Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Papa Mike's Video #5: Andrzej Wajda's ASHES AND DIAMONDS

When it comes to violence in the media, no one looks at this.  Too obscure probably.  
(Almost, just almost, forgot that I had done a 'Papa Mike's Video' segment here going back a year and a half ago.  It stalled cause... I dunno.  Lazy, not motivated, I could give excuses or reasons, what have you, I just didn't catch up.  Since The Decalogue - go back to July 2011 for that - I have amassed a few more 'Papa's Mike Video' selections, and finally tonight popped one in.  Boy was I glad I did so!)

Andrzej Wajda's Ashes and Diamonds had to be smuggled practically out of the country for it to play at the Venice film festival, where it went on to international acclaim and so on and so forth. But it's how Wajda changed around the book that sounds most interesting: originally it was going to be (in the book anyway) the character of the senior communist official, Szczuka, played by Waclaw Zastrzezynski as a respectable older man who fought in Spain for the communists many years before (this also changed from the book, though only slightly). But Wajda's daring was twofold: make Maciek Chelmicki, who was more of a supporting character, the lead, and cast someone who should be too... well, contemporary to play a trained killer/soldier in Poland circa 1945, Zbigniew Cybulski. Cybulski showed up with his look, and said it was his look and wouldn't change it. Thank goodness.

When Cybulski appears in the film, it does, for just a split second, seem like an anachronism, or the reverse of it, I don't know. He has dark sunglasses, a jacket that looks like it was out of Travis Bickle's collection, jeans and different-non-soldiery shoes (this latter part I didn't notice, the jacket, haircut and especially the glasses stood out most). The director compared him to James Dean, but for me it almost seemed like someone akin to Belmondo's character a few years later in Breathless: cool, hip...young, basically. He stands out because he *is* a stand-out, a young person. He isn't the only one, of course, as he waits at this hotel overnight on the last evening of the war, people having lots of (drunken) fun celebrating, or having fancy dinners, or singing/playing music - there is also the young woman Krystyna (a very pretty Ewa Krzyzewska, whose performance grew on me as the film went on). She works as the bartender, and Maciek, being a young guy in a strange place, fancies her. But is this something more? CAN he feel something more? 

The end of the war at first doesn't really affect him too much, and why should it? He chose to do this last mission, and so did probably a lot of young men unsure what to do with their lives. Not all of the dialog early on is the most original, but it's acting, how Cybulski carries every word and step, how he goes about a room when he's happy-delirious (flaming lots of shot-glasses as his superior says names of people, dead people I gathered), or melancholy (the bathroom scene, one of my favorites). Not all of the scenes without him are fantastic - there's a sort of sub-plot with another guy apart of the killing-group who gets wasted with an older guy, and who causes a ruckus (which is putting it politely at one point, happens concurrently with the meeting Maciek has with his boss), and there's some goofy comedy to that. Wajda needs this in the story, and we probably do too: too much time with the brooding Cybulski, a very handsome but impulsive guy, and it might be too much. 

I'm sure there's some art criticism I could apply here, but really I just want to marvel how much he looks like Josh Brolin
And the backdrop is very apt here. So much celebration, and yet, in a big way, perhaps the message is (or was for me), the fighting never really ends. Not really. There will always be an enemy, always someone to kill in the name of "superiors" who are never seen, except for one of their middle men. Most curious, but appropriate in watching it, that Wajda and his DP were influenced by film noir and gangster pictures, especially the Asphalt Jungle. The film doesn't have that genre to a full extent, since it's more of a war film (or immediate 'post-war', kind of like how Italy had its post-war-but-still-wartime films). But the themes resonate through gangster films; the big fat-last kill, the crime being purported, the coolness off-set by the tragedy. And the ending, which borrows more than a bit from 'Jungle' (though I forgot all about it and really got broken up, by the shot, the acting, the location akin more to Los Olividados), is unforgettable as making this story matter past being a simple wartime parable.

It doesn't surprise me it made a smash in Poland, where Wajda smuggled, as Scorsese would say, ambiguity in the middle of a communist-run country, and intrigued the rest of the world. It's a tough and rough picture in some ways, yet gorgeous to look at in others. Occasionally an intended metaphor may go over my head (the horse), or be a little thick not even in meaning but just visual power (the upside down figure on the cross). But Ashes and Diamonds holds up, in large part because the performance/character of the protagonist resonates, because the story feels true to the world it's depicting. How long can murder and massacre go on for? What do politics do amid people crying in their houses over dead loved ones? Big points that could have been spoon-fed are left for us to decide, and all the better for it.

And cue Blow Out piano music...

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