Ashes and Diamonds

Andrzej Wajda’s Ashes and Diamonds (1958) is more ambiguous, less monolithic and stark, than Kanal, but for that very reason is perhaps even more troubling.

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.

Ashes and Diamonds

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.

Ashes and Diamonds

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.

Mad Man Redux

Samuel Delany pointed out to me that, in my previous posting on his novel The Mad Man, I made a crucial parapraxis, or misreading: I quoted him as writing, in his opening “Disclaimer” to the novel, that the book was a “pornutopic fantasy”; when in actuality he wrote that it was a “pornotopic fantasy.”

The change in one letter is crucial. The Mad Man is not a “porn-utopia,” but a “porno-topia” (“topos” = “place”). As Delany wrote to me: “rather than [Thomas] More’s fibrillation between ‘ouk-topia’ (no place) and ‘eu-topia’ (the good place), I’m evoking ‘pornos-topia’ (the place of the prostitute — prostitute in the sense of one who indulges in ‘sexual exchange’ or ‘exchanging things for pleasure,’ money, other sex, communication, information, sexuality seen as part of the extant social exchange system, rather than as a sublime/transcendent occurrence outside the social exchange system).”

It’s all the more startling (and embarrassing) for me to realize that I translated “pornotopia” into “pornutopia”, in that my own reading of the novel is precisely that it does not present sex — even extravagant and copious (in quantity) sex — as being transgressive, sublime, or transcendent, but rather seeks to bring it back to the everyday. This means that The Mad Man should be understood, not as a utopia (a no-place or good-place), but rather as what Foucault called a “heterotopia” (an “other-place”). Foucault writes that heterotopias, “as opposed to utopias,” are “real places, actual places… in which the real emplacements, all the other real emplacements that can be found within the culture are, at the same time, represented, contested, and reversed, sorts of places that are outside all places, although they are actually localizable.” (This from a 1967 text of Foucault’s called “Different Spaces”).

(Recall, too, that Delany’s much earlier novel Trouble on Triton (1976) was subtitled “an ambiguous heterotopia”; the book can be read as, among other things, a response to Ursula LeGuin’s The Dispossessed (1974), which bore the subtitle: “an ambiguous utopia.”)

As a pornotopia or heterotopia, The Mad Man is explicitly concerned with sexuality in relation to “the social exchange system.” And indeed, this is something I didn’t say enough about in my previous posting. Indeed, I wrote there that “there is a lot here, which I lack the space and energy to get into, about the logic of sexual exchange, and how it relates to, and potentially differs from, the ubiquity of market exchange.” But this difference in logics is of course crucial. The two murders in the novel are precisely the result of a clash. between market exchange and another form of (noncapitalist) sexual exchange. The homeless “Mad Man Mike” institutes a strange rule of sexual exchange and sexual ownership, in which the cost of sexual desire/activity/transference is fixed at precisely a penny; and this comes into tragic conflict with the stringencies and desperations of the “market” for hustling at The Pit, the hustler bar in which the novel’s two murders take place.

I think that The Mad Man stands alongside Marcel Mauss’ The Gift and Pierre Klossowski’s La monnaie vivante (Living Money, unfortunately still not published in English translation) as one of the great texts about alternatives to capitalist/market version of (commodity) exchange.

(Note 1: I realize that I am leaving a lot out here, giving way too summary an account. One also has to look at, for instance, Braudel’s claims about the medieval “market” being something very different from the “anti-markets” of large-scale capitalist commodity exchange; not to mention other anthropological accounts, like Alan Page Fiske’s typology of forms of social exchange).

(Note 2: it was rather amusing to see how, in their “Freakonomics” column in this past Sunday’s New York Times Magazine, Stephen J. Dubner and Steven V. Levitt went through all sorts of bizarre contortions in order to explain our habits of holiday season gift-giving in terms of standard — bourgeois, capitalist — economic rationality).


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).

The Fireman’s Ball

The Fireman’s Ball (1967) was the last film that Milos Forman made in Czechoslovakia, before he left for the West, and a distinguished Hollywood career. It was shown for a few weeks in Czechoslovakia in 1968, but banned as “anti-Party” when the Soviets invaded and crushed the “Prague Spring” reform movement.

The Fireman’s Ball is slyly understated and satirical; it makes no direct political statement, but works clearly as a political allegory. It’s the story — as the title indicates — of a ball (together with beauty pageant and raffle) put on by the volunteer firemen’s unit of a small provincial town in Bohemia. The whole film is a nearly plotless display of buffoonery, corruption, and pomposity. The sheer organizational incompetence of the old men who make up the firefighters’ unit, and who organize the ball — the Central Committee, as it were — is matched only by their petty dishonesty and their attachment to the (supposed) dignity of their uniforms and office.

