On April 20, the late Andrzej Wajda’s Kanał, a landmark of Polish cinema and a universally acclaimed masterpiece, celebrates its 60th anniversary.
Kanał is such a renowned and extensively analyzed film, cherished by critics and cinemagoers around the world, that it’s easy to forget that the fact it was made in this way was nothing short of a miracle. The censorship in Stalinist Poland had a number of problems with how Wajda and Jerzy Stefan Stawiński (former insurgent who based the screenplay on his autobiographical short story) dealt with the 1944 Warsaw Uprising, one of the cornerstones of the post-war Polish identity. On the one hand, the government wanted their compatriots to remember it as a success in fighting the Nazi oppression. On the other, they wished to subtly emphasize its failure as an organized form of resistance. Needless to say, Kanał was neither of those.
This was not the only obstacle. The pressure put on Wajda, then turning 30 and making his second feature film, was enormous, especially from the families of the deceased and the insurgents who had survived the hell of the uprising. Theirs was a need to heal, not to look for the painful truth; they wanted a tale of moral and spiritual victory of the insurrection. And then, after Kanał’s premiere, the filmmakers were attacked by the press and some factions for historical inaccuracies, dialogues that sounded too modern and putting an erotic subtext to heroic fighting.
But Kanał was eventually made and changed everything.
And, for reasons unclear to this day, the film was sent to Cannes Film Festival by its main detractor, the chairman of the Central Cinematography Department Leonard Borkowicz. There, it became a resounding success, shaking critics and audiences alike with its brutal honesty and infernal imagery of the sewers in which most of the characters meet their miserable end. Kanał left Cannes with the Silver Palm, awarded ex aequo with Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal.
And while it stirred much controversy during its pre-production period, hundreds of people came to the set and helped the filmmakers in every way they could, believing in the first ever feature film about the Warsaw Uprising. They flooded the cinemas, too, after the Cannes success; over 4 million Polish viewers in the first year alone. Not to mention those who saw it on the festival circuit and as a result of its international distribution when Kanał was sold to over 20 countries throughout the globe.
The press members, encouraged by their western colleagues who saw Kanał as a universal meditation on the absurdity of war and the strength of the human spirit that sustained hope amidst all the suffering and dying in the ruins of Warsaw, took a different approach, too. Especially that after the Cannes success, one could already sense that it was the beginning of a beautiful and influential film movement that changed everything—later known as the Polish Film School.
As one of the reasons for Kanał’s existence was the filmmakers’ wish to remember those who lost their lives while fighting for their country and the hope for a better, more peaceful existence, it is imperative to remember all of this about Andrzej Wajda’s masterpiece. And then there is the fact that Kanał is not a film about the war crushing the insurgents’ souls, but about people who tried to keep their souls intact under the most horrific circumstances. A film about different kinds of people—artists, brutes, philosophers, tough guys, young hot shots, boys turned into men, girls trying to be the lighting force to men—who believed in something bigger than themselves.
When the soldiers enter the sewers in the second part of the film, they descend into a true hell of excrements and rats and hopelessness and darkness that make some of them mad and others cowards they were not in the sunlight. Yet we do not judge them for what they do, knowing that we could have behaved much, much worse in such circumstances. And because of Wajda and his crew’s mastery of the visual means of expression, that make us feel the odor of desperation and misery of the Warsaw’s sewers, Kanał is an unforgettable, almost-tangible experience.
Arkadiusz Tomiak, distinguished Polish director of photography and current president of the Polish Society of Cinematographers, emphasizes yet another aspect of Wajda’s masterpiece. “I always wonder at how beautiful it is, how amazingly shot, and how universal in its message,” says Tomiak. “But for me the greatest strength of Kanał is the way it tells about an utterly horrific part of Polish history through the relationships between the characters. Such as the bittersweet love story between two young insurgents who meet their fate before the metal bars at the end of sewers, so close to being free and yet ultimately trapped forever.”
Beautiful, tragic and very telling of why Kanał had withstood the test of time: because it was, and still is, a film about people, not concepts. “This is the story of Poland up until that moment in time, told through the dozens of individual tales of young, disillusioned people, as well as images that were perfectly understood outside of Poland,” says Tomiak.
Jan P. Matuszyński, whose The Last Family was hailed as one of the best Polish debuts of the 21st century, shares his thoughts: “I think the film imprinted itself strongly on Polish cinema, although more often than not it was felt intuitively, not overtly. I believe that nowadays especially we need films like Kanał not to get lost in the darkness of the modern days.”
Kanał is a film for the ages, a beautiful, brutal and still magnificently resonant tale of the things people can do to other people, as well as the strength of the human spirit. It still horrifies, shocks, saddens, makes you want to cry and think of how great life you live and rethink the values society tries to hold on to while forgetting the lessons of the not-so-distant past. MM