I have spoken in the past of J. M. Coetzee’s The Life and Times of Michael K (1983), a singularly unpleasant novel which has nonetheless had a considerable impact on my moral thinking, as it suggests—to me, anyway—that a person has every right to “resign” from history. Historical forces are cruel and impersonal and if a person wants to escape from them, one can hardly blame him or her. In the novel, the titular Michael K is a borderline mentally impaired, mixed-race man trying to escape from a civil war that has broken out in his native South Africa and Coetzee charts all the horrors and indignities to which Michael K is subjected as he tries to evade forces that he can neither understand nor control.
I had Michael K in mind as I watched Polish director Andrzej Wadja’s Ashes and Diamonds (1958). Widely considered one of the greatest works of Polish cinema, the film follows a young anti-communist partisan named Maciek (Zbigniew Cybulski) as he attempts to assassinate a communist official in the immediate aftermath of WWII (its action takes place mostly on May 8, 1945, the day of the German surrender). Now, Maciek and Michael K are not perfect analogues. Maciek is not mentally impaired and he signed up voluntarily for what he’s doing, but as the film progresses, he begins to have significant doubts about his mission. Following the opening sequence, in which he and his superior, Andrzej, murder two factory workers whom they mistake for the communist official and his assistant, Maciek and Andrzej set up shop at a hotel where Szczuka, the communist, will be attending a banquet. Now, although Maciek has been tempered in the forge of war—and the war was bloodier in few places than it was in Poland—he is still a young man, prey to the enthusiasms and exuberance of youth, and so he quite naturally falls in love at first sight with the pretty bartender, Krystyna. And he certainly can’t pursue a long-term romance with Krystyna if he kills Szczuka, and anyway, why kill Szczuka? Haven’t they killed enough people already, including innocent people? Even if he signed up for this, is Maciek still obligated or duty-bound to his partisan group? If a person’s conscience changes, can their loyalties change accordingly?
One of the things that distinguishes Ashes and Diamonds from its predecessors is a much lighter tone. Which isn’t to say that it’s not a serious movie—Maciek’s moral and personal stakes couldn’t be higher—but Wajda and co-writer Jerzy Andrzejewski sprinkle the movie with humor and romance, which don’t detract from the grim matters at hand, but rather place them in the context of a much wider world. The banquet that occasions Szczuka’s presence plays out with the absurdity of Miloš Forman’s Fireman’s Ball (1967) and Maciek shares the stage with several background players pursuing their own interests while largely oblivious to the assassination in the offing.
Ashes and Diamonds is the most morally ambiguous entry in an informal “war trilogy” that Wajda directed in the mid-fifties, starting with A Generation (1954) and continuing with Kanal (1956). A Generation follows a group of naïve young people (including a not-yet-famous Roman Polanski) as they join the Polish resistance and become exposed to the grim realities and moral exigencies of war. It depicts the sacrifices made by the Polish people with great sadness and pathos, but it never doubts that these sacrifices were fundamentally noble and justified. The mood has changed when we get to Kanal, which has to be one of the bleakest films ever made. Set during the general uprising in 1944, the film follows a group of doomed Polish partisans as they attempt to escape the Nazis by fleeing through the sewers of Warsaw. The movie opens with a famous voice-over which intones: “Watch them closely, for these are the last hours of their lives.” There is no room for heroism in Kanal, just the desperate, thwarted will to survive, as the partisans are picked off by the Nazis, incapacitated by the sickening miasma of raw sewage, and overpowered by despair.
I would like to note that I have no idea how a movie like this—with its willingness to treat anti-communist militants as complex, sympathetic human beings—could have been made in communist Poland. Perhaps we can attribute it to the Khrushchev thaw and de-Stalinization. Whatever the circumstances of its production, Ashes and Diamonds presents us with the same grand question raised by The Life and Times of Michael K: are we not within our rights to resign from the inhuman and destructive processes of history? Can Maciek fall in love and go back to the normal life of a young man, or is he morally obligated to kill Szczuka, in accordance with his commitments to his partisan group? Are our consciences free to change, or must we be forever bound by our decisions once we’ve made them? I know how I’d answer these questions.