We’re used to getting our hands dirty in the thick of World War II, whether it is in the European theater or the Pacific, but very rarely do we consider the consequences that come in the wake of such an earth-shattering event. Things do not end just like that. There must be periods of rebuilding and rehabilitation. There is unrest and upheaval as the world continues to groan in response.
Ashes and Diamonds is one of these stories. It’s a film that rumbles from its core depicting a post-war wasteland in Poland that has been trampled by the Germans and overrun by the Soviets. People want peace and there’s seemingly none to be found. At least not at the present.
The film’s main attraction, Zbigniew Cybulski, plays the nationalistic soldier Maciek, who along with his superior Andrzej are charged with assassinating an incoming Communist commissar named Szczuka. Cybulski’s exhibits the hesitant, insecure movements of James Dean similarly hiding behind a persona overflowing with palpable coolness. In one sense we want to be this guy, but we also feel sorry for him.
From its opening notes, Ashes and Diamonds proves to be a dynamic piece of realism as our two protagonists start off with guns blazing before inconspicuously leaving the scene of the crime. But their work is not done, in fact, their mission has been bungled, and so they must wait around tensely for another chance. They take up refuge in a local hotel which also happens to be awaiting the arrival of the most esteemed guest, comrade Szczuka.
This is not solely some political drama either. Andrzej Wajda’s final film in his WWII trilogy certainly has roots in Poland’s historical past like the Warsaw Uprising and the changing of the guard as the Germans surrender and the Soviets move in. However, Ashes and Diamonds is woven together by a human component — a romance that is at odds with all things political. Because while he plays the waiting game at the hotel, smoking cigarettes and lounging, Maciek begins to fall for the woman on the other side of the bar named Krystyna. You assume from their initial flirting and Maciek’s come-ons that this will only be something superficial, but such moments of tension seem to heighten passion and the need for intimacy. These two individuals so recently introduced become so close in a matter of hours.
There are love scenes that are quiet, subdued, and truly intimate. In fact, it feels rather like Hiroshima Mon Amour where the camera lingers so closely on two figures in such close proximity. There does not have to be great movement or dramatic interludes because having two people next to each other should be enough. The historical context in itself seems to be enough. For that film, it meant Japan post-1945. For this one, it’s Poland after the clouds of war have lifted.
Certainly, the film is bookended by two high-octane bangs of fiery drama, but even in the moments in between Ashes and Diamonds is ceaselessly interesting. It might be a meandering horse on a quiet road or a fire extinguisher at a gay party or even the late night impromptu improvisation by an orchestra that is slightly off key. They make for wonderfully delightful additions to the narrative being told. It feels organic and rich with the tidbits that make up everyday life. It’s just that this slice of life happens to be in post-war Poland with high stakes hanging in the balance.
As Maciek battles his own inner turmoil to match the turmoil outside, the words of a poem inscribed on the wall of a bombed-out church spring to mind:
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 star-like diamond
The Morning Star of everlasting triumph.