Sunday, August 23, 2009

265) Ashes and Diamonds (1958) and 266) Samson (1961)

265) Ashes and Diamonds (1958) Dir: Andrzej Wajda Date Released: May 1961 Date Seen: August 23, 2009 Rating: 3.25/5

266) Samson (1961) Dir: Andrzej Wajda Date Released (DVD): December 2004 Date Seen: August 23, 2009 Rating: 3.5/5

The amount of agency that the tortured protagonists of Ashes and Diamonds and Samson have by the end of either film delineates how they differ as martyrs. Ashes and Diamonds' Maciek (Zbigniew Cybulski) is doomed by the knowledge that his actions on behalf of the anti-Communist resistance are futile and hence cannot advance beyond his current stasis. Conversely, though Samson's Jakub (Serge Merlin) is wracked with guilt over his selfish need to distance himself from the ghetto he's escaped from, he simply has forgotten that he can make something of his freedom thanks to the opportunities the resistance supplies him with. Maciek's life, to use Wajda's recurring metaphor, is an permanently unbalanced house of cards while Jakub's has a sturdier foundation. 

This essential difference is paradoxical considering that, while both films were made more than a decade after WW2, Jakub's story takes place at the inception of the war and Maciek's just after armistice has been declared. Samson is a more involving story because its wracked hero has a shriveled but vital air of hope about him and yet, Jakub's final act of defiance is a hollow victory. It can only be re-imagined as an act of purely symbolic rebellion thanks to the grace of perspective. Jakub's story appears to be more pressing than Maciek's, but that sense of urgency is false. The miasma of indecision that Maciek sinks in is ironically more appropriate as it directly reflects the moral stagnation Wajda's filmmaking is responding to. It may be more monotonous than Samson, but it is intellectually more earnest.


  1. What also differs in ASHES... and SAMSON is Wajda's way of translating both his characters' loneliness into visual space that surrounds them. Maciek is free to roam about and he changes locales repeatedly in the course of the movie, more or less at will, whereas Jakub is being confined more than once to a space not of his choosing. It's motivated by the story, of course (Jakub is a fugitive from the ghetto and thus in constant need of a hidaway), but still I think that Maciek's ultimate doom is rooted in the deceptive spatial freedom he is given by Wajda. Jakub is a literal prisoner from the very start, and thus his final act of defiance had had time to grow and harden -- Maciek's was dilluted in his inability to take advantage of the freedom he was given. Death is imposed on unwilling Maciek; on the other hand, it is embraced by Jakub: the truer martyr of the two.

  2. Well said. What do I try next/what of Wajda's can you recommend?

  3. My favorite Wajda is the wistful and sad YOUNG GIRLS OF WILKO, which lost its well-deserved Oscar to TIN DRUM. LAND OF PROMISE, DANTON, LANDSCAPE AFTER THE BATTLE, MAN OF MARBLE -- are all well worth seeing. PAN TADEUSZ and ZEMSTA are to be avoided.