Cast & Crew
Set in Warsaw during the Nazi occupation, a Polish youth, Stach, joins a resistance group but is ultimately hardened by his experiences.
A Generation (1955)
In any case, Wajda is in no danger of being sidelined by critical fashion; the leading figure of the Polish "new wave" - commonly called "the Polish Film School" - that came between, chronologically and aesthetically, the Italian neo-realists and the French New Wave, Wajda has always made films like a battlefield doctor takes pulses, and his films have always been startlingly of their moment, whether taking on the vagaries of life in a Communist state (1978's Without Anesthesia, etc.), the ambiguities of the Solidarnosc era (Man of Iron, from 1981), the new-millennium history-making stretching back to the war (2007's Katyn), and so on. Never, however, did Wajda make simple, preachy political films; his characters are always gray, never black or white, and the films' points of view are never simple or easily dissected. It's a surprise, then, that he has been so widely embraced internationally or that he won an honorary Oscar in 2000 (who'd have thought Academy members ever bothered to watch Polish films?), but Wajda also packed the jaunty energy and compositional eye of a born entertainer, and his films can be stunningly addictive, with an almost Hitchcockian eye for interesting locations and setups. If you're channel-prowling and happen on a Wajda film, you'll stop.
Had Wajda vanished in 1959, we'd still be talking about him - the WWII trilogy remains essential viewing, and I'd bet it always will be. If Ashes and Diamonds, a despairing portrait of earnest Resistance soldiers hunting down traitors and collaborators after WWII has officially ended, is about the gravitational grip of the past, and Kanal, a brutally evocative saga of Polish freedom fighters fleeing from the Nazis and getting lost in the excremental hell of the Warsaw sewers, is about a never-ending nightmare present, A Generation, Wajda's first film, is an elegy for a lost future. Orthodox in its story and staging relative to the other films, it's still a fluid, powerful and prickly film, set during the Nazi occupation but trained in on high-school-age punk Stach (Tadeusz Lomnicki), who quickly defects from his delinquency stage after a friend is shot by Germans while stealing coal from a moving train. Apolitical and snotty, Stach apprentices in a woodshop, only to find the place seething with black marketeering and Resistance skullduggery, all of which is of little interest to him until he's confronted with sky-eyed, apple-cheeked Dorota (Urszula Modrzynska), a beaming proselytizer for Communism and a lieutenant in the insurrectionary underground.
The absurd equation both characters are making here, linking the injustice of capitalism with the Nazi occupation itself, is as subtly gestured as a student's revolted squirm under the "kindly" grasp of a sermonizing priest. There's a good deal more - Wajda's narrative is thick with reverb and busy-ness, filled with animals and underground passages and disarming compositions (plus Roman Polanski in a prominent role as an upstart Resistance fighter), and dense with fascinating faces and subplots. Germans are not ubiquitous but doom is in the air. The fate of Stach's workshop colleague, who wants little to do with fighting and yet keeps stumbling into melees and mowing down Germans, seems proscribed particularly once he nervously endures a late-night visit of an old acquaintance running from the Warsaw Ghetto uprising, and it becomes quickly clear they had been lovers - a radical bump to install into a first film made in a Communist country in 1954. But A Generation is a very focused film, bristling with the new generational discontent its title implies.
Before the war, uppity and nihilistic youths in films were merely products of poverty and objects of rescue (think, in Hollywood, Dead End, 1937, and Boys Town, 1938), but after, in the U.S. as well as elsewhere, embittered teenagers like Stach became a touchstone for an entire rising section of humanity, hardened by their parents' war-making, emotionally mangled by the bloodshed and devastation, and hungry for freedom from conformity. These characters were suddenly everywhere, from James Dean's moody hipster to the rangy, self-knowing outlaws of Godard's 1960s movies, and they meant something. In Poland, Wajda had this number down before anyone - after Stach, he gave the Polish 16-to-25 set their own tragic-romantic modern hero, in the form of Zbigniew Cybulski, dashing his way fatalistically through Ashes and Diamonds, and then through the nation's cinema at large for most of the '60s until, like Dean, he died young, falling under a train in 1967.
There's one image among many where Wajda's purposes crystallize in A Generation - Stach and Dorota are introduced to each other in front of a church by a Communist friend, and in order to blend in, they hook arms as a couple and watch as a bridal procession passes inches in front of them - watching, in effect, the happy, normal life they'll never enjoy walk right by and disappear. Their fiery naïveté seems blunted in that moment, and though it's clear they don't quite understand what they're witnessing and what they're sacrificing, we do, just as Europeans in the mid-'50s certainly did. This is a kind of anti-war film we never get to make in America - not about the trials of soldiers sent into battle, but the fated carnage done to the young when the war happens in their own streets and schoolyards.
