Kanal (1957) tracks the final hours of the Warsaw Uprising, a rebellion by the Poles and their Home Army against the Germans. (The Russian army, parked on the other side of the Vistula River, allowed the Poles to be wiped out without interference.) First we meet the characters in a last stand at a bombed-out field of urban rubble, then follow them in a miserable escape through the dank, gas-filled sewers beneath the city. The desperation of final heroic acts, and Wajda's ingenuity in finding new ways to shoot in the sewer sets, keeps the film balanced in nerve-wracking suspense.
Set on the final day of World War II, Ashes and Diamonds explodes with mixed-up passion and anger, and with the deliberately James Dean-like performance of Polish icon Zbigniew Cybulski. Wadja expands his range here with a visual dynamism that includes a heady use of symbols and striking borrowings from Citizen Kane and film noir. The nervy, dark-spectacled Cybulski plays a Home Army member out to assassinate a Communist official, an assignment bungled in the opening sequence. So the job still needs completing, but the would-be assassin is diverted by a melancholy barmaid and the possibility of turning away from violence... but this is Poland, and wry fatalism prevails. The doomed national feeling is maintained in powerful fashion in these three movies--which are not, technically speaking, a trilogy, though they have always spiritually been of-a-piece.
Criterion assembled this DVD set with Wajda's approval, and he appears in illuminating half-hour interview segments on each disc (along with filmmaker Janusz Morgenstern and critic Jerzy Plazewski). Valuable production stills and posters, Wajda's film-school short "Ceramics from Ilza," and essays are included. Most importantly, the digital transfers themselves are perfectly stunning. --Robert Horton