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The Criterion Collection presents

Andrzej Wajda: Three War Films (A Generation / Kanal / Ashes and Diamonds) (1955-1958)

"I should say that I enrolled in film school by chance, simply because such a situation presented itself."- Andrzej Wajda

Stars: Tadeusz Lomnicki, Urszula Modrzynska, Tadeusz Janczar, Teresa Izewska, Wienczyslaw Glinski, Zbigniew Cybulski, Ewa Krzyzewska , Waclaw Zastrzezynski, Adam Pawlikowski
Other Stars: Janusz Paluszkiewicz, Ryszard Kotas, Roman Polanski, Zbigniew Cybulski, Tadeusz Gwiazdowski, Stanislaw Mikulski, Emil Karewicz Wladyslaw Sheybal, Teresa Berezowska, Bogumil Kobiela, Jan Ciecierski, Stanislaw Milski, Artur Mlodnicki, Halina Kwiatkowska, Ignacy Machowski, Zbigniew Skowronski, Barbara Krafftowna, Aleksander Sweruk, Adolf Chronicki
Director: Andrzej Wajda

MPAA Rating: Not Rated for (violence, language, adult themes)
Run Time: see below
Release Date: 2005-04-26
Genre: war

Image Transfer
Audio Transfer
A AA-B- A-


DVD Review

The recipient of an honorary Oscar at the 1999 Academy Awards, Polish director Andrzej Wajda (pronounced "Ahn-jay Vai-dah") stands as a long-overlooked cinematic pioneer. One of the first students at the Lodz Film School, Wajda stumbled into film by accident. Strangely enough, a bout of weather pointed him in the direction of cinema, replacing his original aspirations to be a painter, a career he became disillusioned with after the jackboot of communism began to regulate his expression. The creator of the "Polish School," Wajda's work has certainly been underrepresented on DVD. Along comes the power of the Criterion Collection, who continues their stellar work with this boxed set of three films; this is Wajda's "war trilogy," a series of WWII dramas that benefit greatly from their immediacy. Upon the beginning of their production, barely a decade had passed since the shadow of fascism made life unbearable. In the finest artistic tradition, strife is captured through art.

A Generation (Pokolenie) (1955)

"You're a strange one. Comrades say you're brave, yet you're such a child." - Dorota (Urszula Modrzynska)

Stach (Tadeusz Lomnicki) is still a boy. Yes, adolescence has passed and he is respected as an adult, but a veil of naïveté still covers his childish face. Home is a small shanty on the outskirts of town, the squalor of which has been exacerbated by the presence of their Nazi occupiers. Initially, the Germans are seen as a nuisance. A danger, certainly, but concerns of food and work seem to take precedence. After a friend is shot down by a German guard for stealing coal, Stach promises his mother he will find work, and avoid the same fate.

Serving as an apprentice at a local workshop, young Stach is worked into the ground. Later, at school, a fetching young girl proclaims she is recruiting for the communist underground, an offer Stach finds too enticing to refuse. Admittedly, it is the curves of the attractive Dorota that get him in the door, but Stach is ready and willing to fight for his country's freedom. Through a life of work, school, and cloak and dagger, a boy becomes a man, facing tragedy, loss, and a new hope.

Wajda's debut feature, based on the novel by Bohdan Czeszko, is a deeply affecting tale, and a testament to his undeniable skill. This film contains all the hallmarks of Wajda's style, including some impressive composition and lighting, reminiscent of classic noir. These youngsters, whose generation was thrust into a web of war, are heartbreakingly convincing, capturing the vengeful energy of youth, and the human desires in between. Performances from the three heroes, including Urszula Modrzynska, Tadeusz Lomnicki, and Tadeusz Janczar (as reluctant helper Jasio) are achingly honest. (Look for the appearance of a very young Roman Polanski.)

Made with the full support of the communist government, A Generation does occasionally fall into the realm of agitprop; an elder worker proclaims the virtues of communism to the young Stach early on, igniting his spirit against Germans and greedy capitalists alike, but Wajda does not make this a focus (in truth, the communist factions of the resistance were relatively small compared to the forces of the Home Army, and they only fought when Germany attacked the Soviet Union). Wajda pared down the declarations of communist virtues during production; there's just enough "hammer and sickle" left to keep their "betters" content. The director also strives for accuracy, and does not overlook the Holocaust. This is a powerful glimpse into war's tragic toll on the young, and a promising start for a new director.

Kanal (1957)

"Watch them closely, for these are the last hours of their lives." - narrator

From the trademark opening, consisting of a stunning, meticulous six-minute tracking shot, we know death is looming. The camera follows a train of young men and women. This is the Home Army, or the resistance, comprised of civilian volunteers and leftovers from the ravaged Polish military. It is September 1944, and the Warsaw Ghetto uprising has raged for nearly two months. The fighting is growing desperate. Supplies, both animate and inanimate, are growing thin, and the Germans are closing fast.

