Wednesday, January 31, 2007

A Never-Ending Cycle of Futility - The Realist Aesthetic of Memory in Jires's "The Joke" (1969)

Alicia Chmielewski

Jaromil Jires, The Joke (1969)

If Jaromil Jires’s 1969 film, The Joke, banned almost immediately after its release, makes us experience anything, it makes us experience a continued frustration that cannot be forgotten or relieved. The frustration stems from Ludvik’s inability to come to terms with his past – and understandably so. As the narrative unfurls, Jires paints a vivid picture of the communist ‘50’s, focusing on public ceremonies and celebrations, particularly in sequences presented as footage from the 1948 installation of the new communist state. He recalls Margaret, presumably his first love, whom he calls “the spirit of the time.” Margaret was a loyal communist, enthusiastic about her chance to attend a special course about politics and dedicated to the state above all else. For her, the political and personal were interchangeable. When Margaret writes Ludvik a letter which says how she is learning about Trotsky and being optimistic, his sarcasm leads him to reply: “Optimism is the opium of mankind. Long live Trotsky!” – an unknowing fatal mistake as Margaret feels it her duty to share his comments with others of the university, eventually causing his expulsion and re-location to a type of army work camp and to the mines for a total of six years.

Ludvik’s tragic tale is so fascinating to us as viewers because of the specific way that it is presented on screen. It is not told in a linear fashion, either from the past to the future or as one flashback from Ludvik’s future position to the past. Instead, the narrative immediately draws us into Ludvik’s psychological state by immediately raising questions in our minds about the way he begins to describe his current situation of returning to a town in which he would avoid any old friend he may run into. He immediately conveys an emotional desire to be distanced from his hometown through such descriptions and the desire to go unnoticed upon his return. This immediately sets up the relationship between location and memory that is further expounded on throughout most of the rest of the film.

Jires is also the only director I have knowledge of that is able to produce such a realist account of the way memory impacts the psychology of a person for the rest of their life. Just as certain images, sounds and locations become triggers for our memories, which often come to us as daydreams, during an ordinary day to day interaction or experience, so too is the case for Ludvik within the narrative of the film. Jires uses classic continuity editing to draw us directly into this experience. In one shot, Ludvik is watching a children’s ceremony similar to a baptism and in the reverse shot that follows, he is transported back to a university assembly during which he is voted to be expelled for his anti-communist ideals on optimism and Trotsky. This sequence seems to ironically compare present-day Czechoslovakia to the Czechoslovakia of Ludvik’s past; the same geographical state nationalistically welcomes children who will grow to presumably (from comments later made throughout the film about the younger generations) be more concerned with themselves than with their government that exiled Ludvik to the “Enemies of the Republic” special military battalion twenty years before. It is a type of dark nostalgic remembering that Ludvik experiences during similar sequences throughout the film that blur the line between realistic, in-the-moment experiences and the remembrance of the past.

The inability to control his memory and his desire to seek revenge on those who have placed him in such a psychological condition are what leave Ludvik in a constant state of frustration. Every time he attempts to get some release from it, such as when he plans to seek revenge on Pavel by sleeping with his wife Helena, his plans backfire and he is trapped within a new, equally frustrating situation. For example, after sleeping with Helena, the woman he becomes obsessed with because he hates her so much it is almost like being in love, he finds out that she and Pavel have been separated for three years. Moreover, Pavel has a younger mistress of his own, making this no revenge at all. And, to make the situation even more over-the-top in terms of adding insult to injury, Ludvik is now trapped in a relationship with Helena, who desperately clings to him, begging him not to let her go.

The only outlet Ludvik has to gain any satisfaction is ultimately unfulfilling. Helena’s younger admirer seeks him out for a fight and Ludvik is successful in defeating him (a possible commentary on his older-generation superiority), yet he gains no satisfaction but is further frustrated because he was not able to beat up who he really wanted to seek revenge on. Had Ludvik been satisfied, the situation may have commented further on the generational gap and been a way for Ludvik to take his frustrations out on the young who do not carry his haunting burden of the Czechoslovakia of the past. The fact that the young people are only concerned with themselves does not seem to be too problematic within the film, however. Even in his intense frustration, there is a sense of nostalgia around the events of Ludvik’s somewhat tortured, yet not wholly tragically represented past.

