Ashes and Diamonds (1958)

“Krystyna: 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…
Chelmicki: …Or will the ashes hold the glory of a starlike diamond… the Morning Star of everlasting triumph.”

‘Ashes and Diamonds’, directed by Andrzej Wajda in 1958, is a thriller that follows two assassins who, on the day Germany surrenders in 1945, are instructed to kill a senior communist. It’s a dark, noirish thriller with nods towards the Italian neorealist style of films such as ‘Rome, Open City’ and the icy cool of the French New Wave. It also draws heavily on American culture and imagery both in what you see one screen (one of the assassins is modelled after James Dean) but also in the linear and dramatic construction of the plot. It’s a story simply but effectively told – the brutality of the act is balanced by a brief love affair between one assassin and a local barmaid, their relationship lasts a night as he waits for the kill order, and takes place in the ruins left by the war. Despite the simplicity of the story, the exploration this small Polish town by the characters allows us a similar sense of the post-war life both the physical trauma: the ruined church is a particularly evocative location, and the emotional trauma: the characters are all somehow fractured and dislocated from the world around them. The skill in this movie is how these elements are relayed within this generic framework, how the Americanness of the film works to underpin the Polishness of the setting and characters. It’s similar to Kurosawa’s achievement in ‘Stray Dog’ but also obliquely connected to Wenders’ depiction of and Americanised Europe in ‘Alice in the Cities’. With ‘Ashes and Diamonds’ however, there is an extra layer of drama in the way the film criticises the Soviet control of the country. This movie isn’t just a thriller, it’s a part of the Polish resistance and a profound political statement.

Would I recommend it? Yes – with ‘Stray Dog’ – although I’m aware that Kurosawa’s film has been matched with a number of others – but it’s worth watching multiple times.

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