Andrzej Wajda John Simon - Essay

John Simon

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Kanal seems to me, except for one minor flaw, as perfect an antiwar film as was ever made. (p. 21)

The wretched troop [of the Warsaw Uprising] sloshes about [in the sewers] waist-deep in muck, in abysmal darkness, and totally unsure of their way and of what will await them above, if they ever make it. Their sufferings, loyalties, weaknesses, quarrels, heroism, and hopes begotten on despair would suggest little fluctuation from the prevailing note of catastrophe. Yet Wajda is able to evoke such a range of human reactions to this overarching doom, he can show such various shadings of courage, such nuances of discouragement and grief, that we can all locate ourselves on this scale of human responses to disaster; and we are given both a foretaste of our individual dying and an overwhelming taste of our common mortality.

The one false note is struck by an artist and intellectual in the band who goes mad and blindly wanders about reciting passages from Dante's Inferno. This is redundant—carrying symbolism to the second power; within a concrete image of hell, we do not need an abstraction of it. But otherwise the film is utterly spare and chaste, and the inevitable tragedies, all different, all manage to surprise, shock, and, without any diminishing returns, shatter us. Contrary to the layman's belief, there are several shades of black, and Kanal explores and exemplifies them all…. Kanal comes as close as any work of art can to breaking the heart; if any films can prevent us, even temporarily, from shirking our humanity, this, surely, is one of them. (pp. 21-2)

John Simon, "Favorites," in his Private Screenings (reprinted by permission of Wallace & Sheil Agency, Inc.; © 1967 by John Simon), Macmillan, 1967, pp. 17-37.∗