In 1999, Polish director Andrzej Wajda received an Honorary Academy Award(r) for his body of work-more than thirty-five feature films, beginning with A Generation
in 1955. Wajda's second film, Kanal
, the first ever made about the Warsaw uprising, secured him the Special Jury Prize at Cannes and started him on the path to international acclaim, secured with the releases of his masterpiece, Ashes and Diamonds
in 1958. These three groundbreaking films ushered in the "Polish School" movement and later became known as the "War Trilogy." But each boldly stands on its own-a testament to the resilience of the human spirit, the struggle for personal and national freedom, and Wajda's unique contribution to homeland and world cinema. The Criterion Collection is proud to present this director-approved edition, with new transfer of all three films and extensive interviews with the director and his colleagues.
Andrzej Wajda's first three features form a landmark in Polish cinema, and a monument of that great decade of European movies, the 1950s. Working mostly during a thaw in Soviet control over his homeland, Wajda and his collaborators created three films that looked back at the Second World War from the perspective of a new generation whose youth was defined by the catastrophe of Nazi occupation and Soviet control. The first film is titled A Generation
(1955), as though to sum up the collective feeling. It's set in Warsaw in 1943, as young workers join the anti-Nazi resistance movement (including an attempt to help Jews escape from the ghetto). Shot in real locations, but with an expressionistic eye, A Generation
is especially drawn to the ambiguous supporting character played by Tadeusz Janczar, a much more conflicted and modern character than the nominal hero. (Roman Polanski plays one of the fighters.)
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