Perhaps this is because struggle is something that has to be remembered and passed on to the next generations, even if only through the young realizing that such a generational gap exists. Struggle defines individuals and nations and frustration, even when unfulfilled, at least provides a meaningful interaction with the past. In this case, a past that could not be presented in such a monumental and powerfully frustrating way in post- August 1968 Czechoslovakia.

Monday, January 29, 2007

A Conflicted Feminism: Thoughts on Chytilova's "Daisies" (1967)

Alicia Chmielewski

Vera Chytilova’s Daisies (1967)

In Owen Heatherly’s discussion of Vera Chytilova’s highly formalist, ideologically complex Daisies (1967), he points out that the film, “… could be interpreted easily enough as Stalinist, consumerist, sexist, feminist or Anarchist, depending on one’s prejudice” and calls our attention to the fact that, “the director herself described it as being about ‘destruction or the desire to destroy’.” After a first viewing of Daisies, I find myself questioning Chytilova’s personal vision of the film and whether part of that vision is to present an audience with conflict and let them take it as they may, or else let them realize that there are multiple layers at work in understanding the social and political climate during the period of its production. Perhaps the point is that there is no one reading of the situations presented within the film. I considered the film especially fascinating, however, in terms of the feminist aesthetic it presents.

Daisies is a slippery film; just when the viewer feels as if they have begun to pin down what all of the sights, sounds, editing techniques and presentation of props metaphorically “mean,” the sequences that follow force them to reconsider, to dig a little deeper, to think a little bit more critically about what it all means. As the film progresses, a feeling of sensory overload sets in, revulsion to the constant consumption of food begins to be felt – the two young women (Marie 1 and Marie 2) become monstrous in their childlike destruction of everything they touch. Yet, even as we may become repulsed by their antics of using their not-so-innocent sexuality to take advantage of older men, and their final destructive act of trashing an elaborate banquet possibly reserved for government officials, we must acknowledge that they are given a sort of control over their lives through these acts of destruction. One particular visual scene that comes to mind in thinking about this point is that in which Marie 1 and Marie 2 sit in bikinis in front of a wooden board of some type, a tiny man visible above their heads, lying on the top of the board. The placement of the man above them in miniature form may represent the upset of gender roles that the women bring about as they exploit men of power.

However, we must be careful not to settle too quickly on this idea that the entire film is only about the women gaining power and agency in their society by destroying that which the patriarchal powerful individuals possess and work to create within it. I say this because there is also a tone of condemnation of the women present, and perhaps even worse, the idea that as women they cannot help but be subversive, possibly even evil by nature. Near the beginning of the film, a Biblical allusion is used to present the Maries’ present condition as the result of the knowledge of the sexual and destructive power they have the potential to tap into as women, whether or not they consciously know of their full potential to do so. They are like wooden dolls at the beginning of the film – mechanical, childlike and without full understanding of their need to destroy. They dance around an apple tree and pick the apples, which may be a Biblical comparison of them to Eve as they eat from the tree of knowledge, thereby beginning to realize what destruction, immorality and sexual power are. Though they are able to spoil themselves and gain control through their overindulgent attitudes, we become repulsed by their extreme need to constantly consume.

What we love about them becomes part of what we feel characterizes them as monstrosities. Perhaps by being repulsed we are even admitting that we are not fully comfortable with their radical departure from the feminine forms we are most comfortable with. And, the Maries begin to see how they are being isolated from this norm, taken as specific parts that can no longer fit into a coherent whole as they cut each other apart with scissors. The irony is that they are at the same time gaining the power they possess over men specifically through realizing how women are objectified and isolated as specific parts, expected to exhibit specific behaviors. As we discussed a bit in class, if women were expected to be infantile and not in control of themselves (as Eve, who could not resist eating from the tree of knowledge which unleashed evil and destruction into the world), then the Maries play out this traditional feminine role to the extreme.

