Ashes and Diamonds (Popiol i diament)

Ashes and Diamonds

Life is dangerous.

Last up in my Poland-a-thon is an earlier film by Andrzej Wajda, and arguably one of his best known. I guess it stands to reason that early Polish film, of the era that would put Polish film on the map, would be all about WWII, and the various stories contained in that era of war and post-war culture. Ashes and Diamonds is a good example of that; taking place on and directly after the day of Germany’s official surrender, it follows a pair of young men who are hired essentially as mercenaries, sent to eliminate a Communist target. The film opens with their first attempt, which doesn’t go as planned, and from there follows them as they take up residence in the local hotel that their target is staying at, trying to find the best way to make another attempt on his life, while one of them ends up falling for the hotel’s barmaid Krystyna. There’s a lot going on in this film, and with only one run-through of it, I don’t think I got it all, since the film isn’t very concrete on its plot points, instead flowing over them like a ceaseless river current. Still, I generally liked what this had to offer; I just wasn’t too sure if it had as much to offer as I thought it did.

This film comes off as a foreign language Hollywood film; lots of closed sets, with character interactions followed by other character interactions, with only a few points of plot development interspersed between them. Even the cinematography was very basic in both look and movement, akin to a low-to-medium budget studio drama from here in the States. The one thing I did like about it a lot was the lead actor. Zbigniew Cybulski, the main star of this one, was pretty well known in Poland; he was often called the “Polish James Dean”, and watching this film, one of his star-making roles, it’s easy to see why – his flair and style in both the look of his character and his presentation and delivery really carries the film, and the frame is that much more void of presence whenever he is not there. That being said, the plot of this one wasn’t very focused; the film seemed content to be wishy-washy in its forward movement, and as much as the romantic subplot added to the film, it did feel a little shoehorned in there for the sake of added plot material, rather than being genuinely important (even if it does end up playing a slight factor in the film’s concluding arc).

I guess I was expecting a bit more than what I ended up getting, having seen Wajda’s later works Man of Marble and Man of Iron, and conversely expecting something along the same lines from this film, made two decades before those. Rather, this is exactly what I should have expected; a much more simpler effort from Wajda, and one that belies his relative inexperience up to this point. Is it worth watching? Honestly, I’m not really sure; it was decent enough, but not on a “wow, that was really something” level. The Book seems to be a little more enamored of this film than I was, calling it a masterpiece and the finest film from its era, and it may very well be right, seeing as I haven’t seen too many other examples to compare it to. Still, I couldn’t help but feel a little underwhelmed, like I hadn’t gotten everything I had wanted to get out of it, which was pretty much the case. That’s no fault of the film’s, though, so don’t take what I say as being reflective of the qualities of the film itself. I’d say, give this a try; you’ll really be no worse off for doing so, and who knows? You might find a new favorite from a style of film you otherwise wouldn’t have experienced.

Arbitrary Rating: 7/10


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