Category Archives: Ashes and Diamonds

During the German occupation noble, bourgeois and worker’s partisan groups lived in peace with another. On the first day of freedom they start to fight each other. In these fights is weaved a most tender love story.

Ashes and Diamonds: Will There Remain among the Ashes a Star-Like Diamond

My task as director is not just to provide a nice evening’s entertainment. The most important thing is to make people think.
— Academy Award Tribute to Andrej Wajda.

The Horrors of Nazism and Tragedies of Communism

Our movie this month, Ashes and Diamonds, brings the horrors of Nazism and tragedies of Communism to the screen. The story takes place over a twelve-hour period in Poland at the end of World War II. It is about a young Polish soldier who is ordered to assassinate a high-ranking Communist figure. Drama, irony, romance, and unexpected twists give the viewer a thought-provoking experience.

The main character, Maciek Chelmicki, played by Zbigniew Cybulski, is a young soldier in the right-wing Nationalist Army who, at the close of the war, is ordered to assassinate the newly arrived Communist district secretary. Maciek is a slightly dandified Polish Hamlet (Shakespeare?) who has fought in the uprising but is now uncertain about continuing to espouse an inevitably lost cause against the left. He bungles the murder, killing two bystanders.

Maciek is Hopelessly Conflicted

Maciek Chelmicki and his new love interest
Maciek Chelmicki and his new love interest, Ashes and Diamonds

Told to try again, he remains hopelessly conflicted between the demands of conscience and of loyalty and is further upended by falling for a girl in the hotel at which he and the communist official are staying. She makes him feel that his lifestyle is meaningless in the new post-war climate.

Though he manages to accomplish his mission on the very evening that fireworks announce the end of hostilities, he is accidentally shot when running from a military patrol. He dies alone on a rubbish dump.

Cybulski manages, through Wajda, to express a uniquely Polish sensibility—reflecting his nation’s troubled history—as well as the kind of youthful frustrations that are still recognizable today. But Wajda’s deeply romantic and personal vision makes Ashes and Diamonds a gripping experience too.

ashes and diamonds, rubbish heap
Symbolism in Ashes and Diamonds

The title of both the movie and the novel by Jerzy Andrzejewski, who also wrote the screenplay, is taken from romantic poetry written by C. K. Norwid, 19th-century Polish poet: “Will there remain among the ashes a star-like diamond, the dawn of eternal victory?”

Wajda doesn’t try to answer this question, and it is the film’s ambiguities that continue to render it fascinating.

From an interview with Wajda, a comment about the star of our movie, Zbigniew Cybulski (Yakir, 1984):

The two actors I associate most closely with your work are Zbigniew Cybulski and Daniel Olbrychski. Let’s talk about them.

Cybulski, more than any other actor, represented his generation. He created himself in such a precise manner that you couldn’t distinguish between his film work and his real self. He wore his own skin all the time. It was impossible to have him wear a different costume and make him play somebody else. But these were external characteristics. Inside, what was beautiful was his sense of responsibility to the public, which I never saw anywhere else. I worked with him twice in the theater—we did ‘A Hatful of Rain’ and ‘Two for the Seesaw’, and I must say, he was born for this material. In one performance of ‘A Hatful of Rain’ in Cracow, in a theater where he once had walk-on parts, he went on the stage and started acting. Then he suddenly stopped and said, ‘Excuse me, I made a mistake.’ And he began the play once again. No other actor would dare do such a thing, but he felt he had a right to it. He had a fantastic imagination.

You know, he was practically blind, so his eyes were expressionless. This is why a close-up of his face would reveal very little. He attempted to compensate for this by movement, by using his silhouette. In Ashes and Diamonds, there are scenes where his legs are the most important thing in the frame—as seen in his silhouette. Directors who didn’t understand all that would not be able to convey what was special about him in their film, even though his work for them was just as good.

Later in the same article . . .

I think that Ashes and Diamonds was influenced mostly by the American noir films such as Scarface and The Asphalt Jungle. They were beautiful films. I think that Man of Marble also bears the influence of American cinema.