To add even further complexity, the women’s rebellion against male power, what we delight in to some extent, appears to ultimately be condemned during the final scene of the film in which the women’s destruction reaches its peak, they suddenly buy into the communist equality ideology that hard work brings about freedom for all, a realization that seems to untie all of the knots Chytilova has created throughout the entire film up to this point, and they are destroyed because their destructiveness of “female empowerment” cannot be righted and only adds to the chaos of their world which is on the verge of destruction itself. If the women are heroes, they are tragic heroines that cannot escape their gendered roles even in rebellion of their system. The clean-up scene seems most critical of communist propaganda, which does not win our sympathy because as the Maries attempt to be happy by “working hard” they become entranced and sacrificed completely, losing their lives and their agency to do bad along with the chaotic world. They attempt to go along with political and to clean up their messy world, yet the chaos cannot be reversed, and most depressingly, Chytilova seems to acknowledge that women do not possess enough power, even in their indignation, to bring about a revolution that will free them and make them happy, at least not within the context of 1960’s Czechoslovakia. The final words we see on screen as we view more scenes of war-like destruction are: “This film dedicated to those whose sole source of indignation is a messed-up trifle.”

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Desperation, Curiosity, Liberalization and Love

Alicia Chmielewski

Milos Forman, Loves of a Blonde (1966)

What happens when you hope day after day for something, yet it constantly eludes you? Do you become disillusioned and hopeless or do you mature into accepting your situation and giving into fantasy in portraying it to others? Is one or the other really better or worse? These questions are at the core of Milos Forman’s Loves of a Blonde (1966) as young Andula recounts various romances and possibilities of lasting love from her bed yet is isolated from such happenings in her daily life as a factory worker.

Gender roles and the portrayal and expectations of women are particularly interesting because there are no absolutes in their representation. Young women are neither totally submissive and naïve nor are they socially or sexually liberated enough to express and assert themselves over men (though ironically they far outnumber them). Andula is represented as being innocent, fearful and naïve when it comes to understanding the nature of mature romantic and sexual relationships in several instances, yet daring and politically incorrect in others. There is something in her eyes that conveys curiosity, intrigue and an excitement to be young and full of possibility yet also a sadness and devastation in those same eyes – an understanding of what prospects life currently offers. She at once is worldly and experienced as she recounts a suicide attempt and a so-called engagement and at the same time a frightened girl as she attempts to resist giving in to her sexuality with Milda. She jumps into love, breaking traditional mores by visiting Milda at home when her fellow girlfriends are vowing to maintain their honor, yet viewed favorably, particularly by Milda’s mother, as a result of her daring spirit. I think both personas of Andula are essential to understanding her character and what Forman may be trying to say by presenting his main female protagonist in such a conflicted way.

If there is any political agenda at work here, it may be to depict government regulated desperation or to capture some fragment of the changing world being experienced as filmmakers were given more freedom after the relative liberalization of the region. Both agendas are present throughout the episodic experiences of Andula. The government run factories force many women into a routine work experience that is mentally draining during the workday. In addition, there is work done to provide some men to balance out the woman dominated society due to the war by bringing in male reservists, but to the women’s dismay their government has failed them again through this decision as well – the men are much older and often married. At the same time as women are given such limited options and taught to view their sexuality as something that honorable women are not in touch with, however, we identify most with the one female character at the very edge of her environment. Andula wants to experience a broader world. This becomes clear when she runs away to visit Milda. Yet, the only satisfaction we get as viewers that Andula is in reality working to free herself from such stiff regulation lies in her ability to construct fantasy from hopelessness and rejection.