Director: Andrzej Wajda
Screenplay: Bohdan Czeszko (screenplay and novel)
Cinematography: Jerzy Lipman
Music: Andrzej Markowski
Film Editing: Czeslaw Raniszewski
Cast: Tadeusz Lomnicki (Stach Mazur), Urszula Modrzynska (Dorota), Tadeusz Janczar (Jasio Krone), Janusz Paluszkiewicz (Sekula), Ryszard Kotas (Jacek), Roman Polanski (Mundek), Ludwik Benoit (Grzesio), Zofia Czerwinska (Lola), Zbigniew Cybulski (Kostek), Tadeusz Fijewski (German Guard)
by Michael Atkinson
A Generation (1955)
Andrzej Wajda: Three War Films on DVD
A Generation (1954)
Synopsis:Stach, an uneducated young man living in the Warsaw slums, is wounded and his friends killed while stealing coal from a German train. Sekula, a foreman, invites him to become an apprentice at a carpentry shop. The shop's owner is providing clandestine support for the Home Army, an underground resistance group, and reluctantly permits them to store arms there. Sekula, on the other hand, supports the leftist People's Army and educates Stach in the basics of Marxism. When Stach joins up with the People's Army, he finds himself attracted to Dorota, the energetic young leader of the local brigade. Jasio, a journeyman at the same shop, is torn between his desire to serve the Resistance through the People's Army and the need to support his aging father. When everyone is called upon to assist the Jews in the 1943 Ghetto Uprising, not all of them will make it out alive.
As Ewa Mazierska points out in her excellent essay accompanying the DVD, Wajda's debut feature straddles the boundary between the doctrine of socialist realism enforced throughout the Eastern Bloc countries of the late Stalin era and the emerging "Polish school" developed by Wajda and other Polish filmmakers. Thus A Generation still contains stock speeches and characters such as the immature but eager protagonist (Stach) and the wise mentor figure (Sekula). At the same time, it offers a gripping portrait of life in occupied Poland, with authentic details such as the corpses hung by the Nazis along the streets to intimidate the populace. One of the most noteworthy aspects of A Generation is its cinematography by Jerzy Lipman, who also collaborated with Wajda on Kanal and a couple other subsequent films. As is evident from the opening crane shot that descends upon the slum, Wajda and Lipman already possess a strong visual sense. In particular, Wajda's taste for chiaroscuro lighting and his gift for composing actors within the frame reflect his previous training as a painter. I had always heard that A Generation was the weakest of the trilogy, but in fact the film holds up better than one might expect, and it repays a second viewing. Incidentally, watch for a young Roman Polanski in the role of one of Stach's companions.
Synopsis: The ill-fated 1944 Warsaw Uprising is in its fifty-sixth day. Their ranks decimated, a company of soldiers from the Home Army takes shelter in a partially ruined house, but are forced to withdraw due to the advance of German forces. Their only option at this point is to return downtown through the sewers. Daisy, Korab's girlfriend, knows the route but because Korab is wounded she has to lead him through separately. Without a guide, the other soldiers become trapped in the dark underground maze, nearly suffocating from the lack of oxygen and in danger of losing their sanity.
Kanal opens with a dazzling four-minute tracking shot that follows the company as they descend a hill and engage in a battle on a ruined street. As with the subsequent Ashes and Diamonds, Wajda is unafraid of bold, self-consciously virtuosic gestures, and it is undoubtedly this stylistic bravura which initially drew international attention to his work. At the same time, Kanal retains a harsh sense of realism that reinforces its emotional impact. Except for the scenes in the sewers, the film was shot on location in Warsaw, significant portions of which were still in ruins more than a decade later in when the film was made. It a very direct way those scenes bring home the devastation Poland suffered during the war. And while the sewers may have been constructed for the film, they evoke an all-too convincing feel for the filth and claustrophobic environment the fighters must have experienced. The film's realism extends to its treatment of violence, which is far more explicit than one would expect to find in Soviet or, for that matter, even American films of that era. It depicts the impact of bullets using squibs (small explosive charges) rigged with blood packets--an effect Wajda first used in A Generation--and at one point we even see a Polish fighter bashing in a German's face with a rock.
However, a couple aspects of the film don't ring true: the composer Michal somehow manages to phone home to his family and speaks to his wife at the exact moment that the Germans overtake her, and later in the film we see him wandering in the sewers playing an ocarina, an overly portentous symbol. Still, on the whole the film is magnificently realized and the sewer scenes are unforgettable. Together with Bergman's The Seventh Seal, Kanal was awarded the Special Jury Prize at the 1957 Cannes Film Festival.
Ashes and Diamonds (1958)
Synopsis: Maciek, a fighter in the Home Army, has been ordered by his superior officer Andrzej to assassinate Szczuka, a secretary in the rival Communist party, which is in the process of taking power after the war. When they learn that they have shot a couple of workers by mistake, Andrzej orders Maciek to kill Szcuka that night at a hotel. While waiting for his move, Maciek meets and falls in love with Krystyna, a barmaid, and begins to doubt the value of his actions.
