Ashes and Diamonds is a post-WWII historical document, a political thriller, and a James Dean-style tragic love story. I don't mean to run off a list to say the film is some sort of triptych package, but rather to emphasize the way in which it effortlessly plays with all of these elements. It's an incredibly low-key movie for all the tension that's packed into it. Most of the film is set in a hotel, where two Polish soldiers, Maciek and Andrzej have been assigned to kill a communist commissioner. Sure, there's plenty of whispering, surreptitious conversation, and eavesdropping, but director Andrezj Wadja seems just as intent on drinks, dancing, small talk, and developing the education of the youthful Maciek (played by Zbigniew Cybulski, whose persona and physical features definitely resemble James Dean, hence the previous reference). And as far as action by today's standards, there's hardly any to be had. That said, the most gun-heavy scene in the film happens to be a truly exquisite piece of filmmaking, and the real highlight of Wadja's film:
Maciek and Andrzeg are lying in the grass in countryside, Maciek his eyes closed against the sun, and Andrzeg, older smarter, up on his elbows, an alert, watchful look on his face. This immediately tells us that these men aren't just basking in the afternoon sun. The first words of the film then come from Maciek, who asks, his eyes still closed, the name of a man. Andzreg responds that it is "Szczuka, Secretary of the District Workers' Party." Soon a car comes rolling down the road, and the two men grab their guns and hurry out for a confrontation. They're orchestrated the move such that Maciek runs down the hill to opposite side of the road, while Andzreg stays up top. In a single shot the camera follows Maciek down the hill and across the dirt road. The jeep approaches rapidly and Maciek fires, causing the vehicle to veer off the road and up the hill where Andzreg awaits, killing the driver. The other passenger had flown out of the jeep upon Maciek's initial shots (in what's either some impressive 1950s stunt work or a very convincing dummy) and he runs up towards a nearby church, where he is cornered by both men. He frantically tries for the door, but Wadja had already established that it was locked. As the two men shoot him, Maciek particularly looks menacing with his sunglasses (which he is forced to wear due to his involvement in the Warsaw Uprising) and youthful vigor, almost like someone out of Inglorious Basterds. The rapid fire and the heat of the bullets as they make contact with the victims jacket produces actual flames, that somehow adds to the intensity of our introduction to Maciek. For him, killing is a job, but he does it with such passion that it seems almost like a game in which he is addicted to winning. The irony of this amazing opening scene is that for all of the plan's perfection, Maciek and Andzreg are ultimately the fools because they shot the wrong men. Szczuka wasn't even in the car. Anyway, it's a great action scene, incredibly tense and very economical; the cutting is so minimal you can easily count the individual shots.
This error leads to the rest of the movie, as Wadja takes us from the rural country to the hotel, where Maciek and Andzreg are given a second chance at killing Szczuka. But as I said, the development of that plot is of less importance than the overall since of atmosphere Wadja creates. The milieu is one of entertainment, pleasure, and love (the reason they're there in the first place is because there is to be a special banquet with Szczuka in attendance). In such a small space Wadja manages to pack so much into every shot and bring it to life with random characters insignificant to the central plot.
And yet there's also a sense of post-war tragedy, both societal and personal (in one scene Maciek watches out his window at a room across the way as a young woman weeps over the death of her husband, the innocent man Maciek had killed at the beginning). Wadja is seen sort of as the unofficial cinematic chronicler of Poland's difficult history, and here he creates a powerful portrait of the country's heartbreak and patriotism after the surrender of Germany.
Then, taking up a good portion of the film, is Maciek's relationship with Krystyna, the hotel bartender. First he teases her, then he tells her where his room his, then they sleep together, and then he realizes that as the hour of the assassination grows closer, his feelings for her are increasing. It's a sweet and sad love story, but its real purpose is to move Maciek from a man with hard heart to a soft one. It may sound cheesy, but I don't think anything in a Wadja film is ever cheesy. He's incredibly careful about the dramatic conflicts he creates, and no matter what the characters' or our sentiments may be, he doesn't give anyone an easy way out. Wadja effortlessly moves from a very relevant (at the time) political scene to something ultimately more tragic and timeless. He seems to say even right after the war there are more hearts to be broken.
Ashes and Diamonds is the last film in Wadja's war trilogy, following A Generation (1954), and Kanal (1956). The title refers to a poem that Maciek and his lover find inscribed on a wall in a war-torn building. The poem in the context of the film is asking whether the fires of war will produce only ash, or if they will "hold the glory of a starlike diamond." I imagine this could also be seen in relation to Maciek, too. But Wadja gives no answers because he's an observer, a watchful eye of people, places, and historical events. He's always at a distance.