Andrzej Wajda’s Kanal (1957) was one of the first post-War Eastern European films to become known in the West. It’s an intense film about a group of Polish soldiers, during the last days of the failed August/September 1994 uprising in Warsaw against the Nazis. These soldiers are doomed; they know it, and we know it (a voiceover narrator informs us of their fate right at the beginning). The film’s power comes from the way it makes us inhabit the duration of lives with no future and no prospects.
The first third of the film more or less follows war-movie genre conventions: we get to know the members of the platoon, their personalities, traits, and foibles; and there are some battle sequences. This part of Kanal is most noteworthy for its harsh landscape of smoking, bombed-out urban ruins, and for Wajda’s long tracking shots of the troops lost, or hiding, amidst the rubble. (All this is a bit reminiscent of early Italian neorealism, especially Rossellini’s war trilogy).
But after this introduction, the film takes place entirely in the Warsaw sewers (apparently the Polish word “kanal” means, not “canal,” but “sewer”), into which the soldiers have descended in an effort to escape the Nazis, and hopefully reach the one downtown section that is still held by the rebels. We are immersed in a spooky and terrifying underworld (“immersed” and “underworld” are meant both literally and metaphorically). Groups of men and women wander through miles of tunnels, waist-deep in water filled with sludge and excrement. Some die, some go mad, some make it back to the light above, only to face various ironic fates nonetheless. Space is limited in the tunnels, and Wajda’s shots are claustrophobically close and tight. The lighting is dim and unsteady, and rather eerie.
Some moments are downright hallucinatory (though the POV is always strictly objective, never going into the delirium of any individual character): the appearance of a light in the distance; a sudden surge of water sweeping through the tunnel like a miniature tsunami; a hysterical crowd runs through the tunnels, beset by imaginary terrors; an excruciating, scarcely human moan and cry that turns out to be the death-rattle of a soldier lying unconscious in the water. It’s these details, these small, horrible events, that drive the film. Something happens, and then we subside back into the torpor of soldiers slogging through the tunnels, getting more and more fatigued, waiting, waiting, and slowly dying.
The film does depict, and affirm, a certain kind of heroism, rather than attacking the very ethos of war and heroism, in the way that certain other nearly contemporary films (Kubrick’s Paths of Glory in the West, and Andrzej Munk’s Eroica in Poland) do. But this heroism is existential rather than political and military: it has more in common with the ethos of Samuel Beckett ‘s plays than it does with that of the typical war film, from West or East, that is largely concerned to glorify the military and the nation. Ultimately, Kanal is a film entirely without hope; not the least of its virtues is that it entirely refuses the upbeat-ending-in-spite-of-everything that was de rigeur as much in “socialist realism” as in classical Hollywood (and that is still maintained today by the likes of Spielberg, who almost obscenely insists on finding that “upbeat moment” even in films like Schindler’s List and Saving Private Ryan).