The film takes place mostly during the course of a single evening, that of the ball. Everything possible goes wrong: all the raffle gifts are stolen (evidently by the firemen themselves), the beauty pageant never takes place (the young women who are the contestants, embarrassed and worn out, hide in the bathroom instead of taking their places on stage), the senile former leader of the unit never gets his (belated) retirement present (though he frequently toddles up to the stage, always at precisely the wrong moment, to receive it), and the firemen are unable even to put out the nearby fire that breaks out in the course of the evening (their truck gets stuck in the snow, and they are reduced to ineffectually shoveling snow onto the fire, while a large crowd drinks beer as they watch the spectacle).

My description makes the movie sound like a straight-up, knockabout farce. But one of the noteworthy things about The Fireman’s Ball is the way it resists such a categorization. Its touch is (deliberately) too light for physical comedy. The cast of non-actors doesn’t go for big laughs, but instead plays everything fairly naturalistically. Even when a young couple are groping each other under a table, while the fireman sitting at the table tries to stop them without calling attention to what’s happening, we get a sense of slightly pained befuddlement rather than outright slapstick.

Throughout the film, pointless arguments go on at almost excruciating length, without ever reaching a moment of open conflict, let alone resolution. Everyone remains polite throughout, respecting the code of “saving the appearances,” no matter how inane the circumstances. A hypocritical veneer of civility is always maintained, even when the firemen are issuing pompous orders, and the people of the crowd are finding ways to flout them. Throughout it all, the band continuously plays its waltzes, and the crush of people in the ballroom fills the screen. All this, plus a reliance mostly on medium shots, makes for a busy, clotted, exhausting mise en scene: just as there is never a sense of climax, there is also never one of release or relaxation. I’m inclined to say that this is an instance of form matching content: the pace of the film, its indirections, its failure or refusal to cohere even into a purely negative meaning, reproduces the feeling of what (I imagine) it was like to live in the bureaucratic “socialist” society of the time (though, of course, the film makes the situation entertaining, in a way that actually living there and then would not have been).

The closest thing to a climax in this deliberately anticlimactic films comes when one of the firemen is exposed to the crowd trying to return one of the items he had stolen (an enormous cheese), and faints from the humiliation of being thus discovered. The other firemen strongly disapprove of his gesture; the leader of the group declares indignantly that he would never let any impulse towards honesty let the dignity of the organization be called into doubt. In an interview included as one of the extras on the DVD, Forman says that this was the line that incurred the wrath of Antonin Novotny, the Communist Party boss of Czechoslovakia at the time. (The Prague Spring began when Novotny was deposed). What this demonstrates, I think, is less the violence and absolute control of the post-Stalinist system than its complete (and absolutely demoralizing) cynicism. That is to say, it’s not totalitarianism (understood as a system in which every aspect of life is completely regulated and controlled by the State and the Party, whose ruthlessness would belie the underlying ideals that they claim to respect), but rather a generalized state of venality, pettiness, and favoritism: a condition that (in the words of Kafka, the greatest Czech author, though one who predated both Fascism and Communism) “turns lying into a universal principle.” Forman’s achievement is to create an aesthetic rendition of this condition, without offering an apologia for it, but also without even the slightest hint of heavy-handed moralizing.

Intimate Lighting

I’ve long been a fan of the underrated Czech director Ivan Passer, who emigrated to the US after the Russian invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968, but who has never attained the fame of his compatriot and colleague Milos Forman (with whom he worked as a screenwriter and assistant director on Forman’s pre-1968 Czech films). In the US, Passer has directed one film I really love, the brilliant and downbeat neo-noir Cutter’s Way (1981), and several other interesting ones, like Born to WIn (1971, starring George Segal as a self-deluded junkie who is never able to pull himself together) and Haunted Summer (1988, a melancholy, surprisingly absorbing, and psychologically rich drama about Mary and Percy Shelley, and Lord Byron, and Mary’s writing of Frankenstein).

But I had never before seen Passer’s best-known film, Intimate Lighting (1965), the one feature he made in Czechoslovakia before he left. Intimate Lighting is a beautiful film, which creates an odd feeling of stasis or suspension, both because of its gorgeous high-contrast black and white cinematography, and because it’s a film in which almost nothing happens. I don’t mean by this that it’s a film that somehow embodies pure duration, the form of time passing, of temporality in its pure state (which is how I would characterize the films of Antonioni and of Bela Tarr). But rather, Intimate Lighting dwells entirely within the quotidian, a time that is ordinary rather than extraordinary, overtly uneventful, and yet filled with the microscopic actions and passions and happenings that fill and consume our lives, often without our even noticing.

