The War Trilogy: Three Films by Andrzej Wajda - Limited Edition [Blu-ray]
Blu-ray ALL - United Kingdom - Second Run
Review written by and copyright: Eric Cotenas (25th January 2023).
The Film

"Second Run presents Andrzej Wajda’s renowned ‘War Trilogy’ - the three films that first brought Wajda international attention and kickstarted the ‘Polish film school’ movement. These works are powerful and often harrowing accounts of the Polish Resistance movement through World War II and after, a testament to the resilience of the human spirit and the struggle for personal and national freedom."

A Generation: Growing up in the slums during the Nazi occupation of Poland, Stach (Innocent Sorcerers' Tadeusz Lomnicki) and his friends – including a brief film debut appearance of future Polish cinema icon Zbigniew Cybulski (The Saragossa Manuscript) – survive by hopping passing German trains and stealing coal and supplies despite the misgivings of their parents. When both of his friends are shot by the Germans and he is wounded, Stach makes the acquaintance of old Krone (Knights of the Teutonic Order's Stanislaw Milski), the watchman at the Berg carpenters who introduces him to foreman Sekula (Westerplatte Resists' Janusz Paluszkiewicz) who gets him a job at the factory being trained under Krone's son Jasio (Landscape After Battle's Tadeusz Janczar). Stach stifles his feelings when he learns that the brothers Berg (The Eighth Day of the Week's Janusz Sciwiarski and Provincial Actors' Bronislaw Kassowski) get much of their business from the Nazis building bunk beds for the camps, and is even more so disturbed once he learns from Sekula how the company turns a profit due to the disparity between his daily wage and what he charges the Nazis per job. When Stach discovers a cache of weapons hidden in the supply hut, he is not yet aware that the company is also a front for weapons smuggling and money funneling activities of the Polish Home Army loyal to the Polish government in exile; however, he is soon caught up in the revolutionary fervor of the communist ideals of the Soviet-supported People's Home Guard by way of the beautiful and charismatic Dorota (Urszula Modrzynska). Stach is brought into the organization by Sekula but it is Dorota who infatuates and inspires him. Stach's idealistic fervor at work is tempered by Sekula even as he tries to recruit others – including Jasio who is more concerned about supporting his father when the old man is laid off by the Bergs – that is, until he is beaten up by a Nazi guard during a delivery; after which, Stach steals one of the guns from the supply closet with a plan to teach the guard a lesson. Shamed into accompanying them, it is Jasio however who proves to be the loose cannon, shooting the guard dead and crowing about it to his compatriots. When the Nazis set fire to the ghettos, Stach joins the fight and experiences love and loss in rapid succession.

The feature debut of director Andrzej Wajda from a novel by Bohdan Czeszko (who adapted his own work), A Generation is a coming-of-age story told in the Polish social realism style; that is, an idealistic representative of Polish youth having his consciousness opened up to social inequities as he fights the Nazi occupation on behalf of the Soviets who invaded Poland at the same time. While Western viewers may need a primer on Polish political history to understand the oppositions – especially since the post-war production rules of the time forbade the explicit identification of one of the parties – and even more context about the political leanings of the Wajda compared to what he could put on the screen during this period, the strengths of the film lie both in the visual invention of Wajda and cinematographer Jerzy Lipman (Knife in the Water) as much as in the humanistic drama. Stach's developing of a political consciousness is rather mechanically-conveyed by means of an obligatory lecture that is really aimed at the audience while his emotional reactions to both his humiliation by the Nazi guard and his attraction to Dorota provide a means of driving the action and the suspense. Viewers might find more relatable the dramatic arc of Jasio who is torn between supporting his father and joining his comrades – among them Roman Polanski who had directed his first short film the same year – and his guilt over turning his back on a Jewish former neighbor seeking a hiding place after escaping the ghetto fires; indeed, Jasio gets the more dramatic final scene while Stach's is one of more understated inner devastation that puts a subversive spin on the "optomistic" final shot.

