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Kanal (Andrzej Wajda, 1957)


    Polish director Andrei Wajda finds a sobering metaphor for the dehumanizing nature of war in Kanal, his relentlessly bleak war drama set during the Warsaw uprising of 1944, by following a large group of civilians and soldiers in the Polish Home Army Resistance as they attempt to escape from certain death by retreating through the watery labyrinth that is the sewer system. Made to run from imminent danger like helpless sewer rats, they descend midway through the film into what is nearly a literal hell, as the Nazis above use their booby traps and machine guns to easily pick them off whenever they dare surface. The mood, which steadily moves from desperate to fatalistic, makes Kanal difficult to watch, especially since the second half of the filmís claustrophobic setting stands in stark contrast to the wide open, if war-torn, spaces of the first, but the history behind the hopeless situation would make feel-good or even sustained hopeful moments inappropriate. Despair dominates here and once he gets down and dirty in the sewers, Wajda makes no concessions toward his audience in lessening the severity of his vision, for better or worse.

    The uncompromising second half of the film makes the comparatively easy viewing experience of the first half seem especially onerous in retrospect. Showing the last stand of an already depleted platoon of forty-something troops, the film sketches its characters broadly, relying on surprisingly stereotypical types, all played by actors who seem a bit too attractive to be believable. Thereís an idealistic young infantryman, a determined and proud commander, a surprisingly strong woman, and an almost pathetically sensitive musician, who predictably slides into madness once in the sewers and begins quoting passages from Danteís Inferno. The production values on display in the first half trump those in the second half, but as impressive as they and the filmmaking are (you can see numerous shots that were later copied by Spielberg in his World War II films), the sequence only seems to exist to provide a counterpoint for whatís to come. The real heart of Kanal rests in its most desperate scenes, and since it portrays an impossible battle from the losing side, that makes sense. Because of its topic, this would make an excellent, if difficult, double feature when paired with fellow Pole Roman Polanskiís Holocaust drama The Pianist, which covers the non-military experience of the country during the same period of time.

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Jeremy Heilman