We are in for a fascinating evening in the movie room! See you there.


Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (Producer). (2000). Jane Fonda presents an honorary Oscar® to Andrzej Wajda. Retrieved from

Brooke, M. (2008, May 6). Andrzej Wajda—An Introduction. Retrieved from

Martin Scorsese presents masterpieces of Polish cinema. (2015). Kinoteka Polish Film Festival. Retrieved from

Merleau-Ponty, M. (1964). Sense and Nonsense (H. L. Dreyfus & P. A. Dreyfus, Trans.). : Northwestern University.

Oleszczyk, M. (2012, Oct 13). Ashes are for Ever. Retrieved from

Yakir, D. (1984). Interview: Andrzej Wajda. Film Comment (Nov/Dec). Retrieved from

Ashes and Diamonds: Andrzej Wajda on Directing

Ashes and Diamonds is the third among a trilogy of war films that spurred Steven Spielberg to write a passionate letter to the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences recommending its Polish Director Andrzej Wajda for an Honorary Oscar, which he subsequently won in 2000.

Wajda was born in Poland on March 6, 1926, thus having his formative years shaped by events leading to World War II and the war itself. The aftermath of the War also heavily influenced his film-making career because he had to work under a Communist regime where censorship limited creative production. Since censors paid attention more to dialog than images, Wajda slyly filmed his movies accordingly.

An example: the end of Ashes and Diamonds shows the hero dying in a waste disposal landfill site. Wajda informed the censors that this scene could be translated as “whoever raises his hand against People’s Poland will end up on the rubbish heap of history.” However, Polish audiences interpreted the scene in a different light.

A workaholic, Wajda has been prolific in making films, TV programs, and stage productions in an active career that has spanned from the 1950’s to his most recent film, Walesa, A Man of Hope, released in 2012.

On directing movies in Wajda’s own words:

The good Lord provided the director with two eyes — one to look into the camera, the other to observe intently everything that is going on around him. It is a skill which you should develop and endlessly improve until you stop making movies (in the case of those trying to make political films this might happen at any moment, so time is running out!). For example: when the camera starts running, the director should watch and see simultaneously:

* how the actors are playing;
* what the crew members are doing: are they watching the take so that later they will be able to draw conclusions who’s responsible for what?
* whether the lights haven’t been moved: do they illumine the actors as agreed? (basically, this is the operator’s job, but it is worth taking note of)
* the sky: can the take be completed before the clouds obscure the sun?
* that actor walking over the rails; is he going to brush his sleeve against a priceless Chinese vase?
* the microphone, already dangerously low; is it going to get into the frame?
* and many, many other things, happening on location.

This seems not only difficult but almost impossible; however, do you recall your first, terrifying experience when driving a car? Many years ago my friend, the known film critic Boleslaw Michalek, bought his first automobile. He wasn’t too sure of himself behind the driving wheel, so he asked somebody to help him drive the car from the factory. But when they went out of the gate and into the street, the driver said with a tremor in his voice: “I’ll concentrate on the engine and you just watch the road” — because he too was a beginner. After a few minutes, they landed in a ditch.

Many years ago, at the start of my career as a director, I used to ask my assistants to take notes for me of some things during a take. This inevitably led to misunderstandings, and the evaluated material usually turned out to be disastrous. Unfortunately, this is a job the director cannot share. The members of the crew must know that at any given moment he is in control and has an eye on absolutely everything; only then will they accept his wishes and work really effectively.

For a comprehensive and thorough study on Wajda and his works, read Michael Brooke’s well-written piece called, “Andrzej Wajda – An Introduction.”


