Wajda in the '50s

My '50s round-up continues apace. Yesterday I saw the first two of Wajda's War Trilogy films, his first two features. A Generation, his debut, is messy, with a problem of point of view -- Wajda can't make up his mind whether he wants to (or has to) make a film about how his protagonist Stach (Tadesuz Lomnicki) will be transformed by exposure to Marxism and the love of a good (Communist) woman from a juvenile delinquent into a mature Resistance leader or a study of the more interestingly neurotic Jasio (Tadeusz Janczar), whose deep existential dilemma sends him in and out of the Resistance. Needless to say, Wajda (and we) find the latter more interesting, but the lack of a coherent through-line hinders the film. On the other hand, there are some terrific moments in the film, you can see a nascent great talent in embryonic form. The film opens with a stunning tracking shot of the slum neighborhood in which Stach lives, and some of the setpieces, particular Jasio's death, are impressive as hell.

I don't know what Wajda was eating for breakfast between making A Generation and his second film, Kanal, but I want a case of it. As promising as the debut film is, it doesn't prepare you for the dark and startling masterpiece that he follows it with. Kanal is remarkable. It's a brooding, depressing work with a certain underlying absurdism -- not in the least bit funny -- about a battered unit of the Home Army during the last week of the Warsaw Uprising, chronologically a few months after the action in A Generation. It's not a "lost patrol" type thing, the unit as over 40 members at the outset of the film and Wajda really only individualizes a dozen or so, but the gradual eroding not only of the company's numbers but of their moral stature and sanity is chllling. It's one of those films in which no good deed goes unpunished and nearly everyone dies. Bleak stuff from the very start -- another breathtakingly complicated tracking shot, this time giving us the unit for the only time that they are even remotely a unified body of fighters, yet already we can see the cracks in the community, such as it is. The film was apparently not well received in mid-50s Poland because it calls into question the mythos of the Uprising, challenges the assumption that this was a heroic last stand rather than an utterly futile and self-lacerating act of collective suicide. Reminds me a little bit of Ford's Fort Apache, except there is no one left to enunciate the legend, and the heroism of the unit is always dubious. A great film that probably will retain a place on my list nine months from now.