Its success emboldened the young Wajda, and his next film deviated completely from the Socialist Realist model. Also set during the war, Kanal (1957) portrayed the last hours of a doomed set of Resistance fighters as they try to escape through the Warsaw sewer system while the city's uprising is subdued (Kanal translates as "sewer" in English, but for some reason, the Polish film's title is never translated). Controversially, Wajda chose to focus on the Home Army, the politically suspect group with ties to the West and little or no time for Moscow. For official consumption, he shows their battle as inevitably doomed, rendering them historically useless, and leaves out key facts (such as the Russian tanks waiting across the river, refusing to intervene to save the Home Army's uprising). However, in introducing this fatalism, he elevates the narrative to the level of Greek tragedy and the futility of their actions makes them all the more noble.
Wajda's third film, Ashes and Diamonds, lumped together with the previous two as a trilogy after the fact, is his most famous. Set on the last day of the war, it again has Home Army characters at its center. The main protagonist, Maciek, is an assassin trying to kill a communist leader in order to prevent the Moscow-loving resistance from taking over the country. If that wasn't controversial enough, Wajda's killer oozes hipness, with his dark glasses, jeans and a "Juliette Gréco-style" sweater. Actor Zbigniew Cybulski would become known as "the Polish James Dean" for this simmering performance of unsettled youth, the country's leading actor and sex symbol (itself a rather subversive notion in a communist country).
Again, any efforts on Wajda's part to show the Home Army as being on the wrong side of history against the inexorable rise of communism (what the regime would have been hoping for in the film) are totally overshadowed by Cybulski's brooding performance in what again has overtones of Greek tragedy.
Ashes and Diamonds
Ashes and Diamonds has become a key work of Polish cinema - and indeed world cinema - and Wajda would consciously recreate one of its key scenes in two of his later films. Moreover, the film would prompt a number of responses from other Polish directors, presenting "anti-Wajda" views of heroism and sometimes rather cheekily casting Cybulski to underline the comparison. Andrzej Munk, Wojciech Has and Jerzy Kawalerowicz are all directors that have made direct and ironic responses to Wajda in some shape or form at some point in their careers.
Wajda would continue to make films about the Second World War and its aftermath, including Lotna (1959), Samson (1961), his episode for the portmanteau film Love at Thirty (L'Amour a vingt ans, 1962), Landscape After Battle (Krajobraz po bitwie, 1970), A Love in Germany (Eine Liebe in Deutschland, 1983), Chronicle of Amorous Incidents (Kronika wypadków milosnych, 1986), Korczak (1990), The Ring with the Crowned Eagle (Pierscionek z orlem w koronie, 1992) and Holy Week (Wielki tydzien, 1995). Many of these films also try to capture the Jewish experience of the war. None, though, would match his "trilogy" in terms of impact.
Although Ashes and Diamonds was a successful collaboration with Zbigniew Cybulski, it did not lead to a consistent string of fruitful pairings between the actor and director. Cybulski would star in Innocent Sorcerers (Niewinni czarodzieje, 1960) and Wajda's episode for Love at Thirty, but relations between the two were not close and Cybulski became quite bitter about the fact that Wajda would no longer choose him for lead roles.
Legend has it that Cybulski once said, "One day he'll yearn for me" (quoted in Paul Coate's The Red and the White: Exploring the Cinema of People's Poland). And perhaps it would be a remark with some prescience. Cybulski died under the wheels of a departing train in 1967; it may have been suicide. Whatever it was, a guilt-ridden Wajda explored his troubled relationship with the actor in Everything for Sale (Wszystko na sprzedaz, 1968). A frank a self-excoriating piece of filmmaking on the part of the director, Everything for Sale includes ironic portraits of many of the leading figures in Polish cinema, some playing themselves.
Everything for Sale also symbolically marks out Daniel Olbrychski as the new leading Polish actor, a role he arguably still holds. Olbrychski would go on to act in a number of Wajda films, including The Promised Land (Ziemia obiecana, 1974), often considered another of Wajda's finest. The film takes place during the industrial revolution in Poland and charts three friends, one Polish, one German and one Jewish, as they try to make their fortunes. The DVD currently available is a new version of the film re-edited by Wajda and is possibly the only "director's cut" that is actually shorter than the original. The film used to have something of a reputation as "the Polish Last Tango in Paris" for its carnal explicitness, but most of the sex scenes have been removed by the director, as Paul Coates has noted.
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