Sunday, July 19, 2015

DVR Diary: KANAL (1957)

Andrzej Wajda's epic of the Warsaw uprising -- the gentile one, as opposed to the Warsaw Ghetto uprising -- immediately struck me as one of the great World War II films, but it's a strange one considering the time and place. For Poles, I'd assume, the 1944 uprising against the Nazi occupiers must be something like the Alamo for Americans, a noble to-the-last-man defeat on the way to ultimate liberation. For us, the Alamo is a tale of heroic sacrifice with strategic value. For Wajda, arguably Poland's greatest filmmaker and still active as of three years ago, the Warsaw uprising is a defeat of crushing completeness, a mental as well as physical defeat. The way he saw it seemed to be okay with the Communist government of Poland at the time, who might have been expected to expect a more patriotic, more Alamo-like affair. I wonder if the attitude of director and government alike -- Wajda would flee the country in the early Eighties during the crackdown on the Solidarity movement and return after the fall of Communism -- has something to do with the subject being a non-Communist uprising, one during which Soviet forces were supposedly in a position to lend aid but purportedly stood by to let likely future opponents of Russian dominance get slaughtered. Maybe Poles in 1956 saw the uprising leaders, or were ordered to see them, as presumably noble and definitely tragic but also a historic dead end that had to pass from the scene before a postwar revolution could take place. I can only guess because I see no obvious ideological context in Kanal and I don't recall the Russians being mentioned. Yet the film literally follows uprising fighters into numerous dead ends, both physical and mental, as if to say there was never any hope for this revolt. Maybe Wajda was just making an anti-war film, since there's little inspiring or worthy of emulation here. Outside of Japanese cinema I've hardly seen military defeat portrayed so definitively.

Kanal opens on an epic scale, showing itself a technical tour-de-force of tracking shots and composition in depth as we meet the unit we'll follow to the bitter end as they hustle carefully from one position to another. Wajda's directorial proficiency compares favorably with Stanley Kubrick's Paths of Glory, but Wajda gets to top Kurbick, at least on the technical level, with dangerous looking scenes of urban destruction as our heroes bug out under fire.  The plan ultimately is to race through the sewers (hence the Polish title) and break out and disperse in a safer part of the city. Our group is broken up into smaller units, each with its own storyline. Each story features some sort of physical or mental breakdown or breakdown of solidarity. A musician (Vladek Sheybal, who went on to an extensive English-language career) wants to contribute and also seeks creative inspiration; he gets the latter at the apparent cost of his sanity. An officer has been having an affair with a young female messenger; in a moment of stress he drives her to suicide by panicking and begging to live for his wife's sake. A commander is one of the very few to make it out, with one loyal soldier, after one more has cleared their way by being blown up; when his last follower reveals that there are no others left, and that he'd hidden that fact to keep up the officer's morale, the officer shoots him and jumps back into the sewer. Another man appears to make it, but finds the surface surrounded by Germans and prisoners in a scene shot with the brutal narrative clarity of a cartoon. The most heroic and competent character is a civilian female, Daisy, an almost too-good-to-be-true sewer-rat amazon (Teresa Izewska, who to my surprise, according to IMDB made only ten films before dying at 49), who just about literally carries a feverish, delirious man through the muck, only to run up against possibly the cruelest reality. She's found a way to the Vistula river, the most likely way to safety, yet the exit is barred by a metal grate. It's too big to be kicked away, and Wajda makes it sadly clear that Daisy can't squeeze her head through the bars. If Kanal is one part Alamo, it's also inescapably one part Third Man, and the so-close-and-yet-so-far hopelessness that comes with that comes through most eloquently when Daisy reaches the end of her trail. Was all of this worth it? Maybe if you're a Pole that's a question you just don't ask, and if the alternative is submission to the Nazis I suppose any question is moot. But once you watch Kanal you can't help wondering for the characters' sake. That might not make it an anti-war film, but it's certainly one of the most intimately humane war films I've ever seen.

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