Wajda may very well have produced his finest film ever in 1957 with Kanal (literally "Canal"), about the dying days of the two-month long Polish resistance against the Germans in late 1944 (though the setting is real, the story itself appears completely fictional). The film begins with the usual sparring in the ghetto, as Nazis are killed by guerrillas then hunted down by an endless flood of soldiers behind them. Eventually the war is lost (and a narrator intones mournfully that we're witnessing a tragedy right at the beginning, so I'm not spoiling anything) and the remaining few dozen survivors reluctantly enter the sewers of Warsaw to try and escape to a liberated part of town.
Very quickly, the group splits up into small enclaves of survivors, most of whom are utterly lost and afraid in the dark and foul environment of the sewers. The story splits apart as we follow a selection of these groups: Largely consisting of resistance soldiers who skirmish with Nazis on their trail. But one duo stands out: A freedom fighter and his girlfriend, a lovely yet streetwise woman (Teresa Izewska) who normally spends long hours in the sewers looking for valuable cast-off goods. She seems to have the most hope leading her war-torn and injured boyfriend to safety, but in the end even her quest is for naught.
The myriad booby traps and the ever-encroaching threat of Nazis are nothing compared to the intense claustrophobia experienced in the sewers, and one quickly starts to wonder how on earth Wajda actually shot a film down there.
Wajda's never been my favorite director, and even Kanal has its flaws, brought on by Wajda's over-earnestness that can lend a feeling of History 101 absurdity to his movie. But Kanal also offers Wajda at his most restrained and the top of his technical craft. If you see one film of his, see this one.
Kanal is included on Criterion's new box set of Wajda's war trilogy, including the skippable A Generation and the highly-regarded Ashes and Diamonds. Kanal includes an interview with Wajda along with production photos.
Run time: 91 mins
In Theaters: Saturday 20th April 1957
Contactmusic.com: 4 / 5
Rotten Tomatoes: 100%
IMDB: 7.7 / 10
Director: Andrzej Wajda
Producer: Andrzej Wajda
Screenwriter: Jerzy Stefan Stawinski
Starring: Teresa Iżewska as Łączniczka "Stokrotka", Tadeusz Janczar as Podchorąży Jacek "Korab", dowódca plutonu, Emil Karewicz as Porucznik "Mądry", zastępca "Zadry", Wienczyslaw Gliński as Porucznik "Zadra", dowódca kompanii, Vladek Sheybal as Kompozytor Michał, Tadeusz Gwiazdowski as Sierżant "Kula", szef kompanii, Stanisław Mikulski as "Smukły", zastępca "Koraba", Adam Pawlikowski as Niemiec przy wylocie kanału, Zygmunt Maciejewski as Porucznik "Gustaw", Ewa Wiśniewska as Dziewczyna podająca wodę powstańcom, Władysław Kowalski as Polski żołnierz, Zdzisław Leśniak as 'Mały', Jan Englert as "Zefir", Kazimierz Dejunowicz as Kapitan "Zabawa", Kazimierz Kutz as Powstaniec w kanale, Ryszard Filipski as Mężczyzna w studzience, Tadeusz Ross as Powstaniec