tell us in Man of Marble, that he could only hint at lest his film be suppressed by government censors. Mateusz Birkut had not only been murdered, along with dozens of other strikers, by the police. The communist party had dug up his grave and moved his body in order that his final resting place couldn’t become a rallying point for future dissidents. In the 1950s, Mateusz Birkut had his 15 minutes of fame as a Stakhanovite worker. When he proved himself to have too much integrity to be used for state propaganda, he was sent back into proletarian obscurity. When he tried to organize his fellow workers, he was shot, then thrown into an unmarked grave, disappeared as though he had never existed. Such was the fate of independent minded proletarians under Polish communism.

When Winkel moves on to Maciej’s mother and then finally Agnieszka, who had married Maciej, we learn how he became the driving force behind Wajda’s fictionalized Gdansk strike, even as his alter ego, the historical Lech Wałesa, became the driving force behind the real Gdansk strike. I don’t know enough about Polish history to discuss how close the fictional Maciej is to the historical Walesa, or how differently their efforts as organizing their fellow workers may have been, but Maciej’s political agitation takes on an added urgency. If the 1980 strike fails the way the strikes in 1968 and 1970 did, he may be headed for the same end as his father, a bullet in the head and an unmarked grave. Wajda quite obviously had no way of knowing in the Summer and Fall of 1980 how the Gdansk strike would end, if Solidarity would succeed in establishing itself as an independent, non-governmental trade union or not, but he ends on a hopeful, if sobering note. Agnieszka is released from prison and Solidarity pressures the Polish government into recognizing them as a legitimate labor union. We also learn during a meeting between Winkel and his now ex-boss that the government has no intention of keeping the agreement they just made. Indeed, that’s what happened. Wojciech Jaruzelski declared martial law in December of 1981, banned Solidarity, rolled back the artistic freedom that Wajda enjoyed while filming Man of Iron, and subjected Poland to a final 8 years of neo-Stalinist rule before the Berlin Wall came down in 1989.

Nevertheless, we also realize that the one-party state is doomed. By the time Winkel is finally unmasked as a snitch, he’s no longer a snitch. He has thrown in his lot with the uprising and quit his job at the TV station. We can see why. Throughout Man of Iron, we observe how a doomed struggle for democracy, civil liberties and artistic freedom is more rewarding than to be on the side of the oppressors, even if the oppressors win. I do not know if Wajda was familiar with Haskell Wexler’s work, with either his fictionalized documentary Medium Cool, or his ground breaking use of natural light in Terence Malick’s Days of Heaven, but his decision to film Man of Iron mostly just before sunset and just after sunrise indites that he was working along the same lines. Wajda shoots his party bureaucrats and state propagandists mostly indoors, mostly under artificial lighting. The effect is to flatten state power, to make the oppressor look drab. Initially we Winkel under the same lighting. As he takes his spiritual journey through the past and present in Gdansk, however, we begin to see him more and more “in the same light” as Maciej and Agnieszka, in the “golden hour” just before the sun comes up and just before it goes down. We remember the film’s opening, a woman reading a poem by Czesław Miłosz. We realize that the film has come full circle. Winkel no longer has a job. But he has moved from the matrix of the communist state into the world of flesh and blood, from the a way of seeing the world imposed upon you by power and propaganda into seeing the world with your own eyes.

Hope

Hope is with you when you believe
The earth is not a dream but living flesh,
that sight, touch, and hearing do not lie,
That all things you have ever seen here
Are like a garden looked at from a gate.

You cannot enter. But you’re sure it’s there.
Could we but look more clearly and wisely
We might discover somewhere in the garden
A strange new flower and an unnamed star.

Some people say that we should not trust our eyes,
That there is nothing, just a seeming.
They are the ones who have no hope.
They think the moment we turn away,
The world, behind our backs, ceases to exist,
As if snatched up by the hand of thieves.

Man of Marble (1976)

Andrzej Wajda has always been a difficult filmmaker to pin down ideologically. Almost 90, he made his first film, A Generation, under Poland’s Stalinist government in the early 1950s. His greatest work, Ashes and Diamonds, was released in 1958, two years after the death of pro-Moscow hardliner Bolesław Bierut. He continued to make films in the 1960s and 1970s under Poland’s more moderate form of communism, went into exile in the 1980s, then returned to Poland in the 90s, eventually making the openly anti-communist Katyn in 2007. Wajda knows how to bend with the political wind.

