Ashes & Diamonds
Regarded as one of the greatest of all Polish films from its premiere in October 1958, Andrzej Wajda s third feature Ashes and Diamonds retains that stature over half a century later.
The entire film takes place on 8 May 1945, when the war in Europe ended with Germany s formal surrender but while other countries celebrated, Poland s postwar power struggle was only just beginning. In depicting the various factions jockeying for position, including ambitious Communists, aristocratic patriots, cynical journalists and anti-Nazi rebels recently emerged from the Warsaw sewers, Wajda brilliantly anatomises a riven country desperately trying to find its identity at a time when a fifth of its population had recently been killed and many more driven into exile. Maciek Chelmicki (Zbigniew Cybulski) embodies this conflict: outwardly a calculating assassin, his ultra-cool façade begins to crack when he badly botches a mission, falls in love with the barmaid Krystyna (Ewa Krzyzewska) and dares to dream of a life outside the armed resistance that s characterised his entire adult life. His all too human indecision makes him Polish culture s Hamlet, and Cybulski s performance remains iconic to this day.
Arrow Academy releases Andrzej Wajda’s Ashes and Diamonds onto Blu-ray in the aspect ratio of 1.66:1 on a single-layer disc in a new 1080p/24hz transfer. I am actually working from a test disc, so this may not actually reflect the final product. One thing to note is that the test disc I’m working off of was encoded for Region B but I’ve been reassured that the actual release version will be Region Free, meaning it should work on all players, including those in North America. I’ve been meaning to pick up an actual copy of the Blu-ray but haven’t done so as of writing this.
At any rate I was actually looking forward to seeing what Arrow had in store for us. They’ve been a little inconsistent I’ve found with their presentations but have had a couple great looking releases including their Blu-ray for Rififi, which is by far their best one. Unfortunately Ashes and Diamonds is probably the weakest one I’ve come across from them so far. There are moments where the video presentation really shines but these moments are few and far between. Overall I found the image smudgy, soft, and a little waxy. I don’t own the Criterion DVD and can’t reference it directly, but I’ve seen it and I recall it actually looking a bit sharper. Comparing certain scenes to standard-def clips found in the supplement sections (the clips looking as though they have come from a DVD edition) actually show an image that does appear a bit sharper than what we get from the high-def image, even with the compression artifacts.
Though some of the problems could be inherent in the source I think a lot of the problems have to do with “digital correction” more than anything else. Some scenes have had a heavy dose of noise reduction applied to them and objects come off very waxy and there are smudgy details remaining. Other scenes look to have been muddled with to a lesser extent but details do appear to be lost and there’s always this sort of haze around everything.
On the plus side the print looks nice, and contrast is at least decent, even if blacks look a bit boosted in places. But in all I’m really disappointed with this and I’m not sure why the digital manipulation can get so heavy in some of their releases, to the point it no longer looks like a film (like in this case,) but then with other releases (like Rififi) they let the film alone for the most part. I just did not find this a good looking presentation.
: 5/10 : 5/10
The PCM mono track fairs a little better but the age of the film, and possibly the actual recording material itself, holds it back. While dialogue does sound discernable it still comes off a little muddy and weak, with some slight edginess present. But background noise is almost non-existent and the track does sound to have been cleaned up.
: 6/10 : 6/10
Arrow includes only one significant on-disc supplement, an interview with director Andrzej Wajda, which runs 25-minutes. The interview (which throws in a heavy amount of clips from the film unfortunately) features the director talking about adapting the novel, which called for huge, significant changes to condense everything down (and it even sounds like Wajda had ideas for even bigger changes that he was more or less talked out of,) talking about the cast, the shoot, censors and Polish cinema in general. I believe this more than likely comes from another DVD edition, though I’m unsure whether it appears on the Criterion DVD—I don’t believe so—so it’s not Arrow’s fault, but I was a little annoyed by the number of clips found here. Still, we get a very engaging interview with the director. (One thing to note, though, is I almost feel not everything has been translated, as there are actually stretches where the director talks and we don’t get subtitles. I could be wrong, or it could be a defect with this test disc, but having said that I don’t feel there were any gaps in the translations.)
Arrow also includes a great 39-page booklet, which I received a PDF copy of. In it you’ll find an excellent essay by Michael Brooke followed by an essay of sorts by Marek Hendrykowski, where he talks about the poem “Ashes and Diamonds” by Cyprian Kamil Norwid, which inspired the title for both the novel and the film. There is then a short note about the film by Wajda and then a reprint of a 2001 essay by the director where he talks about cinema in general, Polish cinema, and his films and his experiences, making another great read. Arrow then includes excerpts from reviews for the film.
There’s more that could have been added (the Criterion DVD has quite a few items on it) but the material here is at least strong.
I’m so utterly disappointed with this edition, one I was really looking forward to. Supplements aside (which are fine if lacking) it’s the picture I’m most disappointed with. It’s not at all film-like and looks to have been manipulated digitally to ridiculous extremes in many cases.