It’s the last few days of the Warsaw uprising and the resistance of the third platoon is down to its last few men and women; made up of a motley bunch of different fighters all with a common cause of disrupting the Nazi occupiers at any cost. Reading this short summation, it’s very easy to imagine Andrzej Wajda’s 1957 film Kanal, as some sort of boys-own romp in the mold of a Western variety. Quite often war films have a safe enough distance (both historically and geographically) to bring out the most adventure possible from the dire reality that created them but Wajda is incapable of lying or distorting the truth about the Second World War.
Kanal is the first film ever made about the Warsaw uprising so it’s unsurprising that it gained him worldwide attention and a special jury prize at Cannes. This praise should not, however, distract from the qualities of the film, of which there are many. Kanal is the perfect example of a humanist reaction to the Second World War. Cinema would change after the world tore itself apart, unafraid and perhaps even unable to deny that it is a place balanced with people both great and vile.
As soon as the film opens, the viewer is granted no exceptions to the circumstances; the film seems more documentary like than fiction though the knowledge that it is based on true events lends the more emotional events of later in the film a heart breaking resonance. The visuals are gritty and battered like the characters and like the city itself. The rubble of the bombed buildings makes a beautiful texture though this can occasionally trick the viewer into casually viewing makeshift graves and crosses. The mixture of characters also gives the film a true sense of realism with a pianist being the most obviously out of place of the resistance fighters. It is also this aspect that gives the characters their nonchalance when dealing with the most awful of circumstance. The bombardment of the first segment is relentless yet the characters seem relaxed enough to wander about and even have sex. It seems so real yet the fear that they all have ignored comes to the fore when confined in the tunnel sections of the film later.
After a final push from the Nazis on the crumbling, resistance held building, the few who survive are forced down into the underground system of the city. It is here where Wajda builds up the claustrophobic feel to dizzying heights of discomfort. Characters have little in the way of supplies and few matches to light their way. With the band split into groups of twos and threes, the film becomes about small scale character relationships and the humanist side of Wajda comes through at its most powerful. There’s no doubt that Strotroka (Teresa Izewska) could easily get out of the underground if she left her injured comrade but in showing the compassionate side of humanity, contrasted with the brutality of the Nazi regime, the contrast is more than clear.
Escape from the tunnels seems ever more impossible as the Nazis guard the escape routes and seem quite happy to throw grenades down at any sign of life. This idea of placing characters between two opposing but terrible possibilities makes Kanal a suspenseful and tense cinematic experience, especially in the film’s famous booby trap sequence. It is however by doing this that Wajda achieves his best and most defining moments in realism; an aesthetic quality that, of all countries, Poland is the most unable to deny.