With Dunkirk making the rounds and tearing up the critics, I’ve decided to review a few (better) alternative WWII films that are not part of the official war film canon, or experience delayed entry to the minds of the public. Saving Private Ryan need not apply.
Polish director Andrzej Wajda would wrangle his uniquely collapsed view of humanity in disrepair into a perhaps even more vital and existentially uncertain achievement with his next film, Ashes and Diamonds, the finale of his famous trio of war films. That film has often unfairly overshadowed its more bombed-out predecessor Kanal, and not without good reason: its central disagreement between two ex-soldiers tasked with assassinating a communist leader is slyly sorrowful and vigorously taxing at an exceptionally interiorized, mental valence, visualizing a hideous war of the mind and the body politic rather than simply of their bodies.
Ashes and Diamonds is a quavering mass of youthful, modernistic nerves, with a main character like a European James Dean fraying at the seams as we watch. But Kanal is more beaten-down than Beat. A nasty piece of work, Wajda’s Kanal orients us to the terrain below in both geographic and moral terms. We follow a company of Polish soldiers escaping into the sewers of a destroyed city in hopes of retreating from the Nazi blitzkrieg. The labyrinthine maze of shit and sewage also doubles as an amalgamation of hell and purgatory in this vitally deathly film of searing visual ruptures and inconsolable hideousness. The men fall one by one, but Wajda’s film most evocatively implies that war made them all walking corpses to begin with.
Kanal radiates a vanished sensibility, a quality of loss that verges on otherworldly. Although notionally a “realist” filmmaker, Wajda’s film moves beyond realism into a feral underworld of woe, a liminal state between life and death. Bayonetted with Wajda’s keen visual acumen, it opens like a murderous fairy tale with frighteningly existential implications: a shallow-focus composition of a destroyed city, the frame bracketed on both sides with a terrifying clarity of decay that almost wraps around the frame to devour it. A troop of soldiers move from right to left atop a hill in the back like a funeral procession of ants, their facial features and human individualities scrubbed out by the unforgiving lack of depth in the composition.
The ensuing long-take is brilliant, tracking to the left along the row of soldiers braced up against a wall (now plunged into the depths of the crumbled shell of city) as individuals laterally progress at a speed alternately slower or faster than, but never equivalent to, the camera which seems to haunt them by refusing to move at their pace. We hear gun fire and see a spray of dirt but there are no visible enemy soldiers, already abstracting the otherwise frighteningly tactile destruction and trapping the soldiers in a prison of half-presence, as though they are adjacent to a conflict which refuses to corporealize or be seen in full. The enemies are phantoms, or more accurately, our protagonists are the specters looking for a conduit back to earth.
Wajda’s filmmaking is enormously strong throughout, alive and dreadful (as in filled with dread) in equal measure, imagining a dance of death with the camera embraced by and imprisoned within destruction and its monumental, unexplainable presence. When the crucial decision is made to scour through the sewers as a way to escape, a crucial perspective-shot from a tunnel glimpsing the outside world – contextualized as a rectangular frame-like opening in the tunnel – suggests the possibility a rectangular film screen provides for escape.
Without a glimmer of schadenfreude, Wajda clamps down on that possibility, deferring it perpetually as his soldiers slog through the infestation below, a Stillwater tributary that likely only leads back into conflict. The leader of the squadron even refers to it as a family tomb, or at least asks his soldiers to be silent as if they were visiting a family tomb, denying them their individual voices or the ecstatic humanity of unquestioned, unguarded expression while providing a premonition of the way this sewer will be their military family tomb. The commander makes clear: any loud melodrama and death, in the form of bombs from above, will rain down on them. Like a siren marking their entrance into hell, a woman asks the soldiers where her daughter, lost in the carnage, might be. The soldiers– incapable of, too hurried or exhausted to, afford help – run on to the sewage system that will likely be their tomb without helping her. Another ghostly figure greets them once they descend, collapsing physically from running around the labyrinthine waste system; he goes up back to the surface, frightened of the sewers now, and the unseen German bullets make sure he falls back down. Specters of death like these two struggling civilians seem to pop up everywhere.
The film is a poetic avalanche of these grace notes compounded, compacting one another in a free-form descent into a hell where a linear narrative structure is no benefit to the soldiers, where they are precluded from a through-line of clear set-ups and pay-offs. The madness of being emptied of your self, losing any and all sense of direction in a film where the edits do not so much stitch together casually as shock us into new locations and other soldiers who are divorced from each other, claims all. It is a fabric we can stitch emotionally and intuitively, poetically and thematically, but not causally. Like pile of cinematic debris and rubble, Kanal, like most of Wajda’s films, cuts diamonds of truth out of the coal of despair. Potent character revelations are also woven into the fabric throughout. Shot-through with haunted ambiguity, implying that war is a sort of perpetual stall rather than a dogged trudge forward, and carrying provocative undertows of tragicomically absurd terror, this is a film of violence of the soul in addition to the body.
Went the Day Well?
A quizzical, quintessentially pleasant opening-credits in the anonymous old-school tradition gives us a lightly gliding camera over the British countryside, but it soon mutates into a frightening forward thrust that won’t stop and rest in this unjustly forgotten early British WWII film. Singed with paranoia and emotionally hardened in that steadfast British tradition, an on-screen narrator informs us that they’d have thought you “a bit weak in the upper story” to tell this story had he not already known it to be true. The gentile phrasing is a kind of storyteller’s demented, damaged innocence cracking due to the macabre undertow, clamping down on prickly British whimsy as if afraid of realizing fully the depths of the tragedy that almost befell them.
What a fitting opening for a film about quintessential British composure and resolve falling into temporary disrepair when their internal-certitude collapses and they become reoriented to the enemies from within rather than without. Although this is a WWII picture – thick in the heat of the war, no less – it never leaves the British hamlet of Bramley End, focusing on people for whom the war – although colonizing the mind – is anything but a corporeal presence. Until, of course, the platoon of nominally British soldiers requesting safe passage into the village un-garb their false identities, revealing Germans and taking the town hostage.
Barbed with vital presentiments and small particles of suspicion and paranoia early on, Went the Day Well? not only tests and strains British resolve but problematizes the assumption that nationality is true or essential rather than adaptable, mutable, and performative. Rather than holding fast to the idea that Britishness is “quintessential”, Went the Day Well? proposes – or at least fears – the truth that the self – and the way others perceive you – is externalized through gesture, phrase, intonation, composure, etc, and that these externalizations are liquid, porous, and prey for abuse. Although guns and violence come out when the film lays its hammer down, the most terrifying aspect of the film is its worry that not only British lives but “Britishness” as a concept is essentially unstable, not simply because German soldiers are able to feign and corrupt Britishness but because the faculties of nationality are intrinsically constructed, arbitrary, subjective, and action-able. Why else do the town’s folk call strangers – other British nationals from other towns – “foreigners”, suggesting that nations are but circumstantial conglomerates of localities that self-identity through many valences, not always the ones the nation imposes upon them.
Out of this breakable terminology of self emerges a hostile takeover of identity. In lieu of overt melodrama, the eventual revelation of German presence is also terrifyingly casual and mundane. And the villager’s numerous attempts to reach the outside world through message are undermined through almost absurdly fatalistic flickers of chance, as though a demonic and nihilistic universal chaos conspires against them. Many nasty filigrees found within, especially a mid-film killing perpetrated by a kindly old lady who curdles into the cadaverous face of film noir without stopping to give us a quintessential British warning to avert our eyes and maintain a sense of moral integrity that is fundamentally in threat.