Andrzej Wajda’s Ashes and Diamonds (1958) has rightly been lauded as one of the finest of postwar East-Central European films, and the most vital work of the Polish School, the group of filmmakers who, starting in the midfifties, cast startlingly truthful images of the recent war and its aftermath, putting Polish cinema on the world map. It is salutary, however, to remember how much controversy has dogged the film within Poland itself, and that it is more than a matter of regime-led misgivings about a work with potentially subversive accents. It stems from the film’s pursuit of conflicting goals: to deal with the Polish Home Army’s resistance against the incoming, Soviet-backed Communist regime and yet satisfy both the Polish populace who held that army dear and a Communist Party that wielded powers of censorship, even though it had renounced a Stalinist rigor of repression. Criticize the Home Army too strongly and the audience will turn on you; offend the regime and your film might be amputated or aborted. (Wajda himself reported efforts to remove the protagonist’s death scene going right down to the wire of the first screening.)
This tightrope balance had been central to the 1948 novel by Jerzy Andrzejewski upon which Wajda’s film is based. It is worth reflecting, therefore, on why more Poles took Wajda’s film to heart than had embraced Andrzejewski’s novel. Did visuals offer more leeway for an ambiguity that could fool the censors, as Wajda himself argued? Was Zbigniew Cybulski’s electrifying performance the key factor? Or was it Wajda’s transformation of Cybulski’s role into the undisputed focal point of the ironic tragedy whose twenty-four-hour period was the hinge connecting the end of one (world) war to the start of a new (civil) one? Perhaps the distinguished novelist Maria Dąbrowska was right to say at the time that the film told as much of the truth as could be told in the circumstances. Such praise may suggest a work partially tainted at its source, and Wajda himself appears to endorse this view in his post-1989 The Ring with a Crowned Eagle (1992), which focuses on the fate of the former Home Army fighters who—unlike Cybulski’s character, Maciek Chełmicki—lived on and had to confront an alien postwar order as an everyday reality.
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