A little over a decade ago my wife and I lived in Shanghai, China. At the time, and probably still today, Shanghai had a huge underground DVD market. Movies and TV shows, old and new, were copied onto DVDs and sold very cheaply. They were sold everywhere. There were legitimate-looking shops, not unlike the video rental stores we used to have in the United States. They were sold in grocery stores, in the back of markets, you name it. When the sun went down, guys would roll out big tables on bicycles filled with every type of movie you could imagine. If you knew how to ask, they’d pull out a box of porno from underneath. This bootlegging was so rampant you couldn’t tell who was selling legitimate copies and who wasn’t.
We got to where we treated it like going to Blockbuster. On Friday night, we’d hit up one of those bike sellers and grab a handful of DVDs for the weekend. My favorite places were the ones set up like a legitimate movie store. Their movies were lined up on shelves and came in actual boxes (unlike the flimsy plastic sleeves everyone else sold them in.). They had the best selections. They had classic movies, art-house movies, and lots of non-English language movies (all of these places carried Chinese films but they always had a huge selection of American films and television shows). We’d go there sometimes and load up on as many DVDs as our hands could carry.
Pretty quickly, I learned that the non-English language films were difficult to watch. The copies were ok, but the subtitles were a mess. My guess is that someone would translate the original language into Chinese and then someone else would translate the Chinese into English. The results were about as good as you’d get taking a Dostoevsky novel and using Babel Fish to do the same.
I watched a lot of movies that year we spent in China, many of which were films I might not have otherwise seen. They were so cheap it was nothing to grab a copy and hope for the best. Most of the foreign films I picked up went unwatched due to those translation issues, but many of them still lodged a place in my mind.
Ashes and Diamonds was one such film. I had never heard of it before that day I picked it up in some Chinese DVD store. The cover art with its image of Christ hanging upside down with what looked liked spikes coming out of his head immediately spoke to me. I don’t remember now what the back of the box said (and honestly, those Chinese bootlegs often took the oddest bits of copy – sometimes they even copy/pasted bad reviews of the film – and pasted it on the back of those boxes) but it made me purchase it immediately. I don’t think I ever even put the DVD in to play. But there it sat in that great big stack of other films I’d purchased over that year whispering to me. I’ve kept that image and the thought of watching that movie with me all these years later. It has always been a film I knew I needed to see. But like so many other films that seem so important, so necessary to watch, I kept putting it off. I have a bad habit of thinking that important films will be difficult to watch. Most of the time when I actually watch them, I find them to be wholly rewarding and interesting.
But now the Criterion Collection has just been released it on Blu-ray and I finally sat down and watched it. I’m so glad I did. I’m glad, too, that I didn’t watch it on that junky bootleg copy in China. The language in this film is important, and the bad translation may have tarnished the film for me somewhat.
But only somewhat. The visual language of this film transcends all spoken words. The black and white photography by Jerzy Wójcik is stark, filled with fog and shadows, smoke, and filtering light. It is astonishingly beautiful. I think I could watch the film with no English translation at all and be completely entranced. There is a scene early in the film in which two men have just gunned down a couple of others in a car. One man gets out of the car and runs to a church before he falls. The dying man takes the foreground full of anguish and blood. Behind him is a statue of Jesus looking serene. Between them walks the killer, appearing as if out of nowhere ready to fire his weapon again. It is a startling image in a film full of them.
But those words do matter. This is a film about something. The dialogue has meaning. I’ll be pondering it for days to come.
It takes place just as World War II is ending. A loudspeaker announces that Germany has signed its unconditional surrender. The people are excited, celebratory, but there is a darkness there too. Warsaw sits in ruins. The Communists are taking over. How will they rebuild their beautiful country? How will this new regime treat its people?
Already there is rebellion. That murder by the church, it was perpetuated by Maciek Chełmick (Zbigniew Cybulski) and Andrzej (Adam Pawlikowski), members of the Polish underground. They were have supposed to have killed Konrad Szczuka (Wacław Zastrzeżyński), the city mayor, but instead, they killed two innocent workers.
Maciek volunteers to stay in the city another day to correct this mistake. While he waits for the perfect opportunity to assassinate, he meets Krystyna (Ewa Krzyżewska), a beautiful barmaid. He flirts with her relentlessly and asks her to meet him at his hotel room later that night. He doesn’t think she’ll show, but while he’s cleaning his gun, preparing for the assassination, she shows up. Conversation and passion ensue. They fall in love. Suddenly, risking his life for a cause he’s not sure he even believes in seems foolish to Maciek. He wants to live and love, not fight.
Throughout all of this, director Andrzej Wajda (who also co-wrote the screenplay along with Jerzy Andrzejewski) weaves in his themes about honor and duty, war and peace. A third partner in the shooting by the church, Drewnowski (Bogumił Kobiela), is secretary to Szczuka. After talking to an old journalist, he’s convinced he’ll be moving up in the party as Szczuka has just announced he’s been promoted to Secretary in the Polish Worker’s Party. Is he excited for the promotion on its own merits, or that he’ll now be more beneficial to the rebellion? Andrzej asks his superior whether the assassination is really necessary and is told it is not his task to ask such things.
I cannot pretend to know the first thing about Polish history. I’m sure there are intricacies that I missed. But Ashes and Diamonds presents a country in crisis. The Nazis are gone but what has replaced it may be worse. But what is your duty as compared to love? How long must one fight before you can really live? These are universal questions and this film is masterful in asking them.
The Criterion Collection presents Ashes and Diamonds on Blu-ray with a new 4K digital restoration and uncompressed monaural soundtrack. Extras include an archival audio commentary from film scholar Annette Insdorf and a new video essay from the same that digs wider into the works of Andrzej Wajda and how Ashes and Diamonds fits into them. There’s also a TV feature on the film from 2005, archival newsreel footage on the making of the film, behind-the-scenes photos, and a new essay from film scholar Paul Coates.
A decade ago when I was wandering the aisles of that bootleg DVD shop in Shanghai I had no idea what I was picking up when I bought Ashes and Diamonds. Though it took me this long to actually watch the film, I’m forever grateful it caught my eye back then. This is an absolute must-see for any film fan.