September 22, 2011

Ashes and Diamonds

Since Ashes and Diamonds is such an iconic film, one which every Pole or fan of Polish culture has seen, I asked friends in both categories to share reminiscences of the first time they saw Popiół i diament (as it’s titled in Poland – for some reason, only one “diamond” in Polish!).

It was “my first unadulterated experience of the Polish spirit,” one recalled. “I was deeply moved by its passion and by the emotional uses of light (or actually shadow) and space.” Wrote another: “Ashes and Diamonds had an almost mystical feel for me – and yet it was also full of unambiguous action. I knew only that the lead actor was supposedly ‘the Polish James Dean’, and Zbigniew Cybulski was everything Dean was, and more. Most of all, I remember that strange feeling when I realized the film’s message: for Poles in 1945 the war was over yet it wasn’t over at all.” Another, recalling his first viewing some 40 years ago, puts Ashes and Diamonds in the company of the greats of European cinema: “Up until my mid-teenage years I had only been exposed to Hollywood films, so seeing Bergman, Wajda, Polanski, and Ophuls in college was a liberating experience. … The quality of the print was not good, but somehow that enhanced the essential grittiness of  the film.  The fact that the story did not end well impressed me.  This was not the first non-Hollywood film for me.”

Well, no worries about the print: we’ll be seeing an excellent print on Sunday. And we’ll also have an expert introduction. Mikołaj Kunicki of the University of Notre Dame is researching the filmmakers of Communist Poland. I asked him about his first reaction to the film, and he had this to say:

“I do not remember when I saw Andrzej Wajda's Ashes and Diamonds for the first time -- I have seen it and taught on it so many times, but what I do recall is that this movie was always discussed and present in the Polish intelligentsia households. Times have changed, so has the state of film culture. But more than fifty years after its completion, the film continues to amaze viewers, including American college students with little exposure to Polish history and culture. This universally acclaimed reception of an otherwise ‘Polonocentric’ film demonstrates its universal legacy. The plot is still riveting, but above all, what makes this film so fascinating and wonderful to watch are Wajda's iconography with the masterful use of national symbols and metaphors, Jerzy Wójcik's outstanding camera work, and, last but not least, the truly mesmerizing performance of Zbigniew Cybulski.”

All true. See for yourself Sunday at 6:30. And please note that Professor Kunicki will be giving a talk the next day, in the Walnut Room in the IMU, entitled “Men for All Seasons? Polish Artists and the Problem of Collaboration during WWII and after.” Both Wajda and the novelist Jerzy Andrzejewski, on whose book this film was based, have been accused of collaboration with the Communists. Kunicki will examine the phenomenon of collaboration in the Polish artistic community under Nazi and Soviet occupations, its different treatment by the resistance movement and the postwar government, and the very applicability of the concept of collaboration for evaluating actions taken by Polish artists.

Padraic Kenney
Director, Polish Studies Center, Indiana University

Ashes and Diamonds is one of two films sponsored by IU Polish Studies Themester, and IU Cinema. It is being show Sunday, September 25 at 6:30 p.m. at IU Cinema.

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