Ashes and Diamonds (film)

This article is about the 1958 film. For the 1948 novel, see Ashes and Diamonds.
Ashes and Diamonds

1958 Polish poster by Wojciech Fangor[1]
Directed by Andrzej Wajda
Produced by Roman Mann
Written by Jerzy Andrzejewski
Music by Filip Nowak
Distributed by KADR
Release dates
  • October 3, 1958 (1958-10-03)
Running time
103 minutes
Country Poland
Language Polish

Ashes and Diamonds (Polish: Popiół i diament) is a 1958 Polish film directed by Andrzej Wajda, based on the 1948 novel by Polish writer Jerzy Andrzejewski. It completed Wajda's war films trilogy, following A Generation (1954) and Kanal (1956). The title comes from a 19th-century poem by Cyprian Norwid and references the manner in which diamonds are formed from heat and pressure acting upon coal.

Ashes and Diamonds is considered by film critics to be one of the great masterpieces of Polish cinema and arguably the finest Polish realist film. Martin Scorsese and Francis Ford Coppola have cited the film as one of their favourites. A critics' poll by the Village Voice called it the 86th best film of all time.[2]


In an unnamed small Polish town on May 8, 1945, the day Germany officially surrendered, Maciek (Zbigniew Cybulski) and Andrzej (Adam Pawlikowski) are former Home Army soldiers, now cursed soldiers who have been assigned to assassinate the communist Commissar Szczuka (Wacław Zastrzeżyński), but fail in their first attempt to ambush him, killing two civilian cement plant workers instead. They are given a second chance in the town's leading hotel and banquet hall, Monopol.

Meanwhile, a grand fête is being organized at the hall for a newly appointed minor minister (and current town mayor) by his assistant, Drewnowski (Bogumił Kobiela). Drewnowski is in fact a double agent, present at the first attempt to kill Szczuka. Maciek manages to sweet talk himself into a room with the desk clerk, who is also a fellow Warsaw native. They sadly reminisce about such things as the older section of town and the chestnut trees which were lost when the Germans destroyed most of the city in the aftermath of the Warsaw Uprising. While Maciek and Andrzej bide their time to strike Szczuka, Maciek becomes infatuated with the hotel's barmaid, Krystyna (Ewa Krzyżewska).

Szczuka has recently returned from abroad (he served during the Spanish Civil War like many communists in the 1930s, and also spent time in the Soviet Union while the Germans occupied Poland), and is attempting to locate his son Marek. Szczuka's wife had died in a German concentration camp, and Marek had been staying with an aunt. Szczuka did not approve of the aunt's right-wing political views, and had written to her telling her to send his son Marek to live with other people he knew, apparently people whose political views were closer to Szczuka's own, but the aunt continued to raise Marek, who adopted her right-wing views and joined the Home Army (serving under an officer that Andrzej will replace later in the film). Szczuka goes to visit the aunt, who lives in the same town, to find out where is son is, but she says that he is already a grown man at 17 and that she does not know. Later that evening, Szczuka learns from the local security official that Marek has been captured by the Red Army and is being held in detention.

Maciek's crush on Krystyna grows as the hour he must assassinate Szczuka nears, while Drewnowski becomes giddy at the thought at what his boss' promotion will do for his own career. Drinking with a cynical reporter until he is quite drunk, Drewnowski barges into the banquet dinner. In short order he sprays the guests with a fire extinguisher, pulls the tablecloth (and everything on it) to the floor and finds himself out of a job.

After sleeping with Krystyna, Maciek goes for a walk with her and ends up in a bombed-out church. He tells her that he is thinking about changing some things in his life, and mentions the possibility of going to technical school. She finds an inscription on the wall, a poem by Cyprian Norwid:

So often, are you as a blazing torch with flames
of burning rags falling about you flaming,
you know not if flames bring freedom or death.
Consuming all that you must cherish
if ashes only will be left, and want Chaos and tempest
Or will the ashes hold the glory of a starlike diamond
The Morning Star of everlasting triumph.