The final bedside conversation Andula has with her girlfriend constructs Milda’s family as wonderful and accepting. If we had not seen the previous shot of her weeping outside the bedroom door listening in on Milda’s mother destroying her dignity and assuming that she is attempting to trap Milda into marriage, we may have believed she was absolutely telling the truth as she saw it, rather than in the innocent and romantic space she provides for her memory of the visit. She has been rejected but does not want to accept it. To compare this to politics, it is as if she has discovered that the system is ridiculous but continues to put faith in it because she feels nothing would remain without it.

While Loves of a Blonde has little to do with love upon a close analysis of the film, it is not hard to surmise why it was such a successful film. It is packed with the subtle humor of the human condition, the tensions between generations and ideologies and the idea of love, which is often more powerful than love itself out of the fact that it may never be exactly attained.

Sunday, January 21, 2007

Unlikely Heroes and Monumental Triumphs in Menzel's Closely Watched Trains

" is a laugh of triumph, of unlikely victory. It’s a reminder that any kind of animal, especially the human animal, can be dangerous when tormented or wronged or simply not taken seriously enough. Most important, this concluding sequence turns the entire movie into a metaphor for Czechoslovakia itself." - Richard Schickel's reaction to Hubicka's last laugh in Jiri Menzel's Closely Watched Trains (1966)

Alicia Chmielewski


Jiri Menzel, Closely Watched Trains (1966)

Perhaps the last thing any of us expected of Jiri Menzel’s Closely Watched Trains was an obsession with and running joke about premature ejaculation. Yet, the framework provided by young Milos’s quest to lose his virginity and the frustration that pushes him to the limits of attempting suicide is, in part, what distinguishes Menzel’s film from those of Wajda, or Munk, directors who presented the war and relationships of establishing power in ways that either closely emulated the feel of the Italian Neo-realists or focused on the absurdity of nationalism but did not depart far from the political and the establishment of exceptional characters to take a more relaxed look into the lives of ordinary people. While Polanski was more focused on personal relationships and the psychology of the individual in Knife in the Water, and thus presented a more revolutionary film in terms of departing from politics and unconventionally limiting characters and space to evoke a strong feeling of isolation and crisis, Menzel is yet even more relaxed in his presentation and free flowing narrative.

The emergence of distinct film styles can be attributed to the history of each particular Eastern European country. Just as Polish films of the fifties and sixties focused to a great degree on the absurdity of war, questions of national identity and problems of communism, the films of the Czech New Wave in the sixties sprung from a history of alternating periods of political restriction and independence. After the denunciation of Stalin in 1956, Czechoslovakia, like many other Eastern European countries, embraced greater liberalization that would eventually lead to an end to censorship and a cultural and political restoration to freedom in 1968, however short-lived it would turn out to be.

Closely Watched Trains
satirizes the bureaucracy of the Reich and charms its audience as Menzel carefully crafts a “local color” feel through the use of specific locations (provincial) and Milos’s story – which tells of his ordinary provincial ancestors taking a stand against those who subjugated them, in attempts to restore freedom to the common people. Milos himself ironically becomes such a figure, forced by absurd and ridiculous circumstances to become the hero his town was waiting for. After all, we must not forget his mother’s first words to him, as he begins to work at the train station, watching the trains that carry ammunition to the Germans. She tells him to make sure nothing happens to the trains, lest their family should once again be envied by the entire town as they were, for example, when his grandfather stood against the tanks heroically during the German invasion, hoping to hypnotize them into stopping. The fact that Milos is the one to drop the bomb on the train as it passes through their station – by chance and only because the other station had been closed – is in itself fateful. Hubicka was likely the first choice culprit but was unable to carry out the plan because he was being questioned in a certain stamping incident in which the only wrong the German official can eventually pin him on is that he has violated the official language of the Reich by using their stamp to such comic ends.

While the ending is tragic to us as we see billowing black smoke filling our view and glimpse Milos’s girlfriend looking in dismay toward the scene of the explosion, Hubicka’s laugh is heard and a certain sort of victory felt for the Czechoslovakian people who had made some small success toward establishing their right to fight back against oppression. Milos dies a hero and a man at last, achieving the loss of his virginity that he has been chasing after and the love of his girlfriend and fellow countrymen that will surely come to envy his family once again.

