The debut film of Polish director Andrzej Wajda – the first in what would become his ‘War Trilogy’ – is a solid start to an exceptional career. It reveals a director who, right from the beginning, was determined to make stories about heroic, but all-too-often over-looked individuals, who stand up and fight to make their country better.
The titular generation is the generation of young Poles, who fought back against the Nazi occupation of their country during World War II, a subject that Wajda would return to on numerous occasions. Adapted from a novel by Bohdan Czeszko, the generation – including a 21-year old Roman Polanski in a supporting role – turn to whatever means necessary to fight back against the fascist regime: looting coal off trains; thievery; hiding guns and other ammunition; and talking about Marxist labour economics.
Wajda made films about Poland. Where other great talents of Polish cinema – Krzysztof Kieślowski, and the aforementioned Roman Polanski – moved to Western nations to further their careers, Wajda stayed put. The result was films that were both personal to him, and personal to his nation. There are few, if any, directors who more clearly define one particular nation than Wajda does with Poland.
Yet – and this may just be me being exceptionally picky as I am such a fan of his work – this film does not live up to the heights of Wajda’s follow-up, ‘Kanal’ (1956), or the third in his War Trilogy, ‘Ashes And Diamonds’ (1958). It is difficult to say why. One possible reason could be the romantic sub-plot between two of the rebels, which is distracting from the area of greatest importance and interest – the rebellion itself – whilst not delivering enough of an emotional thrill.
Or perhaps something as technical as the quality of the image was a factor. Maybe it was just the version I viewed, but the image was grainy, detracting from the film itself. This is even more of a shame as the cinematography was excellent, an element into which Wajda clearly put much effort. One scene for example – a chase through rubble-strewn streets culminating in a shootout in a spiral staircase – highlights his talent to frame a shot. The use of shadows, and inventive camera angles, is exceptional, especially for a first-time director.
The same can be said of the cinematography in Wajda’s next film, ‘Kanal’. Similarly set amongst the Polish resistance, a group are forced to take underground to the sewers. Flashes of light glinting in the darkness creates a sensational monochrome image, reflecting the tale being told of a handful of individuals fighting determinedly for a great – but lost – cause. Visually it evokes the final portion of Carol Reed’s masterpiece, ‘The Third Man’ (1949).
When I reviewed one of Wajda’s later films – ‘Man Of Marble’ (1977) – I suggested that he “was becoming one of my favourite filmmakers”. While ‘A Generation’ does not guarantee his claim to that title just yet, it certainly does nothing to discredit it. I guess I’ll just have to search out a few more of his films to find out …