*Academy Of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (Producer). (2000). Jane Fonda presents an Honorary Oscar® to Andrzej Wajda. Retrieved from

* Brooke, M. (6 May 2008). Andrzej Wajda – An Introduction. Retrieved from

* Merleau-Ponty, M. (1964). Sense and Nonsense (H. L. Dreyfus & P. A. Dreyfus, Trans.): Northwestern University

*Oleszczyk, M. (2012, Oct 13). Ashes Are For Ever. Retrieved from

*Yakir, D. (1984). Interview: Andrzej Wajda. Retrieved from

Ashes and Diamonds: Wajda and Socialist Realism

The official socialist realist system—with its predictable conflicts, its negative types and positive heroes, and its progressive and optimistic resolutions, encouraged the production of grossly distorted representations of actual life and actual history.—Eagle (1982)

The essence of a political film is in speaking about what is unspoken; in exposing what is concealed; in unveiling the realities behind the events.—Wajda quoted in Yakir (1984)

It is interesting to observe that through our first-ever "Fall Film Competition," the group has quite serendipitously assembled a collection of films that can arguably be considered "Films of Social Defiance." Even though not all can be classified under an official rubric of revolution, all four are enlightening with respect to a time of radical change in a cultural or national sense. Ashes and Diamonds is celebrated for its appeal to an oppressed people who hear a voice that resonates with them in its representations and symbolism that defies socialist realism mandates.

What can we as American movie-watchers see that's so amazing in this movie?  . . . something to be celebrated? It's a production in black and white that has an obscured sense of interaction among the characters. The viewer is constantly "squinting" to understand what is meaningful in their dialog or in their actions, and who and what the characters represent. To an uninformed audience, the film simply "cannot be understood without a map” (Michalek, 1973, p. 7). Yet, this depiction resonated strongly with those who first watched the film in its native Poland in 1958.

We Must Understand the Film's Context

Andrzej Wajda
Andrzej Wajda

For an American audience to fully appreciate and understand what is communicated in Ashes and Diamonds, it is necessary to become knowledgeable about its context of production in Communist Poland, and thus the symbolic representations that director Andrzej Wajda ( click to hear pronunciation ) chose in order to stay true to the writer's intent. Indeed, it is difficult for many Americans today to imagine the difficulty of public communication in a place where strict control over cultural production exists, whereas we exchange ideas and information relatively freely via an amazing number of means.

However, one might think about the "Golden Age" of Hollywood in a similar way to this era in Communist Poland—Hollywood's films were characterized by euphemisms that presented roles and settings often absent the blatant realities of life. Under the strict Communist censorship that prevailed in Central Europe at the same time, creative expression was controlled in accordance with a theory of socialist realism.

Following the revolution in Russia in the early 20th century, Anatoly Lunacharsky was appointed as head of the People's Commissariat for Enlightenment. In this role, he created a system of aesthetics that became the main component of socialist realism, which then became an international literary movement (Socialist Realism, 2016, Sep 20).

Socialist realism in art celebrating physical strength
Socialist realism in art celebrating physical strength

Lunacharsky believed that "the sight of a healthy body, intelligent face or friendly smile was essentially life-enhancing" (Ellis, 2012, p. 21). He felt that art had a direct effect on the human organism and, under the right circumstances, the effect could be positive. By depicting "the perfect person" (new Soviet man), Lunacharsky believed art could "educate" citizens on how to be perfect Soviets.

Films made under a mandate of socialist realism were required to conform to Communist ideals, i.e., glorifying Communist values in a realistic manner, therefore exhibiting loyalty to the party and elevating the common worker.

The Communist Party dictated constraints such that filmmakers were required to shape the reality of events into a narrative that appealed to the desires of Communist leaders. Socialist realist cinema became "idealized fabrications of life as it should be or as it should have been” (Ellis, 2012, p. 177).

Film Industries Nationalized

First, literature with socialist trends was established in the 1920s in Germany, France, Czechoslovakia, and Poland. Then following WWII, the film industries of Central Europe were controlled and censored: Poland and Czechoslovakia's industries were nationalized in 1945, and Hungary's industry re-nationalized in 1948.

