I found Ashes extremely difficult to make, starting with the hounds dashing into the forest in the very first sentence of Zeromski's novel. There was not a single pack of hounds left in Poland. Everything had to be recreated from scratch.
The Communist agrarian reform, introduced at the cost of levelling tens of thousands of country manors to the ground, put an end to the Poland of the landed gentry: it remained intact only in our nostalgic memories.
Casting, too, posed a number of problems. The exception was Daniel Olbrychski and his brilliant debut as Rafal: Ashes was Daniel's artistic initiation. The rest of the cast were not as successful.
But all those errors and weaknesses caused only the makers of the film to be anxious: Polish critics attacked Ashes for entirely different reasons.
The authorities claimed that they knew best what Zeromski had in mind when he wrote Ashes and what his views on the Polish past had been, and they were consequently ready to defend him against anyone, including the director of the film version.
The former Chief of Police and Minister of the Interior suddenly became an advocate of historical tradition, followed by numerous writers and actors. The wholesome patriotism of [Henryk] Sienkiewicz was deemed to be the ideal; explanations that the incriminated scenes, episodes and dialogues had been borrowed from Zeromski and not from Sienkiewicz, were no good at all. Nobody bothered to check the source. [Party Secretary Mieczyslaw] Moczar and his men were only too happy to divide the nation or at least the national artistic elite into the revisionists and true patriots. Thus, I became a "revisionist", which was not very helpful in my later work as filmmaker.
So little here left of Zeromski! No subtlety, no understanding of man, no complexity of attitudes, no human warmth in depicting the country and its people, and no trace of that personal tone of blame that comes from personal heartbreak. Cold, hard contours, unequivocality and blackness - everything has been sharpened, brutalized and tediously "explained to the nth degree". Just two examples out of scores possible: Zeromski's Rafal fears that dining with the Prince he will make a fool of himself, while his screen counterpart thoughtlessly, greedily tackles the food. Zeromski had wanted him "to hesitate before lifting the spoon to his mouth" and to eat "with sacramental ceremony". In Zeromski's novel, the Polish Legionnaires in Italy, although ragged and barefooted, "marched in a great stride, tough, young and tireless". In the film, they shuffle along in a stiff, artificial halfstep, like churchyard beggars or emaciated pensioners.
My first reaction was horror at the thought that I too belong to the nation whose terrible deeds are shown of the screen. It takes a cruel kind of courage to present your own nation in such a light. I believed that there isn't a person in the world capable of such horrifying exhibitionism, saying: Look at us as we really are, cruel and foolish, but faithful. See how brave we are! See how beautifully we can die and yet how immortal we are, exactly as in the Polish national anthem, sung at the beginning of the film: "Poland has not yet perished as long as we're alive..." A brainless nation, lacking in statesmen, mindlessly following the road to oblivion and death; a nation equipped only with hearts and heavy fists for fighting...
Those who claim that history has evaporated from Wajda's film should, in the name of honest debate, say rather that: "I do not find in this work my understanding of history (...)" Cinematography and Polish art have been enriched by a truly outstanding creation.
Wajda's films should not be confronted with history, or even with the literature he makes so much use of, but with the sphere of national mythology and legends built on that history. We cannot change the past, but we can influence the present, which echoes the mythological past. As a confrontation with the myth of the Romantic Napoleonic gentry, that persists beyond Zeromski's novel, Andrzej Wajda's film is a fait accompli which cannot be ignored. Just like the legend of September 1939 shown in Lotna, so the legend of Ashes is doomed to fail.
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