Criterion Sunday 464: Danton (1983)

I certainly don’t mean to be reductive about what is clearly a grand effort at staging a historical spectacle, but this very much seems to fall into the ‘sweaty men shouting at each other in antique rooms’ sub-genre of historical film. It’s not that any of them is specifically a bad actor — although the dubbing into French of the many Polish actors is a bit off-putting at times — but it is rather reliant on the conflict of men (the few women involved are reduced very much to side figures, a little unfair I think in the case of Camille Desmoulins’ wife Lucile at least, who was a prominent diarist and journalist).

Danton, of course, has the more heroic character in this rendering of history — the film is named for him after all, and is played with all the charismatic charm that Depardieu can bring — but he’s still more talked about than seen. The film focuses far more on his chief antagonist, Maximilien Robespierre (played by a Polish actor, Wojciech Pszoniak), a shrinking and rather pathetic figure here. Patrice Chéreau matches Depardieu for sweaty outrage as Desmoulins but doesn’t get too much time to shine (though his presence reminds me of Chéreau’s own grand historical drama from the following decade, La Reine Margot, an older bit of history but rendered much more lustily and effectively than here). So in a sense the period costuming and other effects — the sweat, the blood, the crumbling architecture — stands just as strongly in for the drama as the actors themselves, which may owe a little to Rossellini’s history films. Rossellini’s films may have a calmer demeanour, but Wajda’s protagonists really like to get stuck in. It doesn’t always serve the film best, but it’s not too dull.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Andrzej Wajda; Writers Jean-Claude Carrière, Wajda, Agnieszka Holland, Bolesław Michałek and Jacek Gąsiorowski (based on the play Sprawa Dantona “The Danton Case” by Stanisława Przybyszewska); Cinematographer Igor Luther; Starring Wojciech Pszoniak, Gérard Depardieu, Patrice Chéreau; Length 136 minutes.

Seen at home (DVD), Wellington, Friday 24 September 2021.

Criterion Sunday 285: Popiół i diament (Ashes and Diamonds, 1958)

I’ve seen this film before apparently, but I really don’t recall it, which is odd. Visually, it builds on Wajda’s previous two films, particularly Kanal (1957), only deepening and enriching its monochrome tones, and setting up some beautiful and striking deep focus shots. It really is something to look at, helped along by Zbigniew Cybulski’s Maciek in his dark glasses. I don’t see him as particularly glamorous or attractive, though he has a certain screen appeal, and his work on behalf of the Communist underground in assassinating political opponents is hardly endearing either, but that’s the drama of the film. It all whirls by with a lightness of touch that recalls Renoir’s La Règle du jeu without perhaps the sense of absurdity (or without quite the same level of absurdity, because there’s certainly at least some humour at work here). It’s a film, a trilogy indeed, about the legacy of World War II in Poland, and as such these films by Wajda had a huge impact on the development of Polish filmmaking, somewhat akin to the French New Wave. I wanted to like this a lot more than I did, but it’s certainly a fine work.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Andrzej Wajda; Writers Jerzy Andrzejewski and Wajda (based on the novel by Andrzejewski); Cinematographer Jerzy Wójcik; Starring Zbigniew Cybulski, Ewa Krzyżewska, Wacław Zastrzeżyński; Length 103 minutes.

Seen at National Library, Wellington, Wednesday 3 April 2002 (and most recently on DVD at home, London, Monday 6 January 2020).

Criterion Sunday 284: Kanał (1957)

After the first film in this trilogy (1955’s A Generation), Wajda follows up with another grim plunge into the realities of war, quite literally into the sewers of Warsaw, as we follow a demoralised band of resistance fighters being pushed hard by the Nazis. They are trying to find some way out via the sewers, but none of them really expects to find any success, and slowly their numbers are reduced. There is no glorious outcome (that much a narrator makes clear right at the film’s outset), nor is there any heroic victory, just the constancy of the struggle to survive, however tenuous that might be. Wajda and his cameraman Jerzy Lipman start (as they did the first film) with a showy long tracking shot that pulls all of our characters in, and later, when they descend to the underground, pick out the Stygian gloom of the sewers with an economy of light. It’s hardly glamorous of course, as quite aside from our protagonists literally dragging themselves through shit, we barely ever even see the German foes; all we get is the images of death and mechanised slaughter, along with the grim determination of the resistance fighters. Not perhaps one to cheer anyone up, but perhaps this is the side of World War II that as the years pass is slowly being lost.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Andrzej Wajda; Writer Jerzy Stefan Stawiński; Cinematographer Jerzy Lipman; Starring Teresa Iżewska, Tadeusz Janczar, Wieńczysław Gliński; Length 95 minutes.