Man of Marble, made at the beginning of the Solidarity era, looks ahead to the fall of communism, yet back to Orson Welles and Leni Reifenstahl. It is perhaps, the greatest film ever made about making a film, if only because it’s a botched film about a botched film. The script, which had languished in pre-production limbo since the 1960s, finally got made in 1976. Yet Poland, in 1976, was still ruled by an authoritarian government, and Wajda had to allude to the fate of his proletarian hero, not put it up on screen. He would fill in the gaps in the sequel, Man of Iron, which he made in 1981, just before Wojciech Jaruzelski’s declaration of martial law, but it is the confrontation with censorship and repression that makes Man of Marble such an intriguing failure.

The first thing to keep in mind before you watch Man of Marble is that the Germans completely destroyed Poland during the Second World War. There was barely a structure in place when the Soviet army finally liberated Warsaw in 1945. The old city center had to be restored using using drawings by an 18th Century Italian painter. The iconic Palace of Art and Culture, built from 1952 to 1955 by Russian, not Polish workers, was a “gift to the Polish nation”from Joseph Stalin himself. There was a severe housing shortage.

Man of Marble, which is set in the 1970s, opens with Agnieszka, a film student played by the 23-year-old Krystyna Janda, trying to convince her thesis advisor to let her make a documentary about a man named Mateusz Birkut. In the 1950s, Birkut had been a bricklayer, a young peasant who had moved from his parents’ farm in the country to work on a gigantic industrial housing project just outside of Krakow, the new model city of Nowa Huta — think Coop City in the Bronx, only four times as large, and complete with its own steel mill — a Robert Moses sized project which would eventually house over 200,000 people.

Man of Mable is structured as a series of flashbacks, told from the point of view of the not always reliable narrators Agnieszka interviews for her film. Back in the 1950s, Jodla, the local Stalinist apparatchik, realized that the construction of Nowa Huta had value as communist propaganda. So he allowed Jerzy Burski, a filmmaker, to use Birkut as part of a publicity stunt. The average bricklayer could lay a little under 2000 bricks in one shift. If he could push a team of 5 bricklayers into putting down 28,000 bricks in one shift and film it, Burski explains, it would be a propagandistic coup, a vindication of socialist collectivism over capitalist individualism. Birkut and his team don’t lay 28,000 bricks. They lay well over 30,000 bricks, and Birkut becomes another Aleksei Stakhanov, a genuinely proletarian hero of the  communist party. But then something happens. Burski’s film which he had intended to call Building Our Happiness, never gets finished. Mateusz Birkut disappears from history.

Agnieszka becomes Wajda’s Jerry Thompson, determined to track down the ultimate fate of Mateusz Birkut in much the same way Thompson wants to find out why Charles Foster Kane uttered the word “Rosebud” on his deathbed. But Mateusz Birkut is a faceless construction worker, not a newspaper tycoon, and communist Poland is not the capitalist United States. Where Jerry Thompson was working to satisfy a celebrity culture that wanted every bit of information it could get on Charles Foster Kane, Agnieszka is pushing against an authoritarian government that doesn’t like to admit mistakes. Thompson eventually fails. Kane’s childhood sled, Rosebud, is thrown into the furnace. Agnieszka succeeds, tracking down Birkut’s son, and learning that his father was killed in the massive wave of strikes and protests that erupted in Poland in 1970. That we have to wait for Man of Iron to find out exactly what Agnieszka found out in her quest is part of what makes Man of Marble such a a fascinating movie. Agnieszka’s film, like Burski’s, is buried by the communist authorities. But it’s not the distribution of the finished product that counts. It’s the process of discovery, the making of the film itself, that has value.

Looking back at Man of Marble 40 years after it was made, and 25 years after the fall of communism, what strikes me is that, whether intentionally or not, Wajda managed to predict how the neoliberal Eastern Europe that would follow communist Eastern Europe had its seed in communism itself.  Even if by accident, he made something more than simple anti-communist propaganda. He made a film that demonstrates how secrecy, authoritarianism, and grandiose publicity stunts poison genuine idealism. Birkut, who sincerely believes in the Polish working class, is sent down the memory hole. Jerzy Burski, on the other hand, becomes a famous filmmaker who jet sets back and forth to Caan. Michalak, the sleazy secret police officer who destroys Birkut in the 1950s, becomes a sleazy nightclub owner and pornographer in the 1970s. Wincenty Witek, Birkut’s best friend whom Michalak frames as a saboteur, is rehabilitated and becomes a senior communist official.

