Regarded as one of the greatest of all Polish films from its premiere in October 1958, Andrzej Wajda's third feature Ashes and Diamonds retains that stature over half a century later.
The entire film takes place on the 8th of May 1945, when the war in Europe ended with Germany's formal surrender; but while other countries celebrated, Poland's post-war power struggle was only just beginning. In depicting the various factions jockeying for position, including ambitious Communists, aristocratic patriots, cynical journalists and anti-Nazi rebels recently emerged from the Warsaw sewers, Wajda brilliantly anatomises a riven country desperately trying to find its identity at a time when a fifth of its population had recently been killed and many more driven into exile.
Maciek Chelmicki (Zbigniew Cybulski) embodies this conflict outwardly: a calculating assassin, his ultra-cool facade begins to crack when he badly botches a mission, falls in love with the barmaid Krystyna (Ewa Krzyzewska) and dares to dream of a life outside the armed resistance that's characterised his entire adult life. His all too human indecision makes him Polish culture's Hamlet, and Cybulski's performance remains iconic to this day.