Seen at home (DVD), London, Wednesday 1 January 2020.

Criterion Sunday 283: Pokolenie (A Generation, 1955)

An excellent debut feature from Andrzej Wajda, which with his following two films, deals with Polish involvement in World War II. The stark black-and-white cinematography has enough flourishes to sustain cinematic interest — there’s a long opening tracking shot that’s almost Wellesian in its accomplishment, and seems to fit into a particularly Eastern European tradition that people like Miklós Jancsó would take up. It’s about a young man, Stach (Tadeusz Łomnicki), who joins the Communist underground resistance to the Nazis, fighting on behalf of the Jewish ghettoes, with one particularly compelling sequence towards the end as his cell get rather too closely involved in the violence, which leads to consequences for a budding relationship that Stach has started up with Dorota (Urszula Modrzyńska), one of the key organisers. It’s a fantastic and stylish first film.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Andrzej Wajda; Writer Bohdan Czeszko; Cinematographer Jerzy Lipman; Starring Tadeusz Łomnicki, Urszula Modrzyńska, Tadeusz Janczar; Length 83 minutes.

Seen at home (DVD), London, Thursday 26 December 2019.

Criterion Sunday 282: “Andrzej Wajda: Three War Films”

This box set is a fairly straightforward packaging of three films by Polish director Andrzej Wajda (his first three features), which he made as a trilogy about Poland during World War II. The first is A Generation (1955), set in 1942, followed by Kanał (1957), tracking resistances fighters in the sewers under Warsaw in 1944, and then Ashes and Diamonds (1958), generally considered one of his finest films and set on the final day of the war. Each disc has its own supplementary materials, but as a trilogy they mark not just a singular reckoning with such a recent and damaging conflict, but also usher in an era of resounding success in Polish filmmaking.

Wałęsa: Człowiek z nadziei (Wałęsa: Man of Hope, 2013)

I’m not sure how many biopics there are about trade unionists, but I’m willing to bet there aren’t many. Then again, Poland’s Lech Wałęsa was a particularly famous one, one that even the increasingly conservative Western governments of the era could embrace, for he was a pivotal figure in the collapse of Eastern European Communism in the 1980s. He later became a prominent figure in the post-Communist Polish government, but this film is the story of his union days and ends triumphantly in Washington DC. It’s a film that to some extent deals with the movement he led, Solidarność (Solidarity), but mostly it’s about the man himself.

Director Andrzej Wajda made his first feature in 1954, making him rather a veteran filmmaker and giving him an historical perspective on the events that younger filmmakers might lack; indeed, he made a couple of similarly-titled films during the era the film depicts — Człowiek z marmuru (Man of Marble, 1976) and Człowiek z żelaza (Man of Iron, 1981). For this one, he has co-opted a lot of the textures of archival film, in order to more seamlessly blend in period footage. There’s a lot of handheld camerawork, full of fuzzy out-of-focus shots, blurred framing and occasional lapses into black-and-white stock, giving a lot of the film the quality of a newsreel. This also ensures an up-close look at the man, played with wonderful conviction by Robert Więckiewicz. There are massed crowd scenes and group meetings, but for the most part this is Wałęsa at home with his wife (a beatific Agnieszka Grochowska) or in prison, being pressed by government interrogators (Zbigniew Zamachowski being only the most prominent of these).

It would be difficult to really convey in any film what is a very slow-moving struggle that took up almost two entire decades. Big events are depicted, like the 1980 strike originating at the Gdańsk shipyards which paralysed the country, and with such grand scenes it can be difficult to grasp their national importance (except for a few characters arriving to tell Lech what’s happening outside the shipyard’s walls). Instead it’s those periodic interrogations — the subtle movement of time tracking Wałęsa’s months spent in interment, putting on weight away from his family — that move the story forward. Wałęsa shows dogged resistance to the government, refusing to submit with a self-assured cockiness that he retains in a framing interview with journalist Oriana Fallaci.

It’s a film that seems to have rather slipped through into distribution in this country and it will probably disappear from cinemas rather quickly, but as a portrait of an era and of a defining figure in European history, it’s well worth watching. It also shows that even nearing his 90th birthday, Wajda is no slouch as a director.

Wałęsa: Man of Hope film posterCREDITS
Director Andrzej Wajda; Writer Janusz Głowacki; Cinematographer Paweł Edelman; Starring Robert Więckiewicz, Agnieszka Grochowska, Zbigniew Zamachowski; Length 124 minutes.
Seen at Cineworld Edinburgh, Edinburgh, Monday 21 October 2013.