Christian’s Cinematic Syntax: A Divided Homeland – A Review of “Ashes and Diamonds”

Is retention of identity and country worth breaching personal morality and happiness?

This is one of the overarching questions found within Andrzej Wajda’s Ashes and Diamonds, where Wajda uses Poland, his home country, as a means to explore the post-war struggle for power and identity. The film utilizes one of the most important days in the country’s history, May 8th, 1945, the day when the war in Europe ended with Germany’s surrender. In examining his country, the uncertainty of the future is taken as a key element, although Wajda does not give a definite answer to what will become of his country, examining for the sake of exploration. This uncertainty has an interesting dichotomy, which is in the form of a fear of the unknown and the beauty of faith and hope, which is similar to speculation about death and possible afterlife.

*Spoilers ahead*

In the beginning, we are introduced to the characters Maciek (Zbignew Cybulski) and Andrzej (Adam Pawlikowski), as they relax on grass near a chapel. Wajda creates a disparity of mood as he brings a young girl, portraying innocence, to the characters. These characters are in a medium close-up, as Wajda effectively hides their true intentions through framing. As Andrzej rises to help the girl, he hears vehicles in the distance and warns Maciek that “they are coming,” making Maciek slowly roll over, revealing the weapons lying near him. This steady reveal of weaponry brilliantly shifts the tone, and is an efficient way of translating a message of intensity. The characters proceed to execute the wrong targets and compromise their morality for their cause.

What ensues is an internal conflict that compromises our character, Maciek, and causes him to essentially embody the struggle in Poland. Zbigniew Cybulski, the actor that plays Maciek, is often referred to as the “Polish James Dean,” a title that is accurate but de-individualizes him. His acting is incredibly versatile and adjustable, and the roles he plays are typically dynamic and multi-dimensional. The way he plays Maciek is no exception. His character begins as a suave cool guy soon crumbling to the pressures of love and a yearning for life outside of the armed resistance. The most notable aspect of Cybulski in this role is his ability to play off other characters’ energy.

Beautifully portrayed by Ewa KrzyżewskaKrystyna, the “love-interest,” is barraged by waves of attempts by Maciek for relationship. The character is gradually swayed by Maciek, although not in the typical sense. At one point, Krystyna refers to love as being unnecessary and pointless in her life — ultimately as only a complication. Her character is notable in that regard. She is not oppressed by some patriarchal expectation, never being reduced to just a trophy for Maciek to gain. This elevates Krystyna as a character that is free from ideology, one that is the least entangled in the politics of their current situation. In Krystyna’s final sequence, her character angelically “shines” and becomes a symbol either to be interpreted as a diamond or an angel.

The symbols in Ashes and Diamonds are some of the most breathtaking examples in all of cinema. The motifs of fire, light, religious icons, and filth all create an impactful and resonating message that denotes the theme of the film. Some examples that resonate include the sequence in which Andrzej throws a flower in the garbage and only minutes later, Maciek painfully dies in a long stretch of waste. Another example is when Maciek, who is shot, grabs a white sheet and lets his blood soak into the cloth, possibly representing the Polish Flag.

But the most telling of all is revealed through the chapel conversation between Krystyna and Maciek:

Krystyna: “So often, are you as a blazing torch with flames of burning rags falling about you flaming, you know not if flames bring freedom or death. Consuming all that you must cherish if ashes only will be left, and want Chaos and tempest…”

Maciek Chelmicki: “…Or will the ashes hold the glory of a star-like diamond… The Morning Star of everlasting triumph.”

“You know not if flames bring freedom or death”

  1. Maciek lights Szczuka’s cigarette and later kills him.
  2. Maciek ignites shots of vodka that represent his fallen comrades.
  3. In the beginning, Maciek shoots the wrong target and the victim bursts into flames.
  4. At the chapel where Maciek and Krystyna converse, many candles surround the dead (who Maciek has killed).
  5. Fireworks explode as Maciek kills Szczuka.

“Or will the ashes hold the glory of a starlike diamond… The Morning Star of everlasting triumph”

  1. The fallen icon of Christ separates Maciek & Krystyna after this conversation, which could indicate the state of Poland through the film’s characters (Macek as the crucifixion and Krystyna as resurrection).
  2. The ashes could indicate the manifestation of Maciek, due to his demise in a stretch of waste.
  3. The diamond could be Krystyna because angelic lighting coats her in her final scene.

As I mentioned earlier, Ashes and Diamonds culminates into an indication of uncertainty for the future, but also the faith that everything will be positively be overcome. In the end, I believe Ashes and Diamonds to be a prime example of cinematic perfection.

5 out of 5

Editor’s Note: Included below is the opening scene of Ashes and Diamonds.

— Christian Mietus, Film Blogger

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