The Warsaw Rising of 1944 in Andrzej Wajda’s Kanał and Andrzej Munk’s Eroica
The Warsaw Rising of 1944 is arguably the seminal event in Polish wartime history. The scope of the destruction that befell the Polish capital, and what this catastrophe symbolized, ensured that the Rising would become deeply embedded in Polish public memory. And yet the public memory of the Warsaw Rising could never be a straightforward retelling of the story, for in it both individual heroism and tragedy were bound up with a sense of national defeat, Soviet duplicity and Western betrayal. Today debates over the history of the Warsaw Rising routinely raise questions about the price of Polish independent statehood and the value of freedom. They also invoke arguments over the scope of Polish culpability.
Andrzej Wajda’s Kanał (‘The Sewer’) and Andrzej Munk’s Eroica, two of the most important films from the communist era to deal with the Warsaw Rising of 1944, offer dramatically different interpretations of the event. Still, they come together in the end in a shared powerful reaffirmation of the centuries-old Polish historical trope of insurrectionary struggle.
Wajda’s film is a metaphor for the trauma, sacrifice, and ultimate hopelessness of the battle. In a highly stylized way it narrates the fate of a Home Army (Armia Krajowa; hereafter AK) unit, led by one lieutenant Zadra, which is forced to evacuate from the Old Town through the city’s sewer system as the Rising enters its final days. At its core Kanał is about the moral dilemmas engendered by the Rising, zeroing in on the archetypal obligation to fight for freedom (bić się czy nie bić?), thereby bridging between past Polish insurrections and the Rising.
The story line is rudimentary: a small AK unit, after a brief engagement which leaves one of its officers wounded, descends into the sewers. Soon they become separated. Some exit too soon and are captured and killed by the Germans. Others fall back from fatigue. In the end, Korab, the wounded officer, and Stokrotka, the girl medic who loves him, reach an exit to the Vistula River only to discover that it is closed by steel bars. As Korab dies of his wounds and Stokrotka stares at the river that can be seen through the bars, the film delivers its most powerful message, for as Wajda observed years later, every Pole watching the film would have known that behind those bars and on the other side of the river stood the Soviet army, waiting for the insurrection to collapse . In the last scene Zadra, the commander, finally reaches the sewer exit downtown only to discover that his entire unit fell behind somewhere and is lost. Having struggled through the entirety of the film to exit the inferno of the sewers, Zadra nonetheless voluntarily descends into them again, honorably if senselessly fulfilling his duty.
Munk’s Eroica is a dramatically different film, consisting of two novellas (only the first of which is directly related to the Rising). In the first novella, entitled ‘Scherzo Alla Pollacca’, one Dzidziuś (‘Babe’) Górkiewicz, a quintessential smart-aleck wheeler-dealer from the Warsaw suburbs, decides to desert the Rising and go home to wait for it all to end. He seizes the chance to bolt from his unit (none of whose fighters are armed) when a plane bombs a nearby building. Babe rips the white-and-red WP (Wojsko Polskie, or Polish Army) armband off his sleeve and makes a run for it.
Babe’s peregrinations are more reminiscent of a comedy than a wartime drama, with none of the pathos of Wajda’s film. When Babe reaches his villa, he discovers his wife in the company of a dashing Hungarian officer from a unit stationed nearby. The officer, who clearly has been rather intimate with Babe’s bride, discloses to Babe that his unit, with its heavy weapons and artillery, wants to join the Rising and asks him to go back to the city to arrange the deal. Babe complies, and treks back to Warsaw, using his conman’s wits (plus a few stashed gold rubles) to bribe his way in. The AK commander dispatches him back with a liaison officer to arrange for the Hungarians to join the Rising, but they request an official letter from the AK command confirming the terms. Babe treks to Warsaw for a third time and receives a coded message to take back to the liaison officer waiting in his house, but before he departs he discovers a wine cellar and decides to sample its holdings.
What follows is a series of some of the most iconic scenes in Polish cinema in which Babe, drunk on ‘bourgeois wine’, stumbles through the front lines amidst a running fight between AK insurgents and German soldiers, with bombs raining down from above. In perhaps the most memorable scene, Babe stands in front of a German tank, pleading for his life and mumbling insults while the crew erupts in laughter and lets him be. He is finally delivered to his house, passed-out drunk in a peasant cart, but when he hands the coded message to the Hungarian officer he learns that it is a refusal. The deal is off and the Hungarian troops leave to fight on the side of the Germans again. And yet, at this very moment when Babe is contemplating waiting out the rest of the battle in his bride’s warm embrace, something moves him to return to Warsaw once more. In the last scene, Babe and the AK officer set off for the city, this time to join the Rising for one final if hopeless battle.
Munk’s film marked the first attempt in Polish cinema to ‘de-bronze’ the collective mental monument to the Rising embedded in the public memory. The AK commanders of the Rising are made out to be rigid bureaucratic buffoons. The so-called ‘unit’ from which Babe deserts are a bunch of middle-aged men with sticks; only their drill instructor carries a pistol. The film is an almost tongue-in-cheek denunciation of the entire enterprise, poking fun at the very notion that any of what happened in the battle made sense.
And yet, like Wajda, Munk seems unable to shed the fundamental trope permeating the collective memory of the Rising: armed struggle to the bitter end as the essence of Polishness, with the battle fitting into the nearly two-centuries-old Polish ideal of an unyielding, if often futile, fight for sovereignty by a stateless nation. Whether one approaches the Rising with the pathos of Wajda, or from Munk’s jaundiced wink of realism disabused of all illusions, in the end both Zadra and Babe are pulled in by the Polish insurrectionary ethos, leaving Zadra little choice but to descend into the sewer again, and compelling Babe to march off to make his final stand in a battle he knows cannot be won.
Chelsea Michta is a first-year PhD candidate at the University of Cambridge with interests in modern Central and Eastern European history. Her dissertation examines representations of the Warsaw Rising of 1944 in communist and democratic Poland.