Ashes and Diamonds is unexpectedly on the nose. There’s even a scene where protagonist Zbigniew Cybulski taps his nose; I had no idea it meant director Wajda was going to go for not just narrative obviousness in the third act, but also visual obviousness. In just a few minutes, Wajda and co-screenwriter Jerzy Andrzejewski (adapting Andrzejewski’s novel) completely change tracks with Ashes. One minute, it’s a complex look at smaller city life in Poland as–literally–World War II ends and how communism is changing things. The next? It’s this painfully didactic morality tale.
Wadja might be able to get away with that morality tale if he’d prepared for it. Instead, it requires Cybulski’s character to change entirely–and Cybulski’s the most distinct character from the first scene of the film–for an unbelievable reason. Wadja and Andrzejewski have this tightly constructed tale set in a banquet hall, bar and hotel. And a little bit in the city. The characters move around each other, orbits affecting orbits. It’s extremely natural. Until Ashes hints at its downfall with a subplot. It’s too obvious a narrative move. For a few minutes, it seems like the film might avoid it. Then Wadja and Andrzejewski embrace the melodrama and run full steam ahead.
It’s frustrating for multiple reasons. First, the story would be more interesting without Cybulski and his anti-Communist story. It’s a sensational story, but it’s nowhere near as engaging as the supporting characters’ regular lives. Wadja puts in so much work to the supporting cast to give them so little. Second, the acting is excellent. Adam Pawlikowski, Waclaw Zastrzezynski, Bogumil Kobiela. All excellent. They get almost nothing to do by the end of the film. Ewa Krzyzewska, as Cybulski’s casual encounter, is great until she too is required to completely betray her character. The world isn’t complex, Wadja and Andrzejewski reveal. It’s painfully simplistic.
And, finally, it’s frustrating because Wadja’s direction–even when he’s being obvious–is startlingly fantastic. He and photographer Jerzy Wójcik perfectly compose every moment in the film, even the tepid ones.
For much of its runtime, Ashes and Diamonds is a major achievement. It’s a major disappointment at the end. Albeit a brilliantly made one.