In the final chapter of Wajda's war trilogy, a small Polish town celebrates the war's end while two assassins plot against a communist party official. Peace isn't a day old when opposing factions start the bloodshed anew. Zbigniew Cybulski (dubbed the Polish James Dean) is tremendous as a young assassin who must decide between giving his heart to a tender barmaid or spreading hate for a questionable cause.
The protagonist is a hit man for the anti-communist underground but is portrayed as neither hero nor villain. He is tired of being a hit man and hopes that his next hit will be his last. His target is a mid-level communist official who is also portrayed as neither hero nor villain. He seems more interested in the fate of his son than building a workers' paradise. Most of the action takes place in a hotel and shows that ordinary life continues with the end of World War II and the communist takeover.
The ending seems to be overly pessimistic but it probably reflects the type of suffering Poland has endured in its history.
Having spent the last half a decade under the Nazi junta; the prospect of a future under Stalin's jackboot is met with keen opposition. Maciek, a resistance fighter, is ordered to kill a local Socialist party official, which he is more than happy to do, but soon discovers he has killed two innocent civilians instead.
Maciek books a room at a rundown hotel where his quarry is staying. While he waits for the right moment to make amends he meets and falls in love with the barmaid Krystyna. His connection to the girl leads him to rethink his part in the endless cycle of violence.
The central role of Maciek was played by the brilliant Zybigniew Cybulski who came to be known as the `Polish James Dean.' Dean's death in a highway smash in 1955 meant he would never fulfil his promise and so would forever be frozen in movie goer's minds as a deeply troubled boy. Cybulski was 30 when he played the role that made him and gives us a glimpse of what his western counterpart could have achieved. Cybulski's Maciek is a worldly wise, vodka fuelled skirt chaser, (not a million miles away from his real life persona allegedly) and far from being made twisted and bitter by his war experiences, Cybulski plays the character as a man who laughs at the cruel joke of life that his been played on all of us and is determined to "have fun and not be swindled" even in the face of imminent annihilation.
It was a conscious decision on Wadja and Cybulski's part that despite their story taking place in 1945, ASHES AND DIAMONDS' central character was going to be `all out' 50's cool. Parts Brando, Dean and Clift - Maciek, in his army fatigues and `sun-glasses after dark' became a symbol for Polish teenagers who would emulate his style for years to come; and his Anna Karenna-esque death beneath the wheels of a late night train in 1967 only exacerbated his legendary status. Even now we see shades of him in any number of Hong Kong `glock operas' and John Cusack's `assassin in Raybans' from Grosse Point Blank is a clearly a direct decendant.
Often charged with being overloaded with symbolism as scenes are obscured by upside down crucifixes; characters rendered almost invisible in morning light whilst unfurling flags or inexplicably joined by white horses as they ponder the possibilities of a brighter future, ASHES AND DIAMONDS makes no secret of its Expressionist credentials. The youthful hero dying on a mountainous rubbish dump to the accompaniment of screeching crows is an image lifted almost directly from Van Gogh's apocalyptic `Crows over Wheatfield's'.
Two years after Cybulski met his destiny on the snowy platform of Wroclaw station Wadja made EVERYTHING FOR SALE about an actor missing from the set of a film. The missing actor was clearly meant to be Cybulski who even in death dominated every scene. It still stands as probably the best film an actor never made.