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Pride, Sacrifice and Ambiguous Victories in Knife in the Water (1962)

Alicia Chmielewski

Roman Polanski, Knife in the Water (1962)

Released just five years after Andrzej Wajda’s Ashes and Diamonds (1957), Polanski’s Knife in the Water (1962) wades through psychological rather than political territory – quite a departure from the focus of his contemporaries. Polanski’s three sailboat passengers speak through silences and weigh their worth against one another as if to pose the question to us of whether it is more favorable to be well off in society but cut off emotionally and restricted from enjoying the natural leisurely joys, or a lowly student hitchhiker who is able to tune into nature without the use of scientific tools and to see possibilities in the moment rather than the distant future. This premise immediately invites viewers to question what is behind the close-ups, isolated locale and tense moments that dominate Polanski's unconventional film. If Polanski is simply working within the censorship codes to comment abstractly on the problem of class division under communist rule, then Krystyna’s statement to the young hitchhiker that he is just like Andrzej does not quite fit. Polanski is getting at more than the politically problematic difference between class.

If we couple class with age and gender, however, we may begin to see a different sort of message or interpretation emerging. There are no clear cut answers here and all of our musings for meaning are further disturbed by the ending, which, as we have discussed in class, does not seem to satisfy our desire for some definite outcome or sense made of the constant, building tension throughout.

The film begins in silence. We see trees reflected in the windshield of a car; faces peeking out, obscured by shadows. As the sequence continues we notice that it is a man and a woman, we assume they are a couple yet the only sign of such a relationship comes when they switch drivers and the man leans over to kiss the woman’s neck. Soon, there is some sound, but it comes from the radio rather than either of the two sitting rigidly beside one another. Soon, this completely tense and monotonous scene is transformed as a hitchhiker appears in the road. The man insists that he will move and does not begin to brake until the last possible moment, but by eventually doing so, he has become complicit in his role promoting existential crisis and his eventual psychological undoing. From this point on, the competition between the older man driving and the younger hitchhiker at his mercy continues to escalate until the climax of the film during which the politics of power relationships and gender are turned upside down. An yet, at the film’s close, we wonder, who has really gotten the upper hand? Was it the wife, Krystyna, prize and punishment to both men who compete for, yet never find a lasting bond with her? The young hitchhiker who jumps back into his wandering life after a slight diversion? Or was it the husband, Andrzej, who ironically emulates the character of his story, burned by hot coals because he became too overconfident?

Much relies on a decision yet to come as we depart from the characters. Andrzej must decide whether he will go to the police and confess to having a part in the young hitchhiker’s death or if he will simply go home. Krystyna assures him that the young man is still alive and that she has even had an affair with him, yet Andrzej’s reaction is one of disbelief as he chooses to believe that she has constructed this lie in order to save him from turning himself in. In this way, Krystyna is able to escape responsibility for her affair while remaining honest with her husband. One has to question whether Andrzej is constructing his own version of events to shield himself from the possibility that Krystyna is in fact telling the truth. If this is the case, however, his masculine pride is the source of his psychological undoing because he must believe his version of events – that he was physically superior to the younger man, who could not swim to save his own life after he falls into the water, desperately attempting to retrieve the knife, an action symbolic of his quest to attain superior masculinity, which is never quite fulfilled no matter how many times he chases after it. So, if Andrzej is superior, than he is also a murderer.

