Ashes and Diamonds
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A milestone of Polish cinema, this electrifying international sensation by Andrzej Wajda—the final film in his celebrated war trilogy—entwines the story of one man’s moral crisis with the fate of a nation. In a small Polish town on the final day of World War II, Maciek (the coolly charismatic Zbigniew Cybulski), a fighter in the underground anti-Communist resistance movement, has orders to assassinate an incoming commissar. But when he meets and falls for a young barmaid (Ewa Krzyzewska), he begins to question his commitment to a cause that requires him to risk his life. Ashes and Diamonds’ lustrous monochrome cinematography—wreathed in shadows, smoke, and fog—and spectacularly choreographed set pieces lend a breathtaking visual dynamism to this urgent, incendiary vision of a country at a crossroads in its struggle for self-determination.
The Criterion Collection upgrades their DVD edition (available exclusively in theThree War Films box set) of Andrzej Wajda’s Ashes and Diamonds to Blu-ray, presenting the film on a dual-layer disc in its original aspect ratio of 1.66:1. The 1080p/24hz high-definition presentation is sourced from a new 4K restoration, scanned from the 35mm composite fine-grain master.
Arrow had released the film on a region free Blu-ray in the UK back in 2011 using an older master that I recall being heavily processed, lending the picture an exceedingly waxy texture. I was planning on comparing that disc directly to this one to see if this presentation offered a considerable improvement or if my original comments around it were hyperbole (possible) yet I sadly cannot locate it. Nevertheless, I’m quite confident that Criterion’s presentation offers a considerable improvement as the image here delivers a clean, film-like look. Textures are present and film grain, which appears quite fine, is rendered well, leading to an incredible amount of detail. There's no waxy texture here.
Contrast and grayscale also look wonderful, the gradients in the grays blending in a more natural manner. Smoky sequences look absolutely striking, with no notable artifacts present, and shadow detail is impressive. This latter aspect can thank the improved black levels found in this presentation, which look a bit deeper in comparison to the screengrabs I have to work off of from the Arrow disc, and this also leads to a better sense of depth in many of the film's shots. There are a handful of minor marks still present, but they’re few and far between, an enormous step-up from Criterion’s own DVD edition that was still littered with damage (I can’t recall how the Arrow came off). In all it’s an impressive upgrade.
The film’s Polish soundtrack is delivered in lossless single-channel PCM. There’s a nice level of fidelity and range, with dialogue sounding clean and the ocarina soundtrack coming off sharp without getting harsh. There can be slight edge to some louder moments but the audio sounds clean otherwise.
Outside of a photo gallery Criterion ports everything over from their previous DVD edition for the film. Annette Insdorf’s 2004 audio commentary yet again starts things off, the academic focusing on the film's technical attributes. She spends a lot of time talking about the framing, the use of depth, and the low angle shots throughout, comparing them to the work of Welles, Wyler, and Ford, directors that Wajda himself has cited as influences. This all leads to what becomes a common point of discussion throughout the features, which is how the film relies so heavily on the visuals to convey its story. Insdorf also talks about the political climate of Poland at the time the film was made (and when it takes place), mentions the other films in the same trilogy as Ashes and Diamonds—A Generation and Kanal—and even makes comparisons to other post-war films, like Wyler’s The Best Years of Our Lives. It’s a very scholarly but wholly engaging track, Insdorf nicely moving from one topic to the next and keeping everything going at a great pace. Still worth listening to if one hasn’t done so yet.
Insdorf also provides an updated video essay new to this edition, Insdorf contextualizing the film to the rest of Wajda’s output. During these 13-minutes she looks at the photography in the trilogy’s previous films and how they build up to the more complicated and striking ones in this film. She also expands on how (as Wajda explains elsewhere) the visuals in the film helped the director get around the censors in communist Poland, since images were more open to interpretation and not as definitive as spoken dialogue. I thought this was a great little extension to the commentary, though was disappointed by one fact: the clips Insdorf uses for A Generation and Kanal come from older masters, suggesting we may not be getting those on Blu-ray anytime soon. Danton, on the other hand, appears to come from a much newer restoration than what Criterion used for their own DVD. Side note: there’s a nice little story about a gift Wajda gave Martin Scorsese during a screening of Hugo.
Also from the previous DVD is the 30-minute making-of documentary On Ashes and Diamonds, featuring interviews with Wajda, second director Janusz Morgenstern, and film critic Jerzy Plazewski. The background to the production is an interesting one, especially since Wajda initially had no interest in the source novel in any way shape or form: it was required reading in school, and he skipped it for that reason. But once he read it (by force it sounds) he was taken by it and then was able to envision the film, though he would change to structure considerably, placing the focus on Maciek, the freedom fighter, rather than the communist party member who was the central character in the book. The feature then delves into the many issues that the filmmakers faced, from the casting of the lead, which proved to be a major focus of contention, to dealing with the censors. Through a series of fortunate events (and the fact that his characters never said anything definitive themselves) the film managed to get through the censors unscathed, though faced problems getting international attention, at least when it came to festivals. It’s all talking-heads, but the story is so fascinating the whole feature just zooms by.
The disc then features the same 1-minute behind-the-scenes excerpt found on the DVD, which was obviously used as a form of advertising for the film and shows some footage around the shooting of a scene in the pub. The included insert also features the same essay found in the previous DVD’s booklet, written by Paul Coates. The essay appears to be exactly the same.
The fact the film is being released outside of a box set on its own doesn’t give me a lot of hope that Criterion will be releasing the other two films, A Generation and Kanal, anytime soon. As it is, we still get an engaging set of features with an updated one by Insdorf.
A wonderful upgrade that ports most of the material over from Criterion’s previous DVD and delivers a sharper, cleaner image. Well worth picking up even if you own the previous DVD box set.