The film takes place at the very end of World War II, in a small town in the provinces that has been spared the destruction of Warsaw. The main character, Maciek, is a soldier turned assassin; having survived fighting the Nazis in the War, he is now under orders to kill a prominent Communist Party leader. The Nazis are gone, but now, instead, Poles are fighting Poles. Maciek is played by the exceedingly charismatic Zbigniew Cybulski, described by some of my sources — rightly — as a sort of Polish equivalent of James Dean. He’s simultaneously sexy and just a bit menacing, appealingly cocky (and even a bit insolent) and yet at the same time filled with not just a James-Dean-like vulnerability, but also an anguish that he is only willing to express (I should say, betray) indirectly.
The opening shot of Ashes and DIamonds shows a church tower with cross, then pans downward the whole length of the church to a foreground in which two men lie on the ground — to the right, sitting up slightly and speaking, Andrzej (Adam Pawlikowski), to the left, lying fully on the ground, eyes closed, Maciek. At first, he seems to be asleep; but then, somewhat indolently, and without opening his eyes, he asks a question. He wants to know something about the man he has been assigned to kill.
The killing is botched — the wrong car is identified, and Maciek shoots down in cold blood two innocent factory workers instead. He spends the rest of the film (which unfolds in the span of 24 hours, like a classical tragedy) both angling for a second chance at his assigned target, and continually being tormented by reminders of the men he has in fact killed.
Amidst all this, Maciek also manages — thanks to his charismatic good looks and determined teasing and flirting — to pick up the barmaid at the local hotel. But their one-night-stand turns, over the course of the night, into something like love: or at least, Maciek finds in her a kind of tenderness, and the possibility of connection to another human being, that has been completely absent from his life as soldier and assassin. In plot terms, I’m not sure this “falling in love” is entirely believable: it is too quick, too much of a cliche. But Cybulski’s performance is so remarkable that he carries it off and makes it affectively compelling. Maciek is filled with a macho charm and swagger, and yet underneath this — barely expressed, but nonetheless clearly visible — there are vast depths of anxiety, incertitude, openness to pain, and an oppressive sense of his own mortality.
Some of this ambivalence is mirrored, although in a less complex way, in Maciek’s intended target, the Communist leader Szczuka (Waclaw Zastrzerzynski). Szuczuka is a much older man; he hasn’t faced the horrors that Maciek presumably did, since he spent the War safely ensconced in Moscow. But he still remembers, and broods over the fate of, comrades killed nearly a decade before in the Spanish Civil War; and he is trying to deal with the pain that his son, whom he has not seen since before the War, has joined the same resistance movement as Maciek, and is now fighting the Communists just as he did the Nazis.
You might say that Szczuka’s unexpressed torment — no less than Maciek’s — means that he cannot fully and unreservedly represent or embody the will of the Party (which it is his job to do) — just as Maciek finds it increasingly difficult, in the course of the film, to fully and unreservedly identify with the role of assassin, even though this is a role that he has volunteered for, and willfully taken on. And this, perhaps, is why both of them must die by the end of the film.
This isn’t really the old cliche of stubbornly personal concerns coming into conflict with social and political one, or of the heroic individual in conflict with the Party or the State. Rather, it is something subtler and much more interesting. Both Maciek and Szczuka, insofar as they are “subjects” or “personalities”, have “identities” that are entirely in accord with their public positions or roles (as romantic soldier, and dutiful bureaucrat, respectively). What conflicts with this is something that isn’t quite their “inner selves” — because it is something that they are unable to express, or bring into full consciousness, even for themselves.This “existential” dimension (to use the terminology of the time) is inchoate, affective but not cognizable, present but not able to be “expressed.” It’s this that is irreconcilable with the public dimension of History, of duty to Nation, Class, or Party. And this inexpressible dimension is what’s conveyed indirectly, by Cybulski’s acting (as I have said already) and also by Wajda’s noirish cinematography, with its use of shadows, oblique angles, and tight two-shots, as well as by the pauses, the moments of inactivity or anticipation, woven into the unfolding of the events of the film.
Finally, after much hesitation, Maciek does shoot Szczuka. It happens in a dark, noirish street. Badly wounded, Szczuka stumbles forward, and literally dies in Maciek’s arms. At just that moment, fireworks go off in the night sky behind them, in celebration of the news from Berlin that the German Army has finally surrendered, and the War is over. All the film’s ironies and contrasts come to a point in this one powerful cinematic moment. All that remains is the cruel anticlimax of daytime, impossibly bright and sunny after the long night of anguish and storms and rain, a daytime in which Maciek in turn is shot by Communist soldiers, so that he can die like a dog on the garbage-strewn banks of the river.