BAFTA Film Award (Most Promising Newcomer to Film): Teresa Izewska (nominated) - BAFTA Awards, 1959
Jury Special Prize: Andrzej Wajda (winner) and Palme d'Or: Andrzej Wajda (nominated) - Cannes Film Festival, 1957

Janczar takes a larger role in Wajda's follow-up film Kanał while Lomnicki provides the opening narration establishing the setting as the fifty-sixth day of the Warsaw uprising and the final hours of a Polish unit lead by Lieutenant Zadra (Echo's Wienczyslaw Glinski) who are introduced defending the front in the Mokotów district. His unit has been whittled down to just twenty-four men, among them trooper Madry (Emil Karewicz), record keeper Kula (Man of Iron's Tadeusz Gwiazdowski), messenger girl Halinka (Teresa Berezowska), deputy Smuka (Eva Wants to Sleep's Stanislaw Mikulski), composer and recent joiner Michal (Red Dawn's Vladek Sheybal), and young cadet Korab (A Generation's Tadeusz Janczar) who has just been badly-wounded disabling a Goliath tracked mine. Zadra is further demoralized when he is ordered to abandon their post and take his unit through the sewers to the center of the city and the army's last stand where defeat is already a foregone conclusion. Guided by courier Daisy (The Depot of the Dead's Teresa Izewska), who is also Korab's sweetheart, they descend into a hell of mined traps, disoriented fleeing citizens, and the bodies of the dead and the dying (among them a startling visual cameo from Roman Polanski). As nerve gas fills up the chambers, the unit gets split up and each confronts their own mortality in a series of literal and figurative dead ends.

Discussion of the ending of Kanał – based on but taking some liberties with the source novel of Jerzy Stefan Stawinski (Eroica) who adapted his own work – is certainly no spoiler as this piece of Polish social realism focuses not on the politics of the Warsaw Uprising but on people, depicting more heroism in the ideals of the individuals even as their acts proved largely fruitless and even fatal to their own survival, from Zorab's fatal wound and his feature-length expiration to the ill-fated Smuka who attempts to disarm a trap with shaking hands while precariously perched on slipper rocks. Some of the unit's fates are more melodramatic like Michal's gas-induced delirium and Halinka's reaction to having her future dreams dashed with the sight of a wedding ring. The only real cowardice among the characters are those who act entirely with self-interest. Like A Generation, the last survivor's open-ended fate is quietly devastating. Whereas Wajda's first film owed much in its visuals to Italian neorealism, Kanał's "realism" is grimmer than anything one would encounter in a western war film, and here he gets to indulge in more artistic and expressionistic touches like the top-lit composition of bodies climbing over each other upwards towards an open manhole, the agonized faces that move in and out of the shadows, and the long take that remain focused on the faces of Daisy and Korab rather than the light source that could signify an escape route or reveal that they have been going around in circles. In A Generation, Janczar was offered up portraying a more believably conflicted character than the main protagonist, and here he once again embodies the more visceral pain of the experience than Glinski who is entirely driven by his ideals including, most fatally, not leaving any of his men behind. It is a particular perversity of the Polish social realism dictates that such a relentlessly grim film could still be accepted as a commemoration, but even more so subversive when the identity of the fighters is hinted out with details buried in the production design (pointed out in the extras).

BAFTA Film Award (Best Film from any Source): Andrzej Wajda (nominated) and Best Foreign Actor: Zbigniew Cybulski (nominated) - BAFTA Awards, 1960
FIPRESCI Prize: Andrzej Wajda (winner) - Venice Film Festival, 1959

The eighth of May 1945 marks the end of World War II with the unconditional surrender of the Germans, but in Ashes and Diamonds this development is not a cause for celebration for all in Poland, bringing the Soviet-supported People's Guard into power as the Polish Workers' Party while the Home Army remain an illegal underground militia and those who have managed to retain their anonymity are plunged into an uncertainty of playing both sides. Middle-aged Andrzej (composer Adam Pawlikowski) and young Maciek (A Generation's Zbigniew Cybulski) are ordered to assassinate new party secretary Szczuka (Waclaw Zastrzezynski) who is returning from exile in Russia. Unfortunately, they ambush the wrong jeep, gunning down two men unfamiliar to their lookout Drewnowski (Everything for Sale's Bogumil Kobiela) who is also the secretary of the local mayor Swiecki (The Hours of Hope's Aleksander Sewruk).

Arriving at a hotel where Swiecki is throwing a banquet to commemorate the end of the war, Andrzej reports their failure to Major Waga (The Noose's Ignacy Machowski) and awaits further instructions; however, Maciek overhears Szczuka's associate booking him a room for the banquet. Maciek takes the initiative to book a room next door to Szczuka by smooth-talking the concierge (Jan Ciecierski). So enthusiastic and light-hearted is he at the second chance that he also arranges a dalliance with barmaid Krystyna (Ewa Krzyzewska) while he waits for Szczuka; however, he is shaken when he overhears the cries of a woman who turns out to have been the fiancee of one of the men he has killed. Szczuka pays a visit to his bourgeois sister-in-law (Lalka's Halina Kwiatkowska) and discovers that not only has she raised his son Marek after the death of his wife but fully supports his patriotic support of the Warsaw Uprising from which he has not since returned, and she seems more proud than worried. In the meantime, Maciek finds not just diversion but possible redemption in the arms of Krystyna – alone in the world like him after losing her family during the war – and begins to have doubts about carrying out his job.