The survivors are few and far between. A haggard bunch, they crawl along the ruins of a once opulent town, trying to make their clandestine escape. Daisy (Teresa Izewska) is a strong and stunning woman, ready and willing to carry her lover, the wounded, heroic Jacek (Tadeusz Janczar of A Generation), till the end. The company leader (more like a platoon leader at this point) is the paternal Zadra (Wienczysalw Glinski), a man whose uniform still seems pressed, even when soaked in mud and sewage. The only hope of survival lies in the sewers; these suffering shadows of humanity must grope through these labyrinths, seeking safety and avoiding capture.

Wajda's second entry is a harrowing, dark, cutting account of tragedy, based on a short story by Jerzy Stefan Stawinski. The narrator gives us no illusions: these people are about to die. How they go about doing so is the heart of the matter. Wajda employs detailed settings and impressive battle sequences. His camera wanders throughout, utilizing long pans that evoke the scope of the tragedy. Noir-like visuals are the tone of choice again; Carol Reed's The Third Man is evoked more than once, but this is far more disturbing, and certainly devoid of cuckoo-clock speeches.

This ensemble cast is stunning. Their desperation is palpable on screen, accompanied by a wonderful sense of humanity; like the rambunctious, heady youths of A Generation, the small moments of joy are exploited, made all the more precious by their stunning contrast to the darkness of death. For instance, a composer (Wladyslaw Sheybal), certainly an unlikely companion for a group of soldiers, provides music for the broken men and women upon finding a piano; when they enter the sewers, he comments on the tunnel's wonderful acoustics before quotes from Dante consume him. Despite some brief bits of respite, this is one of the most devastating films I have seen, filled with haunting images.

Ashes and Diamonds (Popiol i diament) (1958)

"I can't go on killing and hiding. I just want to live. You've gotta understand." - Maciek Chelmicki (Zbigniew Cybulski)

It is the last day of the war, and the ravaged wastes of Poland are still reeling from the carnage. Still, a sense of euphoria is setting in, naturally following the end of a long and bitter conflict. The remaining factions vie for control and power: the occupying Soviet forces have the upper hand and the undeniable manpower. Elements from the democratically inclined Home Army are facing a new enemy: fascist Germany has left them, but the shadow of Stalin still looms.

Maciek Chelmicki (Zbigniew Cybulski), a proven freedom fighter during the uprising, is assigned to assassinate the new commissar (Waclaw Zastrzezynski). He is accustomed to a life of fight and flight. Though the war has ended, the missions continue, and Maciek is content to carry them out. Upon meeting Krystyna (Ewa Krzyzewska), a beautiful young bar maid, the young Maciek falls in love. Such a feeling is alien to him, but he recognizes its all-consuming power, prompting him to reevaluate his life. He grows tired of the killing, but remains torn between two loyalties. Will love win the day, or will a sense of duty supercede all?

Ashes and Diamonds, one of the undisputed classics of Polish cinema, is certainly the most thematically and politically intricate of Wajda's trilogy. Based on the novel by Jerzy Andrzejewski, the story is drenched in the confusion of the post-war climate. This is a riveting portrayal of humanity in the midst of transition. The film certainly seems to favor the incoming communist forces, depicting their foes as cloak-and-dagger killers and/or drunks. This is not surprising, considering the environment in which the film was produced, but Wajda does not present a one-sided view. In fact, Wajda changed the focus of the book from commissar Szczuka to Maciek (the commissar is also conflicted while dealing with his Home Army son—an added dimension). Each side aims to create a bright future, and both would no doubt be willing to kill for it.

This is the most mature manifestation of Wajda's style, full of rich black-and-white photography that certainly influenced the tones of Spielberg cinematographer Janusz Kaminski (Spielberg himself has taken quite a few pages from the work of Wajda). The director's preferred composition is almost reminiscent of soap opera: both characters face the camera as they interact, one in the foreground and one behind, slightly out of focus. Wajda favors longer takes here. In many ways this is the most still work of the trilogy, drenched in mise en scene.

Zbigniew Cybulski, who looks like a combination of James Dean and a young Al Franken, gives a strong performance as the conflicted Maciek. His love, Ewa Krzyzewska, comes off as mostly eye candy, but she has her moments of strength and individuality. Maciek's cohorts and his communist foes are all convincing in their mission-minded delivery, as are the countless revelers who drink to usher in a new era, or to wash away the pain of years past. This is a complete cultural portrait, paired with the universality of change. Social transitions rarely come to pass without the spilling of blood.

This is a superb trilogy that deserves the attention of film lovers everywhere. Good thing the weather was bad on that fateful day.