Film production under nationalization had both positive and negative aspects. On the positive side, filmmakers were relieved from concerns about funding; and with the establishment of national film schools, they benefited from greater collaboration than they might have experienced before that. As a group, they had access to all the films from their respective national cinemas, and also some of the films of Italian Neorealism and the French New Wave, since those films were released in the late '40s and '50s. Further, the film schools brought together producers, directors, writers, and cinematographers of the pre-WWII generation, which made it possible to preserve their cumulative knowledge for succeeding generations (Eagle, 1992, p. 176).

stalin and cinema
Joseph Stalin Exerts Power over the Cinema

At the beginning of nationalization, filmmakers were free to experiment with individualized styles, but soon after, on the negative side, filmmakers expressions were restricted due to government censorship. The imposition of Soviet-style socialist realism in 1948 brought experimentation to a halt.

Documentary and "cinema verite" approaches (allowing the camera to record what actually is) were discouraged as vulgar "naturalism," and complex narrative structure and visual texture (including the techniques of symbolism and surrealism) were condemned as elitist formalism (Eagle, 1992, p. 176).

In our prior studies of films in international settings, we have encountered works that were produced under other oppressive regimes. Can we understand more now about the artistic means that people have used to give expression to their stories and their anguish?


Socialist Realism

Socialist realism is a style of art that developed in the Soviet Union and became a dominant style in various other socialist countries. Socialist realism is characterized by the glorified depiction of communist values.

Guidelines for identifying a film under "Socialist Realism":
  1. Reality is depicted in terms of its "revolutionary development," i.e., social life is depicted not as it is, but according to official ideology;
  2. The film must serve the explicit, immediate needs of socialist construction by fostering appropriate attitudes;
  3. The film must be didactic, clear, and relatively simple;
  4. The films' assessment of situations, past or present, must be ultimately optimistic.





Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. (2000). Jane Fonda presents an honorary Oscar® to Andrzej Wajda. Retrieved from

Brooke, M. (6 May 2008). Andrzej Wajda - An Introduction. Retrieved from

Crowther, B. (1961, May 30). Chaos in Poland: Andrzej Wajda's Ashes and Diamonds opens. Retrieved from

Eagle, H. (1982). Andrzej Wajda: Film language and the artist's truth. Cross Currents, 1, 339-352.

Eagle, H. (1992). Czechoslovak, Polish, and Hungarian cinema under Communism. Cross Currents, 11, 175-192.

Ellis, A. (2012) Socialist realism: Soviet painting 1920–1970. Skira Editore S.P.A.

Klinowski, J., & Garbicz, A. (2012). Feature cinema in the 20th century: Volume two: 1951-1963: a comprehensive guide. London: Planet RGB.

Malcolm, D. (1999, May 5). Andrzej Wajda: Ashes and Diamonds. London: The Guardian. Retrieved from

Martin Scorsese presents masterpieces of Polish cinema. (2015). Kinoteka Polish Film Festival 8 April - 29 May 2015. Retrieved from

Merleau-Ponty, M. (1964). Sense and nonsense (H. L. Dreyfus & P. A. Dreyfus, Trans.): Northwestern University.

Michalek, B. (1973). The Cinema of Andrzej Wajda: A. S. Barnes.

Medvedev, R. A. (1972). Let us judge: Origins and consequences of Stalinism. London: Macmillan.

Morson, G. S. (1979). Socialist realism and literary theory. The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, 38(2), 121-133.

Oleszczyk, M. (2012, Oct 13). Ashes are for ever. Retrieved from

Socialist Realism. (2016, Sep 20). Wikipedia. Retrieved from

Toivola, J. (2012, Apr 13). Some critics have felt that Wajda’s symbolism runs the risk of reducing his films to crude political ‘finger-pointing’. Do you agree? Retrieved from

Wajda, A. (Director), Andrzejewski, J. (Writer-Novel and Screenplay), Mann, R. (Producer). (1958). Ashes and Diamonds [Motion Picture]. Poland. USA: The Criterion Collection.

Yakir, D. (1984, Nov/Dec). Interview: Andrzej Wajda. Film Comment. New York: Film Society of Lincoln Center. Retrieved from