The plot of Intimate Lighting, such as it is, is quite simple. A musician, no longer young, but just starting to push middle age, with his chic younger girlfriend in tow, comes from the city for a weekend, to visit an old friend of his in the provinces. The friend lives with his wife and kids, and his old but still active parents, and has pretty much given up on his musical career — he works, instead, as the headmaster of a small music conservatory out in the sticks. Various personal interactions ensue, but nothing that’s the least bit “dramatic.” We go to a funeral, at which the provinical son and father play mournful music, followed by a wake, at which they play energetic, upbeat tunes while elderly peasants drink and dance. The girlfriend wanders the grounds of the house, plays with some semi-feral cats, and has a sweet conversation with the “village idiot.” The provincial friend is always complaining to his wife and mother about how the hens are always getting into the garage, and trying to lay their eggs under his car. The two friends get drunk together, act silly and dumb, and reminisce about their old times as music students.

And so on. We are left, not with anything tragic, nor even with the sort of global sense of disillusionment and disappointment that we find, for instance, in Flaubert’s Sentimental Education, but only with a series of local, trivial, transient irritations and frustrations (and also fleeting moments of minor pleasure), that stubbornly don’t add up to any sort of bigger picture. There are hints of the contrast between the pretentious cosmopolitanism of the city (where the visiting musician and his girlfriend come from) and the weary traditionalism of the country; but this distinction is never directly articulated, and never comes to a point of conflict. And neither of the alternatives seems that attractive, anyway.

I’ve been describing Intimate Lighting in terms of what’s “missing” from it. But such a description is a bit misleading. For the film doesn’t withhold anything (in the way so many modernist narratives do). Nor is it empty (in the sense, mentioned above, that Antonioni’s and Tarr’s films are deliberately “empty”). Rather, the film is quietly contemplative, and (how do I say this?) entirely immanent to, on the same plane as, its subject matter. Quotidian. The everyday is subtly aestheticized — as much on account of the luminousness (if I can put it this way) of the lighting as anything else.

But aestheticism itself is de-idealized and drawn into the quotidian. I am thinking especially of a sequence where the two protagonists, the country protagonist’s father, and a friend of theirs from the village (an older man, a retired pharmacist) are playing a Mozart string quartet. They do this for themselves, without an audience, just for their own pleasure. The performance is not a polished or concentrated one — they are continually interrupting themselves, engaging in teasing banter and petty bitching and quibbling, and ceaselessly complaining about one another’s performance — not to mention irritated outbursts at any of the women who interrupt them for so much as a moment. And yet, we get the sense that playing this music, getting absorbed in it, is one of the few pleasures in life that these men have. And yet, on the other hand (for, in this movie, there is always an “on the other hand”), this aesthetic pleasure is itself ordinary rather than extraordinary: it doesn’t bear any meanings beyond itself, it doesn’t valorize itself as a superior instance of “culture”, it is fleeting and entirely unredemptive.

In an interview that comes as a bonus feature on the DVD, Passer says that he had hoped to make a film that people would watch many times; that he wanted the experience of watching it to be like visiting old friends or family: you already know exactly how these people will act, what they are going to do, and yet you get pleasure in seeing them again anyway. Exactly.

Eastern European Film

This coming semester (starting next week) I will be teaching a class on Eastern European Films 1956-2006. The syllabus (basically a list of films being screened) is here. I am teaching this class basically in order to learn more about the subject myself; I’m no expert. I am showing a few films I love (Vera Chytilova’s Daisies, Dusan Makavejev’s WR: Mysteries of the Organism, Bela Tarr’s Damnation, Emir Kusturica’s Underground, Jan Svankmajer’s Lunacy), a few that I respect more than love (works by Andrzej Wajda and Krzystof Kieslowski, for instance), and a good number that I have never seen before. There are films from Poland, Hungary, Czechoslovkia and its successor states, Romania, and Yugoslavia and its successor states. (MIssing — due to my ignorance rather than any better reason — are films from Bulgaria and Albania).

One of the class requirements is for each of the students to keep a film journal, in which they comment on each of the films we see. In order to set an example — or perhaps because I will also be learning about this stuff myself — I will do likewise, and comment on all the films we see in this blog. (And perhaps on some additional films as well, which I watch as background).

If nothing else, this ought to help me to increase the frequency with which I post on this blog — one of my New Year’s Resolutions for 2007.