Birkut, in effect, becomes a bit like one of those heroes of the anti-Vietnam-war movement who never married Jane Fonda, never got into the headlines, and never sold out to “the man.” Unlike Witek, he won’t compromise his principles. Like Mario Savio, he has brief moment of glory followed by decades of hard work, anonymity, and poverty. He participated in the bricklaying stunt because building Nowa Huta was something he genuinely believed in. But after the Polish communist party reveals itself to be an authoritarian fraud, he chooses an unrewarding life of petty rebellion over opportunism, conformism, and prosperity. Agnieszka, who bears a striking physical resemblance to a young Leni Riefenstahl, had intended to become the anti-Leni Riefenstahl , to lodge a protest against totalitarian propaganda by deconstructing the official legend of the proletarian superman Mateusz Birkut. Instead, she finds a man of genuine integrity.

Final Note: The jazzy techno soundtrack of Man of Marble, which is supposed to represent the shiny new world of the 1970s, is so bad is almost ruins the film.

A Generation (1954)

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.

Danton (1983)

Danton, a French/Polish film directed by the Polish director Andrzej Wadja opens in the spring of 1794. The Reign of Terror is reaching its crescendo. Éléonore Duplay, the landlady and probably lover of Maximilian Robespierre is teaching her nephew the Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen. Robespierre himself is sick in bed. Outside, on the street, a carriage pulls up alongside a line of people waiting in a breadline. Five years after the fall of the Bastille, people are still hungry. Discontent is widespread, threatening to overturn the republic and bring back the rule of the Bourbons and the aristocracy. As the hungry French citizens discuss the reasons for their misery, the doors of the carriage opens to reveal the great revolutionary Georges Danton. He’s greeted with uproarious applause. We look up to see Robespierre watching the whole scene from his window. With him now is Heron, the chief of the secret police. They are planning to suppress the newspaper of Camille Desmoulins, an old friend of Robespierre who has been publishing pamphlets criticizing the Reign of Terror and supporting Danton. The stage is set for the implosion of the French Revolution.

Danton, which was a hit in France in 1983, also received a good deal of attention from American movie critics, mostly because they saw it as an anti-communist allegory, a re-imagining of Polish leader Wojciech Jaruzelski’s declaration of martial law against Solidarity. Robespierre and his supporters are all played by Polish actors. My French isn’t good enough to judge whether or not they speak with Polish accents, but they are clearly meant to symbolize communist east. They’re anemic looking authoritarians determined to preserve the Reign of Terror at all costs. Danton and his followers, on the other hand, are all played by French actors. They clearly represent not only Solidarity, but the democratic, capitalist west. If Robespierre, Wojciech Pszoniak, is a cold-blooded Stalinist bureaucrat —- in one scene he has Jacque-Louis David paint over a revolutionary who had fallen out of favor and been guillotined — Danton, Gerard Depardieu, is a corrupt but likeable western-style politician who believes the Reign of Terror has gone far enough.

But Danton is no Moscow on the Hudson, Red Dawn, or Rocky IV. Wajda is not only a man of the left, if more social democrat than communist, he’s also a master of subtle, nuanced film making who managed to evade the Polish censors for decades. It’s only now, in 1983, under Jaruzelski, that he was forced to make a film in the west. While he’s clearly in Danton’s camp, Wajda does not film Robespierre is not a caricatured villain. Robespierre is a great man who rose to lead the revolution. His younger, and most fanatic henchman, Louis Antoine de Saint-Just tries to push him into an immediately arrest, but he resists. Camille Desmoulins is his old friend. Danton, whom he detests, is still a hero of the revolution and popular on the streets of Paris. What’s more, he still has some scruples about summary executions. The Reign of Terror itself, set up by Danton, was intended to prevent vigilante justice like the horrific prison massacred that had happened the year before. There needs to be a catalyst.

