1959 FIPRESCI [Critics's Prize] Award Winner (FIPRESCI Award) at Venice Film Festival 1960 BAFTA Nominated for Best Actor (Zbigniew Cybulski) and Director (Andrzej Wajda)
Previously released by Polart on DVD, Criterion's release boasts a new transfer, and the film's original mono soundtrack (which Polart successfully tweaked into a quasi-stereo mix). Unlike the Polart DVDs, Criterion has added many more production and behind-the scenes stills, and unearthed a rare promo newsreel taken during filming, and screened in theatres to whet the appetites of audiences. (The Polart discs for "Ashes and Diamonds" and "Kanal" have smaller poster galleries, but they offer more samples of the original and graphically arresting Polish designs - images partially used on the DVD cover and box art, but not wholly reproduced in the still galleries.)
Like "A Generation" and Kanal," "Ashes" is boosted by another outstanding interview featurette with director Wajda, second unit director Janusz Morgenstern, and film critic Jerzy Plazewski. Unlike prior featurettes, this one takes a sharper aim at the politically strict criteria enforced by government appointed, cultural apparachiks who weren't wholly pleased with the film's nihilistic tone (especially the finale), and prevented the film from being exhibited beyond Poland's borders until a low-level official had a print shipped to Venice. Screened out of competition, "Ashes" received strong word-of-mouth (captivating European directors like Rene Clair) and enjoyed theatrical engagements throughout Europe and North America .
The trio of filmmakers describe the film's popularity in Poland - with star Zbigniew Cybulski propelled to an iconic James Dean plateau - and Wajda addresses the creative turning point when he moved away from the Italian Neo-Realist style of his prior two films to a more formal film noire style. Another aspect that's touched upon is the trauma U.S.-based distribution giants have wreaked upon European film exhibition in recent years, ensuring native and foreign language films get far less chances in theatrical venues, compared to the halcyon days of the 1950s and 1960s, when "Ashes" could enjoy a longer theatrical run in major U.S. markets.
"Ashes" also comes with a commentary track by film scholar and Wajda guru Annette Insdorf, who delivers a leisurely paced, informative seminar on the stylistic elements of the director, key themes, and iconic images that percolate throughout the film. Insdorf provides a good overview on what particular elements are unique to Polish cinema - an area also discussed in the interview featurette - and one leaves the film with a greater appreciation of Poland 's contributions to cinema history, and an interest in its film heritage.
Criterion's Andrzej Wajda War Trilogy boxed set includes new transfers of A Generation, Kanal, and Ashes and Diamonds.
© 2005 Mark R. Hasan
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