Attempting to fix her broken heel, Maciek stumbles into a crypt where the bodies of the men he killed that morning are laid out awaiting burial. He escorts Krystyna back to the hotel, where she has to go back to work at the bar until it closes at 3:00 a.m., and then goes inside, where he runs into Andrzej. He tells Andrzej that he has fallen in love with Krystyna, and although he is not a coward, he cannot continue killing and hiding and wants to lead a normal life. Andrzej is not only his friend, but also his commanding officer in the Home Army, and reacts as such, suggesting that Maciek would be a deserter if he failed to carry out the order to kill Szczuka. Maciek is taken aback, but then decides he must carry out his orders. He begins to stalk Szczuka, and when Szczuka forgoes his car to walk to the detention area holding his son, Maciek takes advantage of the opportunity to shoot him. As Szczuka falls, fireworks celebrating the end of the war fill the sky.

The following morning, Maciek goes to the truck where Andrzej awaits. From concealment he watches as Drewnowski arrives thinking he will join them, but Andrzej is aware that Drewnowski is only doing it because he has no other choice. Andrzej throws him to the ground and drives off. When Drewnowski sees Maciek, he calls out to him. Maciek flees and runs into a patrol of Polish soldiers. He is shot and ends up dying in a trash heap.

References to the Warsaw Uprising

The main character, Maciek, has to wear sunglasses all the time, since he was in the Warsaw Uprising, which took place between August 1 and October 2 (63 days in total), and where insurgents used the Warsaw sewers to move between neighborhoods in the central part of Warsaw. Maciek's participation in the uprising could explain his hatred of the Soviets, whose Red Army stopped on the east side of the Vistula and did not advance to help the insurgents. He also mentions Warsaw as a beautiful memory to the porter, obviously referring to the near total (85%) destruction of Warsaw by the Germans following the uprising.

References to American cinema

In the interview accompanying the 2010 English language release of Wajda’s war trilogy, of which Ashes and Diamonds is the concluding part, the director says that he asked Zbigniew Cybulski (who plays Maciek), if he’d seen films with James Dean. Cybulski, who had recently been in Paris, told Wajda that he was familiar with Dean and they agreed that his style was worth developing in the film. Like Dean, Cybulski died young (in a railway accident that was strangely anticipated in the opening scene of the first film in Wajda’s war trilogy - A Generation (Pokolenie).

Wajda also cites the impact on Ashes and Diamonds of American cinema and Citizen Kane in particular. When comparing scenes and themes, however, the film that was clearly most influential on Ashes and Diamonds is The Wild One directed by László Benedek, and featuring a young Marlon Brando. While the primary theme of Ashes and Diamonds follows the eponymous post-war book by Jerzy Andrzejewski, the relationship between Maciek and the barmaid Krystyna (Ewa Krzyzewska) is loosely based on that between Johnny (Marlon Brando) and Kathie (Maria Murphy), the barmaid in the small town that his gang rides into. In both cases sudden emotional involvement makes the male protagonists reassess their prior commitments: in Maciek’s case to armed resistance as the Soviet army entered Poland; in Brando’s case to his rebellious bike gang. Wajda references two notable scenes from The Wild One: Johnny’s interaction with the barmaid Kathie, while paying for a beer and toying with the change, is echoed by Maciek’s similar scene when barmaid Krystyna is trying to pour him a vodka; Johnny and Kathie jiving in the small town bar is mirrored by Maciek and Krystyna waltzing round the Monopol hotel bar. In both films there is a classic unity of time, place and action. Wajda says he deliberately asked Andrzejewski to compress the plot of his book into a single day for the screenplay.


Ashes and Diamonds is considered by film critics to be one of the great masterpieces of Polish cinema and arguably the finest film of Polish realist cinema.[3] Richard Peña in the book 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die considers the ending of the film to be one of the most powerful and often quoted endings in film history.[3] The film was ranked #38 in Empire magazines "The 100 Best Films Of World Cinema" in 2010.[4] Director Martin Scorsese has listed it as one of his favourite films of all time.[5]


  1. "Seven countries, seven posters, one classic film". British Film Institute. May 18, 2015. Retrieved November 25, 2015.
  2. "Village Voice". Village Voice. 2001. Retrieved 8 October 2016.
  3. 1 2 Schneider, Steven Jay (1 October 2012). 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die 2012. Octopus Publishing Group. p. 350. ISBN 978-1-84403-733-9.
  4. "The 100 Best Films Of World Cinema – 38. Ashes and Diamonds". Empire.
  5. "Scorsese's 12 favorite films". Retrieved 25 December 2013.

External links

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