Directed by Andrzej Wadja
Narrator: These are the tragic heroes: watch them closely in the remaining hours of their lives.
While all films have sets, only a very few are able to create convincing worlds out of studio back-lots, warehouses, and outdoor locations. Sets like Presbyterian Church, Washington from McCabe & Mrs. Miller (1971), the Nostromo from Alien (1979), and even the Factory from Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory (1971) pull us into another universe. We never doubt for a second that everything is edible in the chocolate river room. We feel so drawn into the movie, that their world becomes our own, and we can't help drooling at the thought of a river of chocolate. Alas, these sets are hard to come by. Most of them are extremely expensive and require incredible amounts of man-power to construct. The aforementioned Presbyterian Church, Washington was literally constructed while the movie was being filmed. But do these sets always necessarily have to be big, elaborate constructions? Isn't it possible to create a small set that engages the audience without detracting from the overall experience? Alfred Hitchcock tried in Lifeboat (1944) by setting the entire film in a single lifeboat. It was only through Hitchcock's genius that we were able to watch that film without visually fatigued. But at a certain level, the lifeboat set can be seen as a kind of gimmick. Genius film that it was, the audience could never detach themselves from the feeling that it was a set, albeit a very small one.
That is where we come to the 1956 film Kanal, which is Polish for sewer. It's director, Andrzej Wajda, one of the true patron saints of European cinema, sets this masterpiece largely in the sewers underneath the city of Warsaw. In the cramped, suffocating darkness, his characters have to struggle through labyrinthine passageways as they strive for freedom. Although the characters started the movie on the surface in the daytime, when they enter the sewers, we forget that there ever was an outside. I remember seeing this movie for the first time, and feeling cold as they crept down the claustrophobic tunnels. I had to turn the light on because I couldn't stand the sight of so much blackness. And at the end, when a few characters manage to “escape” (notice the quotation marks) the light is piercing and alien. Wajda has created a movie with a set that is so powerful, that our own primordial preference for daylight becomes obscured. There is just the sewers, and the poor creatures who inhabit them.
But who are these lost souls? Why are they there in the first place? Well, the fact is that none of them want to be in those dank sewers. But they are forced into them because they are the remnants of the third Platoon of the Resistance of the Warsaw Uprising in 1944. They enter them in the vain hope of escaping from the guns of the German offensive. But as time goes on, they get lost, separated, and destroyed. Some make it all the way to the river, only to be blocked by a steel grate. Others make it to the surface, only to literally pop up in the middle of an firing squad. Some die, some simply walk away and disappear. But they all share the same fate; to enter the sewers is to die in the sewers. The opening shot of the film tells us all we need to know about them. In a genius four-minute tracking shot, we are introduced to the players in this great tragedy. We find them bunched up against walls desperately dodging enemy bullets. In the beginning, they had seventy men. Now, only forty-three. “Soon, none,” a sad voice tells us in the back of our heads.
Leading this company is Lieutenant Zadra (Wienczyslaw Glinski). He is accompanied by an aide named Madry (Emil Karewicz) who will become the doomed lover of their messenger Halinka (Teresa Berezowska). There are many others who will accompany them into the sewers: sergeant-major Kula, officer-cadet Korab, corporal Smukly, and of course, my favorite character, a civilian composer named Michal. Played by an incredible Vladek Sheybal, he is the odd man out, a civilian who just happened to get caught up with the uprising. He too will share their fates in the sewers. But before they enter them, he provides piercing anecdotes with his piano playing that comments on the action playing out before him. The resistance fighters enter a safehouse, and he begins to play Chopin’s Revolutionary Étude. How poignant.
Of course, there are deeper meanings behind these characters. They are not the product of some film studio machine designed to fulfill our expectations of archetypal characters. The screenwriter, Jerzy Stefan Stawinski, said that each character in the film had at least one real-life equivalent amongst the ranks of the Polish insurgency. He can attest to this because he knew them. Oh, I guess I forgot to mention one of the most striking aspects of this film, many of the crew members were survivors of the actual uprising. Cinematographer Jerzy Lipman and actor Tadeusz Janczar were both there, fighting in the ghettos. Stawinski actually used the infamous sewers in real life in order to move from the southern district of Mokotów to the city center. And then there is Wajda.
Wajda's life was forever changed by the Second World War. His father, Jakub Wajda, was a Polish cavalry officer. He met his fate at the hands of the Soviets in the 1940 Katyn massacre where around 22,000 Polish military officers, intellectuals, policemen, and even civilians were murdered. He then joined the Polish resistance at only 16 years of age. His experiences against the Nazi's would influence his career for the rest of his life. Indeed, several scenes from Kanal were based on his own personal experiences.
Maybe that is why this is such a powerful film. With so many people working on a film based on events that they participated in, is it any wonder why it is such a masterpiece? Kanal is actually the second part of Wajda's War trilogy, preceded by A Generation (1955) and followed by Ashes and Diamonds (1958). Most point to the final film in the trilogy as the best. But I disagree. Nothing can match the personal drama and ungodly atmosphere of this film. It actually was the first movie ever made about the Warsaw Uprising. Others would touch on it in the future, most notably Roman Polanski's The Pianist (2002). But really, I don't think there is any need to discuss it any more in a cinematic format. Everything that could be said about the event has already been spoken. Such is the power of Kanal: it is a nightmare, a hallucination, a testament to those who died in the gutters and perished in the sewers.