When that catalyst comes, we can almost see Robespierre’s point. Robespierre has arranged a meeting with Danton. He wants to urge Danton to call off his agitation against the Committee of Public safety, to implore upon him that the revolution is still in danger and that authoritarian measures are still justified. Danton, a great, bear of a man has contempt for but still envies his Robespierre’s incorruptible devotion to the revolution. He prepares a feast, a rich, voluptuous spread designed to test his rival’s self-control. Remember, people on the streets are hungry. Robespierre passes the test with flying colors, turning up his nose in disgust at the decadent, aristocratic banquet. Indeed, 30 years later, after neoliberalism shock treatment has made a few oligarch’s wealthy and impoverished the vast majority of people in Poland and Russia, Wajda’s film takes on a nuance it might not have had in 1983. Danton protests that the people have no bread, but he never quite explains how he will alleviate the misery of the Parisian streets. At least Robespierre is consistent. Stay with the Reign of Terror. Break the back of the aristocracy once and for all. Danton’s populism, which may have evoked sympathy in 1983, now evokes suspicion. There he is, an East European oligarch in the making. Your inner Stalinist almost shouts “defend communism and Jaruzeski against George Danton and capitalism.”

Robespierre is under no illusions what executing Danton will mean. The logic of the revolution dictates that he will follow him to the guillotine shortly thereafter, which Danton predicted, and which, indeed, came to pass. There’s something noble about the pale, withered Robespierre. He has the integrity to defend the revolution to the end, even if in the end it meant his end. Is it fanaticism, or is it heroism? Perhaps it’s a combination of both. Danton, which in 1983 read like an attack on communism, now almost reads like an elegy.

Ashes and Diamonds (1958)

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.

Kanal (1956)

On August 1st of 1944, as the Soviet Army approached the outskirts of Warsaw, the Polish resistance rose up against the German occupation. Since the Germans had recently been dealt a crushing defeat by Marshall Zhukov’s troops in Belorussia, Operation Tempest — the plan by which the London based Polish Home Army would seize control of large parts of the country before the Soviet Union could install a communist puppet state — met with initial success. The Polish resistance expelled the German garrison from large parts of Warsaw, captured the Gęsiówka concentration camp built on the ruins of the Warsaw ghetto and liberated 300 Jewish prisoners, and attempted to recreate the normal, day-to-day life that existed before the Nazi invasion.

Even though it is relatively unknown in the United States, the Warsaw Uprising is one of the largest urban insurrections in history, far surpassing the French student uprising of May 1968, dwarfing the Newark and Detroit riots, and equaled only by the Paris Commune and the Tet Offensive. When it was over, 10,000 Polish Resistance fighter and an equal number of German soldiers were dead. Yet it meant destruction, not liberation for the people of Warsaw. The Soviet Army, after having annihilated the Germany Army Group Center in Belorussia only weeks before, paused on the banks of the Vistula.

Whether it a stab in the back, or simply an issue of logistics — the Soviet Army outrunning its supply lines — is the subject of an ongoing historical debate. But there’s no debate about what happened next. The German government took advantage of the rebellion to carry out a pre-existing plan to destroy Warsaw. They massacred 250,000 people outright, expelled another 700,000. According to Wikipedia, “the destruction of the city was so severe that in order to rebuild much of Warsaw, a detailed 18th century landscape of the city painted by the Italian artists Marcello Bacciarelli and Bernardo Bellotto, who had been commissioned by the government before the Partitions of Poland, had to be used as a model to recreate most of the buildings.”

After the Soviet Army finally moved into Warsaw in January of 1945, a Stalinist puppet government ruled Poland until 1956, when it was replaced by a less authoritarian variety of communism under Władysław Gomułka. Full public recognition of the history of the Warsaw Uprising, however, did not come until the 1990s. According to Wikipedia, “until late 1960s, the very name of the Home Army was censored and most films and novels covering the 1944 Uprising were either banned or modified so that the name of the Home Army did not appear there. Also, the official propaganda of both Poland and the USSR suggested that the Home Army was some sort of a group of right-wing collaborators with Nazi Germany. From 1956 on, the image of Warsaw Uprising in Polish propaganda was changed a little bit to underline that the soldiers were indeed brave, while the officers were treacherous and that the commanders were characterized by disregard of the losses. The first serious publications on the topic were not issued until late 1980s. In Warsaw, no monument to the Home Army could be built until 1989. Instead, efforts of Soviet-backed Armia Ludowa were glorified and exaggerated.”

