Aug. 3, 2011
Kanal (1957)
Grade: 64/100

Director: Andrzej Wajda
Stars: Wienczylslaw Glinski, Tadeusz Janczar, Teresa Izewska

What it's about. Set in Nazi-occupied Poland in September 1944. The resistance movement in Warsaw has taken up arms against the Germans, but their Germans have greater numbers and better weapons. The Polish forces are reduced to a few dozen who control a few street blocks.

The leader of one of the last units, Lt. Zadra (Wienczylslaw Glinski), expects that the Germans will overrun his position tomorrow morning. Included among his heroic but embittered forces is someone who doesn't belong: composer Michal (Vladek Sheybal), and two pretty young women who serve as messengers, Halinka (Teresa Berezowska) and Daisy (Teresa Izewska). They are each in love with a man in the unit. Daisy's squeeze is young Korab (Tadeusz Janczar), while Halinka loves the second in command, Lt. Madry (Emil Karewicz), despite a fairly significant difference in age.

Oh, there's also Slim (Stanislaw Mikulski), who hopes to become an aerospace engineer, Sgt. Kula (Tadeusz Gwiazdowski), the company clerk who actually believes that his paperwork will survive the war, and Zefir (Jan Englert), a child messenger.

Just when it looks like the Nazis will soon mop them up, the remaining soldiers receive orders to retreat behind enemy lines via the Warsaw sewers. But the methane gas produced by the sewers slowly takes its toll on the last of the resistance.

How others will see it. This was the second feature by Polish director Andrzej Wajda, the middle film of an occupation trilogy that also included A Generation (1955) and Ashes and Diamonds (1958). Wajda continued making films and is now generally regarded as Poland's greatest director, since Roman Polanski was born in and is associated with France.

Kanal was made during the long Soviet occupation of Poland, and thus the political statements made by the film necessarily exclude Russia. The German soldiers are depicted as heartless mass murderers. The Poles are primarily depicted as victims, although to some degree, at least early in the movie, they do manage to fight back.

Because the film is so ceaselessly bleak, not to mention black and white and subtitled, it's not for the typical moviegoing public. But it did win a jury prize at Cannes, and at, viewers under 45 award it a lofty 8.2 out of 10.

Over 45, we are presented with a remarkable gender gap: men grade it 7.1, women award it only 2.6, a grade normally associated with the worst Police Academy sequels. We must first remark that women over 45 do not care the slightest what anyone else feels about the movie. They are the most independent demographic. And in this case, they don't like seeing all the Polish heroes and heroines of the resistance wading in waist-high effluence and dying miserable deaths in the Warsaw sewers.

How I felt about it. It is depressing, but like a freeway accident, it is also surprisingly hard to look away. Perhaps we hope a couple survive, like Charles Bronson and James Coburn in The Great Escape. But Wajda's point is that the resistance movement was completely crushed, never mind that Wajda himself, as well as the screenplay writer, Jerzy Stefan Stawinski, were part of the resistance. But then again everyone claimed to be after the war, in the same way that nobody would admit to working for Vichy France after 1944.

Some of the drama is nearly as overripe as the sewers themselves. We see Daisy lugging her strapping but half-dead boyfriend for miles through the poisonous sewers. Halinka shoots herself when she learns her lover wants to survive in order to return to his wife, whom he had never mentioned before. The composer goes mad, and the company clerk somehow manages to convince Zadra that three left are thirty. He gets shot for his trouble. Still, the only truly unlikely scene has the composer calling home, just in time to learn that German troops are breaking down the door to kill his family. Operator, can I reverse the charges?