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Ashes And Diamonds (DVD)

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With the one-two punch of 1957's Kanal and 1958's Ashes And Diamonds, Polish master Andrzej Wajda completed an unintended "war trilogy" that began with his 1955 debut feature, A Generation. Considered as a whole, the trilogy covers a bleak chronology of the country's destruction and resilience during WWII, moving forward in time from the German occupation to the last days of the Warsaw resistance to the confusion following the Nazi surrender. Released on bare-bones DVDs with the first film curiously elided, Kanal and Ashes And Diamonds take place among the ruins and rubble, when the mood among the battered resistance fighters has shifted from doggedly hopeful to grimly existential. After four years underground, they're mired in confusion and uncertainty: Some don't know when to stop fighting, some don't know what to do if they stop fighting, and still others wonder why they bother fighting at all. In the eerie limbo between bursts of conflict, they fret over their country's irrevocably altered complexion and indulge in the temporary opiates of wine, women, and song. Deeply sympathetic to his characters, Wajda appreciates their nationalist pride and determination, even as it crashes against the demoralizing futility of their cause. Before its almost literal descent into the hell below the city streets, Kanal lingers with a smattering of resistance holdouts during "the last hours of their lives," as they wait for the Germans to seize the last neighborhoods in Warsaw. Rather than defending the bombed-out façades, their leadership has determined that the only option is to head downtown through the dark labyrinth of fetid city sewers. For all the inherent tension, the aboveground scenes smack too much of war-movie clichés, by detailing a ragtag group of stereotypical fighters who savor the final moments of levity and romance prior to meeting their fate. (Their gorgeous, elegantly lit paramours seem almost calendar-ready: "The Women Of Kanal.") But once Wajda heads into the chest-deep muck, the film gains a sad, unforgettable intensity, as it follows the horrible fate of men and women forced into unimaginable conditions while the Germans wait with booby traps and machine guns above. When victory finally comes during Ashes And Diamonds, the film's Polish patriots don't take part in the celebration, because once the battle against the Nazis is over, they face a new struggle against Communists seeking to influence the country's future. Though it lacks some of Kanal's immediacy, Ashes And Diamonds reveals a considerably more troubled and nuanced perspective on Poland's changing political tides, suggesting the Wajda who would brave revisionist classics like 1977's Man Of Marble behind the Iron Curtain. Remembered by many as "the Polish James Dean," Zbigniew Cybulski won international fame in the role of an idealistic young resistance member who takes the post-war assignment of gunning down a mid-level Communist functionary. Wearing dark sunglasses that underline his cool nonchalance, Cybulski spends hours waiting for his target in a hotel, where he bides his time by flirting with a blonde bartender (Ewa Krzyzewska) who immediately captures his heart. Suddenly, his priorities are thrown into disarray: Does he continue to fight for a dubious cause, or abandon his post for love? During the spectacular climactic sequence, set against the celebratory fireworks display overhead, Ashes And Diamonds delivers a supremely ironic answer.