Wajda’s film takes its title from a famous poem by Cyprian Norwid, the renowned nineteenth-century Polish poet whose work captured the romantic aspirations of a generation longing for a homeland:
So often, are you as a blazing torch with flames
of burning rags falling about you flaming,
you know not if flames bring freedom or death.
Consuming all that you must cherish
if ashes only will be left, and want Chaos and tempest
Or will the ashes hold the glory of a starlike diamond
The Morning Star of everlasting triumph.
The irony here is that “Ashes and Diamonds” is set on the day that the Second World War ends in Europe. Amid the celebrations, remnants of the nationalist Home Army are fighting it out with the Polish Communists. We know that Polish freedom is decades off, a point the film emphasizes by showing Russian tanks and soldiers moving into the town against the backdrop of a larger-than-life poster of Stalin.
“The end of the war isn’t the end of our fight,” the communist Commissar Szczuka tells the workers. He’s been targeted for assassination by the nationalist leader, and it’s up to two Home Army soldiers to carry it out. The older of the two, Andrzej, accepts the burden with grim determination, but the younger man, Maciek (played by the dashing actor Zbigniew Cybulski), questions the need for violence.
He’s fallen in love with the lovely barmaid Krystyna, who works at the hotel where the commissar is staying. A veteran of the Warsaw uprising, Maciek describes himself as a victim of his unrequited love for Poland. He’d like to believe in the future, but he’s seen too much death. Though filled with doubt, Maciek fulfills his mission, turning his back on Krystyna—his diamond, his morning star—and needlessly sacrificing his own life.
Meanwhile, the drunken celebrants at the hotel dance to the strains of a discordant Polonaise. Like sleepwalkers, they waltz blindly into the future.