One of the most fascinating plot elements within Knife in the Water is that Andrzej directly plays a part in every event that leads up to his final psychological turmoil. He invites the young man aboard to prove to his wife that he is inferior; he makes it easy for Krystyna and the young man to share their talents in a romantic sort of way as they share songs and poetry while he withdraws, listening to the radio during the storm that forces them below deck; he envies the younger man and steals his knife, taking the only possession of value to him and carelessly letting it fall into the water; after the hitchhiker is presumed dead, he calls his wife a whore and jumps ship, swimming to shore and leaving the perfect opportunity for his wife to have the affair; and he would rather cut his feet on the glass, metaphorically as per his story, admitting his guilt for the young man’s disappearance, than to admit that he may have lost the competition after all. In many ways, the young man may have come to show the older man the way to living life with more of an authentic confidence in one’s own masculinity, but it was up to Andrzej to learn from the experience. The verdict on that is still out. And herein lies a possible interpretation of Christ like symbolism with respect to the young man: Christ came to lead the way and return man to his natural state, yet his own people ultimately reject him and sacrifice him to their own jealousies, prides and disbelief. Similarly, the young man is able to win the sexuality of Andrzej’s wife, proving that he was the sexually superior man. He has come to show the way by demonstrating his knowledge of the nature of things over technology and the creative instinct needed to maintain Krystyna’s attention. Yet Andrzej internally sacrifices him, favoring the thought of him dead rather than believing in his value, and then returns to his daily routine of silence and cold coexistence with Krystyna, showing no sign one way or the other that he has learned anything.

Sunday, January 14, 2007

Disillusionment+Nationalism= Bad Luck

Alicia Chmielewski

Andrzej Munk, Bad Luck (1959)

Bogumil Kobiela stars as a sort of ill-fated yet directly responsible comic character in Andrzej Munk’s Bad Luck, as he plays the role of Piszczyk, a naïve, incompetent and whole heartedly sincere man who finds himself collaborating with whatever political group interests him from moment to moment. In some cases, he does so as a way of saving himself from mobs who always seem to persecute him, in others,because it seems to offer him a potential window into attaining a love life, such as when he becomes involved in the resistance against the communist government in order to capture the attention and attain the love of Basia. He is a comic character, always desperately attempting to gain the favor of every person of superior standing in his life, yet “fated” to fail in his quest for social acceptance, in part because of his unrealistic, suspicious “over enthusiasm” and Polish nationalism.
It is difficult to explain the self-deprecating humor many Poles possess. It is clear that Munk is indeed drawing off of it in the way he is able to highlight the absurdity of the need to belong to a particular political group, when, in reality, the reasons and understandings of the politics behind the choices Poles had to make in terms of which political agenda to adopt were not clear-cut, as Wajda’s Ashes and Diamonds (1957) has already made us consider. It is as if attempts to become a part of either opposing vision of Poland are futile, given its historical losses of identity and national power/unity. There may have been a little bit of Piszczyk in every Pole during the historical time period of approximately 1930-1950 that the film deals with; the desire to wholeheartedly establish and believe in one unifying national identity, but the lack of knowledge in how to go about fulfilling that desire. On this note, a further comparison between both Wajda’s Ashes and Diamonds and Munk’s Bad Luck can be made. Both films feature the aesthetic of the lost or blinded Polish citizen striving to create a diamond out of ashes, constantly questioning whether the side and means he has chosen to do so is ethical, just, and most effective, or, as was more the case in Bad Luck, unable to fully comprehend the politics of this time of confusion and constant danger under German and Soviet rule.
One concept that I found to be particularly intriguing, and I believe more important to the overall understanding of the ideology of the film as a whole than it may be given credit for, is that of the escape through imprisonment. Piszczyk presents the case, by telling us the story of his life of “bad luck”, that the only place he has been able to escape misfortune has been prison. Only by cutting himself off from his broader society can he find peace. It is almost as if Piszczyk is resisting both the hypocrisy of insincere enthusiasm and the reality that there is reason to be insincere in regard to evaluating the new Poland of this time. First, Piszczyk unknowingly isolates himself by living his life in such as way that he cannot help but encounter “bad luck.” After he lives out this type of personal isolation, arising from his inability to grasp any notion of the politics behind his actions, he encounters the isolation of prison, where he can perhaps focus solely on an internal, personal life. Within this situation, there is no need to contribute to any politics outside the prison walls. Avoidance in itself becomes a type of lifestyle choice- a way of coping with confusion and disillusionment.
The fact that Bad Luck turns tragic situations to comedy highlights a certain need to distance oneself from actual historical events. By being able to showcase ridiculousness and exaggerate, to wildly comic ends, subjects that may have been seen as politically incorrect under the communist government, the devastation of the actual events is lessened and a national identity of some sort can begin to be established. Comedy allows a sort of isolation from realism and is freeing to the society in a way similar to how prison is freeing to Piszczyk. There are still no diamonds to be found, but there is an attempt to come to terms with the past by placing its events within a framework of utter ridiculousness. In doing so, the present is also commented on because viewing past events in such a comic light allows contemporary audiences to understand the effects of extreme nationalism coupled with a history of displacement. Piszczyk is a product of a specific history and environment just as much as he speaks to a deeply humanist instinct in all of us with his desire to belong to the best nation in the world – his Poland, which unfortunately cannot be simplified to suit his enthusiasm any more than it can be promised undoubted prosperity.