As much as Kanał demonstrates the trajectory of Wajda's growing directorial assurance, the hugely-popular international hit Ashes and Diamonds – based on the social realist novel by Jerzy Andrzejewski who adapted the screenplay and would later script Wajda's Innocent Sorcerers with Jerzy Skolimowski (The Deep End) – reveals an early total mastery of the form. Whereas A Generation had more moments of black humor than fleeing bits of lightness, and Kanał was relentlessly bleak, Ashes and Diamonds skillfully balances noir-ish fatalism with sentimentality – both sides seem to reflect back on the days of the war when the future (or at least the progression toward it) seemed more certain – and extended sequences of comedy depicting Drewnowski with democratic journalist Pieniazek (Lokis: A Manuscript of Professor Wittembach's Stanislaw Milski) celebrating way too early Swiecki's rumored cabinet appointment and their subsequent crashing of the dinner. Whereas the more reserved protagonists of Wajda's first two films were nearly overshadowed by a more outwardly emotionally-conflicted youth – in both cases, Tadeusz Janczar – Cybulski earns his star-making turn as the "Polish James Dean" as he is still known some sixty years on from the film and some fifty years on from his early death. His energy teeters between cheeky, charming, and downright obnoxious, but he believably charms and cheers up everyone he encounters while also conveying an intense brooding and the feeling that he could crack at any moment. In spite of this explosively charismatic turn, Pawlikowski and Zastrzezynski manage to hold their own in more understated performances; and even though Cybulski was the surprise breakout star of the film, one cannot help but feel as if Wajda and cinematographer Jerzy Wójcik (Mother Joan of the Angels) were also testing out the screen presence of Jerzy Jogalla (Rancho Texas) as the little-seen Marek presented as much as a Home Army rebel as a "rebel without a cause" in a handful of striking compositions.

A Generation evoked Italian neorealism with stark factory ruins used to depict the slums and cluttered interiors while Kanal evoked the Hollywood war film – most notably, Paths of Glory – in staging a couple brief but epic croweded compositions amidst a story set largely in studio set sewers. In Ashes and Diamonds, Wajda, the aforementioned Wójcik, and production designer Roman Mann (Goodbye, See You Tomorrow) look to Orson Welles in noir-ish lighting and low-angled, claustrophobic interior shots as well as an impressive sequence set in a ruined church in which the panning camera brings into the foreground a wooden statue of Christ hanging upside down after coming unpinned from the cross (perhaps foreshadowing Maciek's subconscious feelings of damnation even as he discusses the possibility of a different life with Krystyna in the aftermath of the war). The intercutting of Maciek's final moments with the band at the hotel celebrating the dawn recalls the ending of Henri-Georges Clouzot's Wages of Fear (although Wajda once again has his protagonist go out with a whimper in a moment that is more pitiable than "deserved"). Wajda's career thrived throughout the next sixty years with a lot of hits among a few experimental and/or expensive misses while Cybulski had just under a decade more as a superstar before his unfortunate accidental death in 1967 at age thirty-nine.


Not released in the US until the VHS era but shown in 1960 in the UK by Contemporary Films, A Generation was most widely accessible only as part of various DVD incarnations of Wadja's "War Trilogy" including Criterion's Andrzej Wajda: Three War Films in 2005 and Arrow Films' The Andrzej Wajda War Trilogy in 2008. The film made its HD bow in Japan in 2018 also as part of the trilogy. We have not seen that transfer but Second Run's 1080p24 MPEG-4 AVC 1.37:1 pillarboxed fullscreen transfer comes from a new 2K restoration by Wytwórnia Filmów Dokumentalnych i Fabularnych (WFDiF), Poland. The oldest of the films, it can look a little rough in its optical transitions but its combination of gritty neorealist exteriors and both studio and location interiors has been nicely rendered in its varying contrasts – in the film, it seems that the contrasts are in the "color" scheme more so than the lighting – while an enhanced sense of depth and dimension is evident from the start as the opening long take pushes in across the slums on its human characters. Distributed in the UK by Contemporary Films before A Generation in 1959 but not until 1961 in the US by Kingsley-International Pictures, Kanal's Criterion box set release was preceded by an unfortunate PAL-converted transfer from Facets Video in 2003. Second Run's 1080p24 MPEG-4 AVC 1.37:1 pillarboxed fullscreen 2K restoration – also by Wytwórnia Filmów Dokumentalnych i Fabularnych (WFDiF) – looks slicker than A Generation and the darker image evinces more shadow detail and sculpting of the performers than the SD master.