Rating for Style: A
Rating for Substance: A


Image Transfer

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 One Two
Aspect Ratio1.33:1 - Full Frame 1.66:1 - Widescreen
Original Aspect Ratioyes yes
Anamorphicno yes

Image Transfer Review: Image quality varies, but is strong throughout. A Generation's 1.33:1 image is quite soft compared to the others, but contains good contrast and detail. Kanal's 1.33:1 transfer is more detailed, but contains more fine grain, taking on a rougher patina. Ashes and Diamonds, presented in anamorphic 1.66:1, is certainly the best looking. The print is very clean and detailed, showcasing the film's marvelous contrast. These transfers are probably as good as they can look, and retain a welcome filmic quality; I'd rather have some grain than excessive digital enhancement.

Image Transfer Grade: A-

Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access

Audio Transfer Review: The Polish monaural audio follows the same pattern as the image: later films have better quality. Kanal's dialogue got noticeably warbly at one point, but these tracks remain pretty comparable. Hiss is minimal, dialogue is relatively clear, and Wajda's affinity for pipe music comes through nicely.

Audio Transfer Grade: B- 

Disc Extras

Full Motion menu with music
Scene Access with 49 cues and remote access
Subtitles/Captions in English with remote access
4 Documentaries
1 Feature/Episode commentary by film scholar Annette Insdorf (on Ashes and Diamonds)
Packaging: Box Set
Picture Disc
3 Discs
1-Sided disc(s)
Layers: RSDL

Extra Extras:
  1. Ceramics from Ilza (Ceramika Ilzecka), Wajda's 1951 film school short
  2. Rare behind-the-scenes production photos, publicity stills, posters, and original artwork by the director (on all three films)
  3. Vintage newsreel footage on the making of Ashes and Diamonds
  4. Insert booklets with essays
  5. Color bars
Extras Review: The films are packaged in their own individual keepcases, housed in a slipcase. The cover art is well chosen, each containing an expressionistic rendering of a memorable image (with A Generation's spiral staircase being the most striking). The menus focus on photographic images. Well done.

A Generation begins with On Becoming a Filmmaker (33m:38s, 16:9), a lengthy, newly recorded interview featuring director Andrzej Wajda. With an animated and engaging delivery, Wajda covers the early days of his career, including his painterly pursuits, film school, the Polish film industry before and after the war, dealing with the communist censors, making A Generation and more. This is a revealing, intriguing interview that doesn't have much b-roll, but chooses to focus on Wajda's words. You will also find Wajda's second student film, Ceramics from Ilza (Ceramika Ilzecka) (09m:47s), a short documentary on Polish ceramic figurines, pots, and more. This is a well shot piece, lensed by cinematographer Jerzy Lipman, who would collaborate with Wajda on A Generation, Kanal, and more. The keepcase includes an insert with photographs and a new essay by film scholar Ewa Mazierska, whose comments provide detailed historical background.

Kanal includes Andrzej Wajda: On Kanal (27m:28s, 16:9), an interview with the director, assistant director Janusz Morgenstern, and film critic Jerzy Plazewski. This is another revealing bout of info, akin to A Generation's piece on Wajda's origins. Topics include the Warsaw Uprising, and various aspects of production, leading up to the film's screening at Cannes, where Wajda garnered international attention. Jan Nowak-Jezioranski: Courier from Warsaw (27m:59s) is a 2004 interview by Wajda of an courier for the Underground Home Army. This is a fascinating firsthand account, providing required historical context that will greatly enhance Kanal. Next is a stills gallery, consisting of 18 production stills, 42 publicity stills and four posters. Finally, an insert with more photographs and an analytic essay by film critic John Simon rounds out the extras.

Ashes and Diamonds contains the only audio commentary in the set (more would have been welcome). Delivered by film scholar Annette Insdorf, this is an informative track that spans cinematic and historial topics. Indeed, Ashes and Diamonds requires some foreknowledge of the story's historical context, and Insdorf delivers. Andrzej Wajda: On Ashes and Diamonds (36m:25s, 16:9) is comparable to the previously described interviews, containing comments from the director, second director Janusz Morgenstern, and film critic Jerzy Plazewski. Topics include the end of WWII, various aspects of production, the film's international success, visuals, influences, and more. Next is a short behind-the-scenes newsreel (01m:21s), released to polish cinemas in 1958 as a quasi-trailer for Wajda's new film. A stills gallery contains 38 production stills (including some storyboards), 32 publicity stills, and five posters. The keepcase contains an insert with a helpful new essay by film scholar Paul Coates.

Extras Grade: A-

Final Comments

Director Andrzej Wajda's war trilogy is an accomplished 1950s account of Poland's sufferings during and after WWII. His universal themes, which range from the desires of youth to the political machinations of change, are brought to life with skilled direction. Recognition of his work is long overdue. In the fine tradition of Criterion boxed sets, this is a well-crafted release that contains lessons of both cinema and history. You'll be hard pressed to find a better release so far this year.

Matt Peterson 2005-04-25