The decisive factor of Kanal, which proved to be the first and the most important success in my life, was provided by Tadeusz Konwicki. It was he who gave me the story by Jerzy Stawinski, and as the literary director of the "Kadr" studio did everything to ensure that the film would be produced. He also forced the screenplay to be accepted by the Assessment Commission for Films and Screenplays:
During the Warsaw Uprising, Jozef Szczepanski, an officer cadet aka "Ziutek", a soldier of the "Parasol" battalion, wrote a poem. Here is a fragment:
We are waiting...
You cannot harm us! The choice is yours,
But know this: from our tombstones
This poem speaks the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth ...
In undertaking to make this film, wasn't I aware that I would not be permitted to show this truth on screen?
I was! What's more, I knew that this film could, in fact, be produced only on the condition that this truth will be hidden as deeply as possible beneath the human drama of the uprising ... Was I consciously lying? What was I hoping for?
Aside from political reservations, there were also artistic doubts. A film set in the darkness of the sewers wasn't likely to be a cinematic success, but I was not afraid of this. From my first contact with the text of Kanal, it was clear that I was making a film which would be important for me personally. My only doubts concerned my ability to create a sufficiently powerful and convincing picture on the screen.
Today, it is hard to say what would be the fate of Kanal had it not been for the surprising decision by Leonard Borkowicz, then head of cinematography, to show the film at Cannes. This was all the more strange as it was he who most objected to the script and had been very sceptical about the production of the film.
The Jury Award, or as it was then called, the "Silver Palm", did not protect my film from the Polish critics and audience. The reaction of the latter was not surprising, as the viewers were mostly the uprising participants or their families, who had lost their loved ones in Warsaw. This film could not satisfy them. They had licked their wounds, mourned their dead, and now they wanted to see their moral and spiritual victory, and not death in the sewers.
Kanal can be viewed in two ways: either as an artistic, dramatized relation of events, or as an attempt to create a universal human drama. In both cases, part of the audience was unable to liberate themselves from the pressures of their own personal memories.
I belong to this group. I followed the same underground route downtown from Mokotow as Jerzy Stawinski, and like him, spent seventeen hours in the sewers. I saw and experienced enough to confirm that Wajda's film is telling the truth. The overall tone and mood of that part of the film and also the individual episodes are in keeping with what really happened. Indeed , I myself and many of those who followed that route, could recall examples of specific persons whose fates confirm almost every minute of this part of the film.(...)
The tragedy of the people who believed to the very end that the fight they had undertaken is right has found disturbing expression in Wajda's film. The drama assumes a shape of a metaphor, all the more meaningful because its ordinary heroes have been, for many years, forced into the shadows, into silcnce, to endure the mudslinging, false accusations and slander.
The film is a Dantean nightmare. It is also an unforgettable testimonial. Is it a great film? Some of my colleagues on the steps of the Festival Palace in Cannes maintained that indeed it is. I must admit that I do not share their opinion. First, because about every war film there is always a kind of propaganda smell, unworthy of true greatness. Indeed, some matters should only be spoken of by the dead. Giraudoux was very firm about this. Second, because at times Wajda was unable to resist a certain romanticism of horror. Credible or not, it seems he could have dispensed with some images of a vaguely surrealistic nature. But let's be fair: these excesses aside, Andrzej Wajda's work is executed with the hand of a master and brilliantly acted. There are, unfortunately, experiences which must never be erased from human memory.
The dazzling quality of the photography, hard and meticulous, does a lot to enhance the drama. The damp darkness of the sewers, and the blinding brightness of the surface world support each other in creating an indescribable horror. The gloom, impenetrable and smothering, yet allowing for a vague hope for survival, and the merciless brightness, an illusory symbol of freedom which, nonetheless, involves the immediate presence of death. Having said this - and words do not suffice to express the full intensity of the drama - one must ask: can the viewer really participate in a film in which the horror reaches such unimaginable heights? And the horror and pity, aroused by the misfortunes of the characters, are they ends in themselves, since no relief, no hope is offered in the conclusion?
This film is available at the Merlin bookstore
This film is also available at the www.amazon.com (with English subtitles)
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