The Second World War has been a fertile source of inspiration for Polish directors and filmmakers. Beginning with the invasion by Germany in 1939 and continuing through the liberation of Warsaw by units of the Soviet army in 1945, the events of that six-year period in history had a long-lasting effect on the country and the citizens of Poland.
A loosely formed group of filmmakers and writers developed following the close of World War II to produce movies depicting life in Poland during the years of German occupation and beyond. From 1955 through the early 1960s, the Polish Film School, as the group came to be called, documented the struggles of the nation and its people during the war and in the post-war period.
Filmmakers such as Andrzej Wajda, who received an honorary Academy Award for his body of work, used their films to study individual heroism as it existed during the extended years of conflict. Other filmmakers, such as Andrzej Munk, used their films to focus on the politics and social issues of the post-war period.
Wajda’s trilogy of war movies began in 1954 with “A Generation” and was followed by “Kanal” in 1956 and “Ashes and Diamonds” in 1958. Based on the Bohdan Czeszko novel “Pokolenie,” “A Generation” is set in Warsaw in 1942 and portrays the impact of war on the people living within the city. Wajda uses the movie to tell the story of two young men drawn to the resistance movement from different backgrounds and for different reasons. “A Generation” allowed the filmmaker to offer a glimpse into the struggles facing post-war Poland under communism.
The Warsaw Uprising is the theme of Wajda’s second war movie, “Kanal.” Set in Warsaw in 1944, the film tells the story of a group of resistance fighters during the waning days of the battle to save the city. Much of the film is set in the sewers beneath the city as the band of resistance fighters attempt to escape from the German slaughter that would eventually take the lives of many Warsaw residents. The film was recognized at the 1957 Cannes Film Festival.
“Ashes and Diamonds” was released in 1958 as the third film in Wajda’s war trilogy. The movie is set in a Polish town on the day Germany surrendered to mark the end of the war in Poland. The film uses the story of a Polish resistance member assigned to assassinate an incoming communist leader. Through a series of mistakes and chance encounters, the would-be assassin falls in love with a barmaid and realizes how much better his life could be.
The film ends with the death of the communist politician as celebrations take place marking the end of the war. The resistance fighter has little time to enjoy thoughts of a new life away from war and conflict as the movie ends with him being accidentally shot and killed.