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Remind Me


Andrzej Wajda's Kanal (1957) was advertised in Poland as "the first film about the Warsaw Uprising." That tragic chain of events shaped both the film and its complicated reception in Poland. During the campaign, which lasted from August to October of 1944, the Polish government-in-exile instructed the Home Army to liberate Warsaw from German occupation in the hope of preventing a communist takeover. The Soviet troops approached the city but stood on the sidelines while the Poles fought against superior German firepower. As depicted in the film, the Home Army managed to hold the Old Town, but ultimately were forced to flee through the underground sewers. By October 2 the Germans had crushed the Polish resistance army, the city was reduced to rubble, and approximately 200,000 people were killed, mostly civilians. The film's scriptwriter, Jerzy Stefan Stawinski, had served as a company commanding officer during the Warsaw Uprising and had adapted the script from his novel of the same title, drawing largely from his personal experiences.

Kanal was very much a product of the Thaw that spread throughout the Soviet Union and much of the Eastern Bloc after the death of Stalin in 1953. By 1956, the year the film was made, some portions of Warsaw were still in ruin, and the uprising still loomed in the public memory. Wajda recalled in a 2003 interview: "The authorities didn't want Kanal to be made because - even though the film was critical of the Warsaw uprising, the authorities must have realized that society would be against the movie, and would regard it as the communist voice on the subject of the Warsaw uprising. And the authorities probably didn't want to open yet another line of confrontation with public opinion. It preferred not to make any film on the subject of the Warsaw Uprising, even one with a point of view they could accept as their own."

Leonard Borkowicz, the president of the Assessment Screenplay Commission for Films and Screenplays, disapproved of the project at first, stating: "This screenplay, in some way, does not sufficiently address the problem of heroism." Still, Tadeusz Konwicki, the literary manager for the film production group Kadr and a member of the state screenplay commission, lobbied behind the scenes for the project. Initially, the documentary filmmaker Andrzej Munk wanted to shoot Kanal as his feature film debut. Janusz "Kuba" Morgenstern, one of the film's assistant directors, recalls that Munk wanted to shoot the film on location and without artificial lighting, reflecting his experience as a documentary filmmaker. Convinced that the light was insufficient, Munk abandoned the project altogether. Konwicki then gave the script to Wajda, who decided to move forward with it.

Wajda and his crew took a different approach, constructing an elaborate replica of the sewers; the director of photography Jerzy Lipman provided the brilliantly stylized chiaroscuro lighting for those episodes. The scenes above ground were mostly shot on location; Wajda recalled that "in 1956 it was already difficult to find ruins in Warsaw, and the fragment in the Old Town beneath Kamienne Schodki used in the finale, was the last to be demolished."

During Kanal's first release in Poland it received largely mixed-to-negative reviews, mainly for undermining the heroism of the war by showing the filthy, ultimately impossible conditions in which the soldiers fought. Still, in an April 1957 review in Zycie Warszawy, the critic Stanislaw Grzelecki wrote: "I followed the same underground road from Mokotow to the centre of town as Jerzy Stawinski, and I, like he, spent seventeen hours in the sewers. I saw and experienced enough to state that Wajda's film is telling the truth."

To Wajda's surprise, Leonard Borkowicz agreed to show Kanal at the 1957 Cannes Film Festival, where it won the Special Jury Prize alongside Bergman's The Seventh Seal. According to Wajda, after this international success Polish critics began to approach it more sympathetically. No doubt the prize at Cannes also helped Wajda to push through another controversial project, Ashes and Diamonds (1958), his third feature and one of the great masterpieces of world cinema.

Direction: Andrzej Wajda
Script: Jerzy Stefan Stawinski, based on the novel Kanal
Director of Photography: Jerzy Lipman
Film Editing: Halina Nawrocka
Music: Jan Krenz
Production Design: Roman Mann
Costumes: Jerzy Szeski
Cast: Wienczyslaw Glinski (Lt. Zadra); Teresa Izewska (Stokrotka); Tadeusz Janczar (Korab); Emil Karewicz (Madry); Wladyslaw Sheybal (Composer); Stanislaw Mikulski (Smukly); Teresa Berezowska (Halina); Tadeusz Gwiazdowski (Kula).

by James Steffen

Andrzej Wajda on Kanal (2003). Supplement for Criterion Collection DVD.
Wajda, Andrzej. Double Vision: My Life in Film. New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1989.
Wajda, Andrzej. Wajda Films. Warsaw: Wydawnictwa Artystyczne i Filmowe, 1996.