Ashes and Diamonds was released in the UK by Contemporary Films in 1959 and in the US by Janus Films in both subtitled and dubbed versions – which both made it to VHS as part of Embassy Home Entertainment's "The International Collection" – and a Criterion Collection laserdisc preceded the DVD set in 1994. A poor-quality Facets Video disc also came out ahead of the Criterion DVD set in 2003. The greater popularity of the film meant that it was the recipient of solo Blu-ray editions from Arrow in 2011 from a 2K restoration and Criterion in 2021 from a 4K restoration. Second Run's 1080p24 MPEG-4 AVC 1.66:1 pillarboxed widescreen version utilizes neither master, coming from a new Wytwórnia Filmów Dokumentalnych i Fabularnych (WFDiF) 2K restoration. Criterion's and Second Run's transfers look pretty much the same – perhaps the Second Run is a smidge darker – but both beat out the older Arrow master in which the notch or so additional brightness means that highlights are slightly less detailed than they are in the other two masters. Either of the newer editions would do in terms of picture while the different extras might make one want to hold onto the solo edition as a supplement to this boxed set.


A Generation's LPCM 2.0 mono soundtrack can be quite hissy but post-dubbed dialogue is always clear and the effects and score come across well enough. Kanal's LPCM 2.0 mono track, on the other hand, has been expertly cleaned, making the necessary silences in which sudden noises can mean death whisper quite, also allowing the scoring and the echoing sounds of water and dying groans in the sewer that much more chilling. Be it a more rigorous restoration job due to its greater prestige or just better archiving, Ashes and Diamonds sounds the best in its LPCM 2.0 mono track, and this suits the soundtrack which in general sounds a bit more lively from more scoring, source music, atmosphere, and background noise in addition to the clear post-dubbed dialogue. All three films have new subtitle translations, although we have not done much comparison with the earlier versions.


All three films are accompanied by new audio commentaries by film historian Michael Brooke – an impressive feat on its own but more so when one realizes he spent most of last year readying the mammoth delayed ten-disc Magic, Myth & Mutilation: The Micro-Budget Cinema of Michael J Murphy, 1967–2015 set – and a listen to all three is a necessity given the continuing threads of discussion amidst the film-specific commentary. Among them are the historical context of the Nazi and Soviet occupations of Poland, the differences between the Home Army and the People's Guard – and how that is expressed in the films by Wajda, the son of a Home Army officer murdered by the Soviets in the Katyn massacre – the restrictions of the social realism aesthetic (which Brooke believes would be more accurately described as a "socialist idealist" aesthetic), and how Wajda adapted to the "political thaw" in the aftermath of Khrushchev's secret speech, the death of President Bolesław Bierut and his replacement with reform-minded Władysław Gomułka (including the need for filmmakers around this time to be "canny diplomats" lest attitudes suddenly shift).

Of A Generation, Brooke reveals that the project had been intended for studio KADR's artistic director Aleksander Ford but that he felt he had already explored similar themes in Five from Barska Street and recommended his assistant Wajda with Ford ensuring the quality of the debut by supervising (for which he receives an equally as prominent credit as the director). He also notes that Wajda was obligated to smear the Home Army – including the parroting of the Soviet propaganda that the Nazis were responsible for the Katyn massacre and that you could tell if someone was a friend or enemy depending on who they held responsible – and how the more relaxed social realism restrictions allowed Wajda to be more nuanced in his depictions of both sides in the other two films. He also points out the feature debut appearance of Cybulski as one of Stach's friends and how his early scene unfortunately prefigured his real life death a decade later.

In Kanał, Brooke points out how details buried in the production design identify the heroic characters as members of the Home Army and how the social realist requirement that they not be identified by name allowed Wajda some leeway in a genre that depicted the Home Army in disparaging and even hostile terms. He discusses the careers of stars Glinski and Janczar, revealing that Pawlikowski was recorded playing the ocarina and then cast in Ashes and Diamonds, how Izewska's international career was derailed after some unguarded remarks at the Cannes Film Festival about the life of a Polish actor, and how Sheybal's subsequent stage career in Britain lead to friend Sean Connery recommending him for a role in From Russia with Love leading to several such character roles. Brooke also likens the grim tone and ending to Clouzot's Wages of Fear and Wajda's likely decision to see if he could top it.

