Classic Film Club: 'Kanal'

Each week Tom Huddleston watches a classic film that he's never seen before. The rules are simple: each film must be considered a masterpiece and each must be completely new to him. This week, Andrzej Wajda's ‘Kanal’

‘Kanal’ (Andrzej Wajda, 1957)

Andrzej Wajda is a director whose star seems to have fallen in recent decades, at least in the West. One of the darlings of the arthouse set through the ’70s and ’80s, Wajda, like many of his Eastern Bloc contemporaries, now seems to have dropped off the critical and repertory radar. Perhaps his films feel a little too grim and fatalistic, too historically specific and bound to the fate of a totalitarian regime thankfully consigned to memory. Once regularly ranked as an all-time masterpiece, the only time ‘Kanal’ seems to be mentioned nowadays is in the occasional late night rundown of greatest-ever war movies. The film was Wajda’s second as a director, working within the tightly controlled state-run studio system of postwar Poland. It concerns the remnants of a ragtag platoon of soldiers in the last days of the Warsaw Uprising of 1944, beating a retreat in the face of German aggression. Left with no other option, they are forced to take refuge in the city’s sewer system, where one by one they succumb to malnutrition, madness and death.On paper, the film sounds like a tough slog, and in some ways it is. Wajda lets us know from the very beginning what these soldiers’ fate will be, as a doom-laden voiceover informs: ‘These are the tragic heroes. Watch them closely in the remaining hours of their lives.’ But the director is never content with simply detailing the tragic decline of a group of faceless walking wounded. He forces us to care for these characters, sketching their personalities in subtle, effective strokes: the grim and desperate captain, the love-struck youth, the out-of-place artist. Each is given a reason to live; that we know they won’t only adds to our sense of sympathy.And this is, at heart, a film about sympathy. About making us feel for these people even in their darkest hour, even when they’re struggling blind, fleeing unconscionable terror, covered in human waste and turning on one another in desperation. Wajda’s restless, roving camera only comes to rest when it finds human faces, and even the riveting, explosive early action sequences stay locked in on the characters as they flail, strive and die, heroically or otherwise.‘Kanal’ is a film of extraordinary power, as stark and gripping a depiction of war as any committed to celluloid, and a film which richly rewards rediscovery (as does it’s glittering, emotionally lethal follow up, ‘Ashes and Diamonds’). More than just an historical curio, ‘Kanal’ is a timeless study of men and women under pressure, and a textbook exercise in creating and maintaining claustrophobic tension.

Author: Tom Huddleston





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