Directed by Andrzej Wajda
Andrzej Wajda crafted his entire career around stories of Polish culture and history and, having made an impact on the likes of such Hollywood luminaries as Steven Spielberg, he was presented with an honorary Oscar in 2000 for his lifetime achievement in film.
In Kanal, the middle chapter in Wajda's war trilogy book-ended by A Generation and Ashes and Diamonds, the director presents an engaging story of struggle and survival against all odds.
Resigned to doom at the hands of German forces, a weary company seeks one last standoff against its oppressors in the final days of the Polish Uprising in September 1944.
Even while on the run and with their days numbered, the company tries to maintain dignity and continue on with the normal things in life, including the enjoyment of music and the savoring of cigarettes, cologne, and romance.
Within this rag-tag group of freedom fighters, the strongest character is the strikingly beautiful Daisy (Teresa Izewska, Nafta), who has the smoldering sexpot allure of Marilyn Monroe. Nonetheless, she's also a tough broad who can talk the talk and walk the walk. Together with her boyfriend, Jacek (Tadeusz Janczar, Pozegnania), the James Dean of the company, the two seem like the ideal young couple. As with the rest of the group, though, their personal struggle intensifies in the final days of the uprising.
Also on hand is Lieutenant Wise (Wienczyslaw Glinski, Wyrok), an officer, a husband, and a father, but even his character is tarnished in the dark final hours as he seduces Halinka (Teresa Berezowska), the troop's messenger girl.
Overall, the entire cast portrays a group of savvy, sophisticated characters not far removed from today's lovers and soldiers.
Glorious Black & White
Perhaps the greatest strength of Kanal is its demonstration of the power of black-and-white photography. The film starts in broad daylight, in the middle of a devastated Warsaw left in rubble. But, once the company goes underground to seek safe passage to a downtown refuge, a good portion of the action takes place in nearly complete darkness.
Shadowplay, mind games, and visual confusion, with characters moving in and out of the frame in the blink of an eye, all happen with the slightest bit of light entering in from street vents. The movie actually becomes more interesting and intense within the confines of this minimalist setting. As the group forges on within the murk and slop of the Warsaw sewers, they are constantly on guard against German gas attacks and booby trapped exits.
Even at its end, the film doesn't compromise itself with any sense of relief. Aside from its romantic flourishes and a certain amount of innocence, Kanal is a straightforward depiction of the hell and havoc wreaked by the invading German forces.
Kanal shuns the patriotic fervor of war epics such as Patton or The Bridge On the River Kwai and instead begins on a somber note and gets gloomier from there. Yet its darkness is not weighed down by a sense of pretentiousness, but rather by a sense of outrage over the inhumanity of war.
The supplemental content on Kanal is minimal. There are a couple behind-the-scenes stills, a gallery of international posters for the film, and a filmography and brief biography of the director. English subtitles to the original Polish language soundtrack are included as an option.
While more could have been done to put the film and its director in historical context, this is not a release from a major studio, but from Facets, an independent DVD label.
Picture and Sound
Kanal is presented in full screen with Dolby Digital monaural audio. A friend with surround sound said that all the audio was directed to the rear speakers, although on my two-speaker system it sounded correct.
Originally released in 1956, Kanal has clearly weathered some rough times and has not had the luxury of a full-blown restoration along the lines of Citizen Kane and Lawrence of Arabia. There are plenty of scratches and pock marks in this DVD presentation, but in a way they add to the atmosphere and feeling of authenticity.
• Originally published at MovieHabit.com.