Ashes and Diamonds is understandably the most crowded discussion, dealing not only with the political context of the historical setting and the production but also how the changing attitudes allowed Wajda some liberties in adapting the novel, and most interestingly how the shift in emphasis in the adaptation allowed Wajda to put some subversive twists on the obligatory structural elements of the social realism film genre. Discussion also includes the overlapping charisma of both Maciek and Cybulski – including how the then-fashionably cool dark glasses also had some symbolism within the historical setting as Maciek describes them as a "souvenir of my unrequited love for my country" – the stage collaborations of Cybulski and Kobiela (and the early deaths of both), as well as both the wartime activism of some of the older performers (noting that the stage resumes of many of them outnumbered their filmographies because post-war Polish film production was still only in the double digits by the mid-fifties).

A Generation also includes the archival interview "Andrzej Wajda on A Generation" (7:49) – recorded in 2005 but more recently the film clips have been replaced with ones from the new HD master – in which he recalls the opportunity to make his debut and his choice to use other first-timers including cinematographer Lipman and composer Markowski (with young Janczar and Limnicki being among the more experienced cast), and Polish authorities requesting changes since the film was due for release around the tenth anniversary of the Polish communist party. The disc also includes a new introduction by curator and scholar Michał Oleszczyk (15:49) who also discusses the political situation of the period of production, the source novel adaptation, and the film's critical reception in Poland – with some critics describing it as emblematic of a "new school" of Polish cinema. The 1951 Wajda source "The Bad Boy [Zły chłopiec]" (6:30) closes out the disc.

Kanał also includes "Andrzej Wajda on Kanał" (10:19) in which he discusses the changing political situation after Gomułka came to power which included the ability to even publicly discuss the Warsaw Uprising and depict it on film, the autobiogrpahical elements of Stawinski's novel and his part in the uprising, as well as having to shoot in the studio for the sewer scenes. There is another introduction by curator and scholar Michał Oleszczyk (14:20) in which he focuses mainly on the historical setting – labeling the Warsaw Uprising a tragically destructive "romantic gesture" given the inevitability that the Nazis would win – and the political context of the "thaw." The disc closes out with the 1951 Wajda short "Ceramics from Iłża [Ceramika Iłżecka]" (9:53).

Ashes and Diamonds includes the archival "Andrzej Wajda on Ashes and Diamonds" (24:32) from 2011 in which he discusses the greater artistic freedom of 1957, working with the author on adapting the novel and shifting its focus, and most warmly discusses Cybulski and how much he brought to the role that Wajda had not considered including defying physics for the final assassination. In the introduction by curator and scholar Michał Oleszczyk (15:28), he discusses how the bestselling novel and school text that must have seemed a bit old-fashioned by the time of production, particularly by Polish youth, the greater creative freedoms that allowed Wajda to use the adaptation to discuss the tensions and contradictions of Polish history, and Cybulski as a cultural icon. The disc closes out with the 1953 short "While You’re Sleeping [Kiedy ty śpisz]" (10:37).


Each film is packaged in a separate case within a limited edition slipcase, and each disc has its own booklet. "A Generation" comes with a 16-page booklet with new writing by Ewa Mazierska who discusses the Second World War as a running theme throughout Wajda's filmography, Wajda's wartime experiences, the representation of the Home Army within his films, his place in the formation of a new Polish school of filmmaking, his influences and his ability to merge different cinematic styles and traditions. "Kanał" comes with a 12-page booklet with a new essay by Tony Rayns in which he discusses the source story, the Home Army and its representation during the social realist period, the film as "dramatized reportage", and the its reception at Cannes as recalled by Wajda. Finally, "Ashes and Diamonds" comes with a 20-page booklet with new writing by Peter Hames not only discusses the source novel but its subsequent reputation as "political science fiction" that was massively promoted by the party from which Andrzejewski would resign and join the opposition, as well as the film adaptation's move away from "specific political problems towards a universal drama with symbolic overtones."


More than sixty years after their releases, the films of Andrzej Wajda's war trilogy still move and excite not only as subversive depictions of World War II under censorious conditions but also as the nexus of a new school of Polish filmmaking.


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