An excerpt from the Kanał booklet essay by Tony Rayns

Kanał is a film about the closing days of the Warsaw Uprising in August-October 1944, a valiant but futile military campaign by the AK (Armia Krajowa or ‘Home Army’) to drive occupying Nazi troops out of Poland’s capital. The Germans had invaded Poland in 1939, and the AK campaign to drive them out was the most ambitious resistance operation ever seen in Europe. The film is based on the short-story ‘They Loved Life’ [‘Kochali życie’] published in the magazine Twórczość by Jerzy Stefan Stawiński (1921-2010), who had himself been an AK commander in the Uprising and who adapted his own story for the screenplay. The first director who picked up the script was Andrzej Munk (1921-1961), but he dropped the project when he realised that it would be impractical to shoot in the actual sewers of Warsaw, not least because he would need to use inauthentic lighting. The head of the script department at KADR Film Unit, Tadeusz Konwicki, handed the script on to Andrzej Wajda, who had just released his debut feature A Generation (1955). Poland’s communist authorities initially blocked the production, but the political changes in 1956 (after Stalin’s death, Gomułka – a Pole not pre-indoctrinated in Moscow – took over leadership of the Polish Communist Party and introduced immediate reforms) made filming possible. Wajda’s film premiered in Warsaw in April 1957 and then screened in the Cannes festival competition soon after, at the invitation of co-organiser Robert Favre Le Bret. The Cannes jury that year awarded it the Special Jury Prize ex aequo with Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal.

The Polish title Kanał means ‘Sewer’, so it’s not hard to see why the film became famous internationally under a close approximation of its original title: Kanal. The ugliness of the title’s meaning may well have contributed to the controversies around the film in Poland, but unvoiced political prejudices were in play. First, the AK was not only anti-Nazi but also anti-communist: it took leadership from Poland’s wartime government-in-exile in London, and opposed Stalin’s dream of annexing Poland into an Eastern Bloc. Poland’s communist authorities in the 50s and 60s held the AK to have been oppressive and reactionary. Second, the Soviet army – whose off-screen presence is inferred at the end of the film – was content to bide its time, not intervene in the Uprising, and allow the AK to be annihilated by the helpful Germans. Third and most crucial, Poland had prided itself on tales of heroic martyrdoms in countless battles, including the anti-Nazi resistance: an image contradicted by the squalid, shit-stained deaths in Stawiński’s script, which emphasises the struggle for life over the ‘heroism’ of death. As Wajda’s biographer Boleslaw Michalek notes, the film offers “a definite comment on ‘Polish heroism’, an implicit critique of ‘Polishness’, the lack of political and social common sense, the propensity for disproportionately high sacrifices”. Many Polish critics in 1957 reacted angrily or disdainfully to the film, but (after winning the Cannes prize) it began to pick up a canonical status as harbinger of a new frankness in Poland’s self-appraisal.

Tony Rayns' complete essay, from which this excerpt is taken, appears in the booklet which accompanies the release.

Disc Info

Poland, 1955 / 1957 / 1958
A Generation: 88 minutes
Kanał : 97 minutes
Ashes and Diamonds:
103 minutes
Special features: 118 mins
Sound: 2.0 Mono LPCM (48k/16-bit)
Black and white
Original aspect ratios:
1.37:1 / 1.33:1 / 1.66:1
Language: Polish
Subtitles: English

Blu-ray: BD50 x 3
1080 / 24fps
Region ABC (Region Free)

Blu-Ray: £39.99
Release Date: 5 Dec 2022


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