“Kanal” (sewer) is a Polish movie set in Warsaw during the Warsaw Uprising against the German occupiers in 1945. It was directed by Andrzej Wajda (“Ashes and Diamonds”). It is the second in a trilogy that began with “A Generation” and was followed by “Ashes and Diamonds”. He was a member of the Polish Resistance in WWII and wove some of his remembrances into the film. The script was written by a survivor of the sewers. It was released in 1957. It was awarded the Special Jury Prize at the Cannes Film Festival.
The film begins with narration that explains the Warsaw Uprising is nearing its tragic end. (The date is Sept. 25, 1944 and it is day 56 out of 63.) Lt. Zadra leads a company of the Home Army that is down to 43 members. “These are the tragic heroes. Watch them closely, for these are the last hours of their lives.” So this is going to be a “who will survive?” small unit movie and the answer to the question is 0%. So much for suspense. You might try guessing who will be the last to go.
A masterful tracking shot shows us we are in the hands of an auteur. To the sounds of gunfire, the camera tracks our tragic heroes from front to back. A fatalistic attitude permeates the film. A German attack using Goliaths (remote-contolled tracked mines) is defeated and a sudden lull in the fighting allows for character development. The unit spends some time in a fairly intact bourgeoisie house. We meet several of the doomed unit including two females: Helinka the messenger girl and Daisy the sluttish blonde. Most bizarre is a composer named Michal who has attached himself to the unit to provide music, apparently. After this interlude in Purgatory, its down into Hell (the sewers) to relocate to the center of the city since the Germans are closing in.
Daisy offers to guide the remaining 27 and assures Zadra it will be a piece of cake (which by the way, you do not want to eating for the rest of this movie). You know, the same thing Athenian youth were told when they entered the Labyrinth. Except the Labyrinth was not flowing with human waste. Surprise, the group is soon lost and divided into sub-groups. The sewers are claustrophobic, eerie, and confusing. The music matches them. It and the scenes become increasingly surreal. We already know this will not end well, but it is interesting to see how each character will meet his or her end. One of them reaches the end of a pipe emptying into the Vistula River, but bars block the exit. This is not the feel good movie of 1957. Michal goes insane and starts playing an ocarina like the Pied Piper. One of the girls commits suicide when she learns her sewage soaked boy-friend is married. Another member dies from a booby-trapped grenade. At the last minute, Stalin orders his armies forward and they rescue the Home Army and expel the Germans from Warsaw. Just kidding.
This is a fascinating movie. It is the kind that you watch mesmerized by the skill of the director. The cinematography is amazing. The music is riveting. The characters are interesting (especially Daisy) and the acting is good. These are not heroes, they are just humans who refuse to quit even though they have no optimism. The dialogue is simple. (You don’t have to read much!) No patriotic speeches. The sets are outstanding. The outdoor scenes are appropriately rubble-strewn. And the sewers are sewers. This is one of the slimiest movies ever. Thank God it’s not available in smellovision!
The movie has educational value. Most Americans know little of the Warsaw Uprising. The Polish Resistance timed the uprising with the approach of the Soviet Army. The Germans would be caught between the anvil and the hammer. The very valiant Poles took over much of central Warsaw and were on their way to success when… Josef Stalin decided he preferred to have the Nazis kill the valiant Poles and save him the trouble later. The Germans were quite capable of doing the dirty work. Barricades slowed them, but they had the firepower as we say. They did use Goliaths as depicted in the film. They also used Stukas wantonly. 25 % of the buildings in the city were destroyed. After 63 days, it was over.
The themes are fairly obvious. The futility of war. The fog of war. The hopelessness of being Polish in warfare. I read it described as hopeless heroism. You know, the kind that gets you to charge tanks on horseback. Something else apparent is how tiring warfare can be. These Poles drip (sorry) exhaustion. If you think you could never fall asleep in a sewer, think again. I like that kind of realism. Too many war movies dispense with the effects the elements have on soldiers.
This is a must see movie. It is also a must not eat before seeing movie. Oh, and don’t watch it if you are already depressed.
grade = A