Andrej Wajda, who’s sometimes considered to be the Polish Jean Luc Godard, took advantage of Władysław Gomułka’s reforms in 1956 to create what’s probably still the greatest film about the Warsaw Uprising. Unlike The Battle of Algiers or Le Petit Soldat, both of which were banned for several years in democratic France due to their treatment of the Algerian Revolution, Kanal, which tells the story of a group of Polish Resistance fighters to escape from the Old Town to the City Center through the sewers at the very end of the Warsaw Uprising, was shown commercially in Poland. Described by the communist press in Poland as a film that “showed the tragic fate of those who followed the wrong orders,” it also won a Special Jury Prize at the 1957 Cannes Film Festival. Wajda, in other words, was so talented that even in communist Poland he was still able to make himself heard.

If ever a film embodied the word “doom” it’s Kanal. Compared to this early masterpiece of the Polish New Wave, Kubrick’s Paths of Glory and Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan can almost look sunny and optimistic. We are introduced to Lieutenant Zadra, their leader, Jacek Korab, a young soldier who’s wounded halfway through the film disabling a Nazi tank, his lover Daisy, a courier and sewer runner who bears an uncanny resemblance to a young Gena Rowlands, Halinka, an innocent young woman who’s seduced by a married, older man, and “Michal the Composer,” a classic pianist who loses his mind later in the film. Wajda shows us not only a cross section of the doomed city, but a group of resistance fighters who are more than just a professional army, but a people rising up against an occupier. “Watch them closely,” a narrator announces, “for these are the last hours of their lives.”

I decided to watch Kanal again — I saw it a few years ago — after watching the new American war film “Lone Survivor,” a dark, brutal account of four Navy Seals pinned down in Afghanistan after a failed assassination of a the leader of an Islamic militia. The differences between the two films are striking. Kanal has strong female characters who fight alongside the men, especially Daisy, who’s both a sexy blond bombshell and a believably tough resistance fighter at the same time. The Americans in Lone Survivor are all professional soldiers. There’s also the difference in the way Peter Berg, who directed Lone Survivor, and Wajda dramatize the horror of war. Berg, who realizes his film will be seen mainly by Americans, people who have little or no direct experience with war, tries to overwhelm our senses. Lone Survivor is loud. Berg gives us plenty of fake blood and broken bones. Wajda doesn’t have to. Every Pole in 1956 knew what war was like, the Warsaw Uprising being a far more terrible and destructive battle than the American occupation of Afghanistan.

By assuming his audience knows what gunshots sound like and how it feels to look out over a trench and see German Panzers coming in your direction, Wajda is able to see war not simply as a fire fight but as the destruction of sympathetic individuals within the context of the destruction of a whole nation. The Navy Seals in Lone Survivor are likeable individuals, but nothing that happens in the film affects their souls. They start out as wholesome, all American heroes. They die, or they escape as wholesome, all American heroes. Wajda’s resistance fighters, however, are flawed, three dimensional citizens. They resist the German occupiers until it’s hopeless, but, after they descend into the sewer to make their escape to the center city, they lose their minds. Most who get out of the dark, stinking hell are executed by the Germans when they reach the surface. Daisy chooses to stay in the tunnel rather than leave her wounded lover. Zadra, the lone survivor, commits a crazy, morally reprehensible act the moment he realizes he’s safe. If Peter Berg shows us the destruction of the body, Wadja shows us the destruction of the body and the soul.

The hopeless ending is, perhaps, the reason Wajda was able to get the film through the censors. “Following the wrong orders” leads to madness or death. What’s more, if the Warsaw Uprising was censored by the Soviet Union and largely ignored in the west — except in Britain, the British being the only people who attempted to send aid — it was never far from the minds of people in the reconstructed Warsaw, raised again in a heroic effort in the 1950s and 1960s. Perhaps the censors saw the dark, horrifying film as a necessary “escape valve” for nationalist sentiments. But that’s not the way I saw it. The Poles in 1944 rose up against hopeless odds, and, by doing so, saved their national identity. Poland was not incorporated into the Soviet empire. The memory of the Warsaw Uprising survived right through the 1980s. The damned souls of Kanal demonstrate that when a people rebel, they can’t be stamped out as a people. Poland never became East Germany, even under a Stalinist puppet state, proof that even the most futile “lost cause” is never really lost. Perhaps we Americans should take that to heart as the corprotocracy continues to break up the fabric of our nation and subjugate our souls to neoliberalism, an ideology as insidious in its own way as Nazism or Stalinism.