Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Review: Kanal (1957)

Kanal (1957, Andrzej Wajda)

The Warsaw Uprising, like so many other events that transpired during the nightmare that was the Second World War, is a great subject for a film, and who better to tackle the topic than the great Polish director Andrzej Wajda. The film was brought to life in 1956 (released in 1957), a reasonably short time following World War II and during a period of great tension between Poles and Russians, the latter whom had extended their political and cultural arms of influence over Poland during this early decade of the Cold War. Despite censorship regulations, the film nonetheless found its audience, and director Wajda became an important cinematic voice around the world. Kanal even earned the Special Jury Prize at the 1957 Cannes film festival.

Kanal is inspired by a true story about a band of resistance fighters and civilians during the Warsaw Uprising who, in order to flee their crumbling hideout and make it to a 'safer' section of the city, must navigate their way through the maddening maze that is the underground sewer system. The film begins in economical fashion with a nameless narrator briefly explaining the status quo and introduces each of the main characters the viewer will follow throughout the story as they march in a line one after the other, avoiding enemy fire amongst the ruins of a decadent city. The narrator pulls a fast one on the viewer upon announcing that these are the last few hours of their lives. Wha, wha, what!?!. The setups only lasts about 20 minutes or so before the characters embark on the perilous journey in the canals of the underground, but just enough is done to establish most of them, providing the viewer with something to latch on to. They aren't merely dirty faces, but people whom we would like to see make it out alive. Of course, the revelation earlier from the narrator arguably heightens the viewer's sensibilities and attachment to this band of doomed souls, thus we will them onward to their rendez-vous point. Amongst the members of this crew are Zadra, the cynical captain of the group who goes against his better instincts in order to see his people to safety, Slim, who is tall and skinny and all gun ho about charging the enemy and doesn't like the idea of abandoning their post, Jacek, young and energetic, but whose brashness gets him into some trouble early in the film, Daisy, who is Jacek's main squeeze and who probably has bigger balls than most of the men we see in the film, and Michael, a nervous pianist who only wishes to see his wife and daughter alive again. This is but to name a few, so it is forgivable if not everyone the viewer meets is a fully developed character. Following an attack by the Nazis from which our heroes survive but not without a degree of difficulty, Zadra receives orders that that they are no longer required there. Too dangerous. Other sections of the city are now safer and have become priority. You know the drill. Zadra gets his troops and the civilians among them to gather up their essential items and make their way to the sewers and reach their destination a few streets away. And so begins a frustrating and hellish trek through filth, darkness and an impending sense of doom which begins to infect them.

From this point onward, Kanal takes on another atmosphere altogether. Up until then, the viewer has been privy to a typical WWII film. A well made one to be sure, but one that appears to follow a familiar formula with a familiar setting. From the moment Zadra and his followers enter the sewer tunnels, the film adopts a completely different life. It’s dark and shadowy (forgive the filmmakers for having the set sit. After all, a real dark sewer would have been rather boring), the tunnels quickly begin to resemble one another, the fatigue and frustration set themselves in the minds and bodies of our heroes, the lack of fresh air affects them, the resistance group is inadvertently split into three smaller bands, and then there are those frightened people running past them madly, claiming that the enemy is gassing the sewers. There are odd fumes flying about suddenly… There is a monumental battle between despair and determination that is inflicted on the emotional and psychological stability of the resistance fighters which is quite haunting. Some characters, such as Zadra, Slim and Daisy, dig deep and find some resolve to push onward, while others like Michael and Jacek are crumbling under the weight of the situation and with every step and crawl they take. The movie had me questioning my own bravery and how I would behave if forced to experience such a scenario. One slogs their way forward, there is a pending fear of being gassed (if that really is gas that is floating around), one loses strength with each and every further step, and once one turns a corner…they are met with the stoic stare of a dead end. Worse still is the claustrophobic nature of the sewer canals, where one has only limited space, no natural light and can only move or backward. And what if one is separated from the rest of the group, left to find their way through the filthy maze with the one bloke who keeps repeating that you are all doomed and there is no point in going on? Shut up! Shut up! Shut up!

Clearly, I had a significant reaction to the film. The aesthetic of the sewer scenes, witnessing the fall of certain people who seemed invincible not long ago, the determination of others in an increasingly desperate situation (that darn revelation from the anonymous narrator still haunting me), the stressful interactions amongst comrades, all this made for a remarkable viewing experience. Whether the characters, prior to their figurative and literal decent into hell, had been brash, kind, cynical, heroic, annoying or even drunkards, it is something else entirely to witness their deterioration, their fragility and ultimately their failure. It lends a degree of universality to the movie watching experience that is difficult to capture. Only the right ingredients in film can tap into such emotions. Other variables include the moment when you are experiencing the film. Young, old, good mood, foul mood, morning, night, sunny day, rainy day, all these will dictate elicit different reactions. Well, there was certainly something in the air of my living room the other day when discovering Kanal.

Much like another war movie we only just discussed, Kathryn Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker, I was surprised by how apolitical this movie felt. Clearly, there are themes of survival, hope and hopelessness as well as the real life backdrop of the Warsaw Uprising of 1944. The elements are ripe for exploration in cinema, but Kanal doesn’t pander to any obvious political message. The viewer do not even see very much of the Nazis in the film. We observe the result of war via the dilapidated condition of once proud Warsaw, the depression and anger in the eyes of many members of the resistance, and the physical price many victims of war must pay, but the enemy and its physical incarnation that is the Nazi army force, is pretty much absent for the great majority of the running time. Even in the early attack, the assault is performed with a tank and a smaller armoured vehicle, both faceless mechanical monsters inexorably approaching the last remaining hideout of Zadra’s resistance group. Rather, the real enemy takes on a more psychologically frightening shape. The omnipresence of death and decay, which in turns shatters the spirit of many of our heroes, is what truly attacks the protagonists on all fronts. The physical pain leads to emotional pain and finally to the unforgivable and unforeseeable psychological pain. The characters, while still being their own persons as defined in the opening 20-25 minutes of the film, are also vehicles which exemplify this reality of warfare.

I think I’ve bombarded the readers of this review with enough of my thoughts on the film. It was rather difficult for me to formulate the thoughts and feelings I have towards Wajda’s film. I haven’t even mentioned any of the individual performances, nor the editing, nor even the cinematography, a testament to how much I have to say about Kanal. I haven’t the faintest idea whether or not any of you who might read this review will take the time to discover the movie and share my reactions or not. I can only recommend the film, and recommend it highly at that.


Anonymous said...

This is one of my favorite films so I'm glad you liked it.

It's one of the few films where I felt like I really took on the entire fate and feelings of these characters. There's no escape, no comic relief, nothing but darkness and tunnels for the length of the film.

I'd be interested to hear what you have to say about A Generation and Ashes and Diamonds and hope you check them out.

edgarchaput said...

I will be looking for those movies, 'A Generation' and 'Ashes and Diamonds' in the near future. Thank you for the suggestions.

Unknown said...

The exerience of Kanal is very real and intense for me, having experienced the grim, stinking, and claustrophobic environment of the sewers, as part of a project in Warsaw retracing the routes of the partisans in their movements of weapons,etc. While down there, unpleasant though it was, the reality of the struggle of Polish resistance fighters as depicted in Kanal and in books I had read became very vivid and inspiring. One identifies with the characters, as a previous comment says. My favorite characters are Halinka, a picture of innocence cruelly deceived, and Zadra, battling impossible odds. His descent back into the sewers at the end is very moving.

danyulengelke said...

Great review!

We're linking to your article for Polish New Wave Wednesday at

Keep up the good work

Anonymous said...

Awesome review.