Ashes and Diamonds is an unqualified masterpiece and arguably Wajda's greatest film to date, though one would hesitate to slight the director's subsequent accomplishments such as Man of Marble (1976) or Danton (1982). While the script is tightly constructed, taking place within a single twenty-four hour period, it provides a revealing account of the divisions within Polish society after the war. Its moral complexities are underlined by the restless, probing lead performance by Zbigniew Cybulski, who is often characterized as the Polish James Dean. Tragically, Cybulski died in 1967 at the age of forty, cutting short what had already developed into a great career, with appearances in films such as the underrated The Saragossa Manuscript (1965) by Wojciech Has. Wajda later commented on Cybulski's premature death his self-reflexive drama Everything For Sale (1968).
The film's use of deep focus photography and deep space composition, as Annette Insdorf points out in the audio commentary track, was inspired by cinematographer Gregg Toland's innovative work for William Wyler and John Ford, and above all Orson Welles' Citizen Kane (1941). However, the film's most frequently cited deep-focus shot, in which Andrzej speaks in a phone booth while Maciek leans against a bar and Szczuka enters through the front door of the hotel lobby, appears to be an artfully executed optical effect combining two separate elements rather than a true deep-focus shot. Such subterfuges were also common in Citizen Kane, though they of course do not diminish the impact of either film. Another likely inspiration derived from Citizen Kane is the film's rich chiaroscuro lighting, though Wajda's aforementioned artistic background undoubtedly bears some influence here as well. But regardless of influences, Jerzy Wojcik's sharp-edged black-and-white cinematography is remarkable, the equal of anything done at that time.
A Generation appears on DVD for the first time, and the results are extremely satisfactory, especially considering the age of the film. The booklet states: "One of the scenes damaged on the original negative was transferred from an earlier print courtesy of the Museum of Modern Art." I believe the scene in question was probably Stach's arrival home after he is first wounded, since it looks softer and more dupey that the other portions of the film. Otherwise, the print is generally in very good condition and the transfer has a nice range of grays. The mono sound is muffled during the opening credits, but is mostly clear during the rest of the film. Kanal and Ashes and Diamonds have been released previously on DVD through Facets in conjunction with Polart, but the new Criterion editions are obviously the way to go, with superior high-definition transfers using prints struck from the original negatives. Those who already own the Facets discs will want to upgrade. The print for Kanal has the most damage, particularly during sewer sequences; however, the image is sharp with rich contrast. The print for Ashes and Diamonds is in the best condition of the three, mainly displaying a few scratches at the beginning; the transfer can only be described as stellar. As usual, Criterion deserves praise for its sensitive handling of black-and-white transfers. The mono sound in both cases is fine.
While all three films are compelling dramas on their own, the non-Polish viewer greatly benefits from some kind of historical context. Here Criterion demonstrates yet again why they have earned a reputation as the gold standard in home video releases. A Generation features a video interview with Wajda and critic Jerzy Plazewski, in which they speak extensively about Wajda's start as a filmmaker, the state of the Polish film industry at the time and other topics such as the influence of Italian neorealism. Similar interviews with Wajda and various collaborators appear on the other two discs, and in all cases they are extremely interesting and informative. In fact, you might want to consider watching the interviews before the main features to better understand their historical references and enjoy them more fully the first time around.
One intriguing supplement on A Generation is an early student short by Wajda, Ilza Ceramics (1951), a documentary which combines imaginative visual touches with obvious concessions to official ideology. For example, at the end of the film the narrator proclaims: "A new cadre of folk artists is growing up. Inspired by the creativity of the Polish people, they will continue the tradition of progressive and realistic national art in Poland." Such platitudes will be amusingly familiar to anyone who has studied the politics and culture of Communist countries. The aforementioned liner notes essay by Ewa Mazierska succinctly describes the Polish experience from World War II up to the early Fifties, making it an essential starting point for the box set as a whole. Kanal features a 2004 television interview that Wajda conducted with Jan-Nowak-Jezioranski, a courier for the Home Army at the time of the Warsaw Uprising. Ashes and Diamonds features a very good audio commentary track by noted film scholar Annette Insdorf, who helpfully explains many references that would otherwise pass over the heads of non-Polish viewers. These include an allusion to the Polish flag during Maciek's death and the riderless white horse. Indeed, without the context that Insdorf provides, the latter symbol would seem like needless mystification in a film otherwise grounded in a very concrete reality. Lastly, I should mention the attractive design of the package, using only three colors: red, white and black. (Red and white are the colors of the Polish flag.) To sum up, Criterion's box set Andrzej Wajda: Three War Films is a solid combination of powerful films, excellent transfers and intelligent special features.
For more information about Andrzej Wajda: Three War Films, visit The Criterion Collection. To order Andrzej Wajda: Three War Films, go to TCM Shopping.
by James Steffen
Andrzej Wajda: Three War Films on DVD
Released in United States on Video March 23, 1994
Feature directorial debut for Andrzej Wajda.
Released in United States on Video March 23, 1994