Andrzej Wajda's Ashes and Diamonds (1957)

Alicia Chmielewski

Andrzej Wajda, Ashes and Diamonds

As I read the Paul Coates review of Andrzej Wajda’s Ashes and Diamonds I was struck by one statement in particular which helped to clarify the film a bit for me, but more importantly, which got me to think about just how ambiguous a film it really was and continues to be. Coates writes, “…tragedy is precipitated not by any flaw within a character but by the collision of two figures, each of whom advocates a one-sided good. Tragedy becomes a matter of situation, not character” (3). This situational view of tragedy applies to both Maciek and Szczuka as each man represents a one-sided political vision for Poland; Maciek dedicated to the Home Army and Szczuka to the communist faction. It is never made clear whether Wajda, or many of the film’s characters themselves for that matter, really desire to side strongly with either side. Yet, this observation does not allow us to conclude that the best solution is to take both sides equally either. The only character to play both sides without commitment comes to ruin as well, though not through death as Maciek and Szczuka do. Perhaps one reason why the film was able to make it through the censorship of its time was because it offered such a mixed message; a message that in itself held the truth about Poland during this era of the thaw – that Poland became a nation of blindness, confusion and loss of national identity during World War II, as the Nazis threatened to strip many Poles of their identity and to wipe out entire groups of people.
The religious disrespect and corruption that is highlighted throughout the film with images of the upside down crucified Christ and the sacrilegious act Maciek performs in attempting to fix Krystyna’s shoe while the bodies of the two men he has wrongfully killed lie on the alter in front of him, symbolize the loss of national identity throughout Poland after the war. Poland is a deeply Catholic country and the strong sense of religious disrespect illustrates that something is threatening it within the core of its people’s being. Both the communist faction and the Home Army bring about the religious corruption, however, as is clearly displayed in the ethical dilemma of Maciek over his wrongfully committed murders, the bodies from which linger on the altar. If the Church symbolizes the broader society, than Maciek’s anguish at seeing these two bodies symbolizes the reality that innocent people are dying as the Home Army stages war on communist Poles; that the Home Army is no more heroic than the communist faction once this reality is fully realized. Both sides may be hoping that diamonds will come one day from the ashes of the current political situation, the diamonds being extra-political life experiences, such as love and relationships.
Maciek calls Krystyna a diamond because she is his love and is the reason he comes to consider abandoning the blindness he is living under, killing fellow Poles every day. However, after considering opposing scenes offering sympathy for both sides, I understand why Coates’s final statement about the film was: “There are only ashes, no diamonds” (3). Even Krystyna is pulled into the final disillusioned Polonaise at the film’s close, thus being transformed to the same collective ash of the entire nation. The dance typically opens stately balls of high Polish society, yet during this scene there is no true joy, only the need to follow the communist faction without question. It corresponds well with the rest of the film in that no matter what side of the conflict one follows, the outcome is the same – there is no ethical resolution and no truly unifying freedom in either the choice.