Maciek Chelmicki (Zbigniew Cybulski) is a freedom fighter in the Poland of 1945, just as the Nazis have been banished from the land, but the future seems less certain than the partisans would like as the Communists are exercising a strong influence, and they would prefer to be running the show themselves. To that end, they are staging assassinations of party leaders, as today when Maciek and two others lie in wait for a jeep to drive past so they may gun down the Communist representative, but in the act of doing so and murdering the men in the vehicle, they quickly realise they have killed the wrong men and must make good their escape. Maciek decides to catch up with the representative at a hotel where the officials and their wives are celebrating...
Ashes and Diamonds, or Popiól i diament if you were Polish, was the third in a loose trilogy of films by director Andrzej Wajda - A Generation, Kanal and this one - that broke a new star onto the international scene. Initially it was not going to be distributed across the world thanks to nervy authorities in its homeland, but a print was smuggled out, probably because its high quality was noted and therefore something to be proud of, even if it did not toe the party line. From then on, Cybulski was claimed as the Polish James Dean, a concept entirely deliberate since both he and Wajda had loved the Dean movie Rebel Without a Cause and wished to recreate the emotions of that work in their own way.
Certainly you could see parallels, but you could also note differences: in Dean, you had a hero who was lashing out because his sensitivity had pitted him against the society that failed to understand him or even try, while with Maciek (sporting shades in almost every scene) a hero who thought he knew what he was fighting for was exposed as confused and standing on shifting ground when the cause was revealed to be far less cut and dried than he had been led to believe. Wajda, adapting Jerzy Andrzejewski's bestselling (in Poland) book with the help of the author, made sure that we were well aware of the nature of every important player in this drama, so that the target of Maciek (Waclaw Zastrzezynski) was as three-dimensional as his potential assassin.
But this was not what gave the rebel his crisis of faith, it was the love of a good woman who made him wake up to the fact that killing is no way to spend your days, no matter the justification for making you enemies your victims, in a violent manner. While he waits for the best time to attack the official, a beautiful barmaid, Krystyna (Ewa Krzyzewska), catches Maciek's attention and he starts to turn on the charm around her, with the result that this politicised student realises he should be making the world better through more positive means. That Cybulski was charm personified anyway gave his scenes with Krzyzewska a definite charge, and the cinematography by Jerzy Wójcik offered a moody, atmospheric tone that emphasised the doomed nature of the couple's prospects if Maciek goes through with his plans.
But are they his plans, or is he finally beginning to think for himself? The fact that this ends in one of the most famous scenes in Polish cinema, those billowing sheets sticking in the minds of all who watched it, indicates he was tragic because he was so aware of how he should be proceeding, yet was unable to have the courage to change the course he was set upon, though it was not entirely his own fault as he finds his pleas for someone to listen to him falling on deaf ears. Here was where you saw the problem that Wajda and his fellow, young intellectuals were facing: they thought they were about to enjoy new freedoms away from the crushing influence of the Soviet authority, but the fact that he was still making films criticising the iron fist of bureaucracy decades later should give you some idea of how well that turned out. This lent Ashes and Diamonds even more resonance with the weight of history behind it, though it was worth pointing out that it did tend to ramble in its middle section, suggesting the ideas were stronger than the execution. Nevertheless, an important film, and the short-lived Cybulski was immortalised as the embodiment of the great Polish rebel. Music by Filip Nowak.