Films depicting the horrors of war are aplenty. Some take us right into the battlefield and make us witness the rigours faced by the soldiers in battle. Then there are others that focus on the plight of civilians during an ongoing war. There are also a few others that paint a disturbing picture of the aftermath of war, and its effects on both, the soldiers as well as the civilians. Many of these films either showcase only the carnage with liberal doses of violence, keeping the characters at a good distance, or make us feel at home with the characters, intermittently shifting focus to the killing and mayhem.
Polish filmmaker Andrzej Wajda accomplishes a rare feat with a film that clocks to only about 95 minutes. He gives us a fully fleshed out product that not only makes us well acquainted with its ensemble of characters as individually recognizable and relatable people, but also takes us right in the middle of all the pandemonium, making us feel the bombs, the guns, the madness and in this case, waist-deep grime of a sewer!
The year is 1944, and the Warsaw uprising is nearing its end. A small company of 43 surviving members of the Home Army resistance fighters comprising of soldiers as well as civilians led by Lt. Zadra (Wienczyslaw Glinski) find a new position in the remains of a half destroyed bourgeois house in an abandoned territory. The German army is on the warpath, capturing most of the land and marching on ahead, bombing and evacuating almost all Polish territories. The company has an eclectic bunch of fighters, males and females of different age groups and aspirations. Some act as messengers and helpers, others as the fighting frontmen, and they even have the wide-eyed passionate music composer Michal (Vladek Sheybal) among them.
"Kanal" tells the harrowing tale of the struggle of these brave people, to survive the brutal onslaught of the Nazis, especially of their last-ditch attempt to retreat downtown, through long underground sewers when they are surrounded and all hope seems lost. Only the task isn't going to be an easy one, as it becomes clear once the wading through the muck commences.
Wajda wastes no time and takes us right into the action, by announcing that what would follow is the chronicling of the final hours of this company of the resistance members. He keeps it compact and fleeting but never once does anything feel inadequate in Jerzy Stefan Stawiński's screenplay that covers practically all the facets and sentiments associated with a situation such as this. It is a chilling moment when an already desensitized Michal makes that final call to his house in the nick of time before we hear his wife say that the Germans are coming to get them and the line gets disconnected. Some others steal amorous moments and have a little party before the imminent doom.
It is heartening to see that almost all of them are ready and know that they may die soon, and yet, find some light moments to laugh about in the face of adversity, just as the music composer finds a piano and starts smashing some tunes to ease the moment. It isn't long before we find ourselves in the midst of smouldering rubble as the attack catches the party unawares when some of them are catching up on some rest and others trying hard to find a drop of water to shave!
The journey through the sewers is the toughest ordeal the company has to go through. Apart from plodding through endlessly long stretches of human waste, they have to save themselves from the surprise attack of poisonous gas released by the Germans in the sewers to either kill the escapees or bring them out of hiding! The script at this juncture is dripping with pure genius, as Wajda and Stawiński add some clever humour in small doses that accentuates the fearlessness of the group. Take for instance the scene when Michal the composer just commences what could be his final journey through the sewers and exclaims how amazing the acoustics were, down there! There's a good dose of such fleeting gallows humour in the face of certain death in the form of crackling dialog, enough to garner applause for the inspiring bravado on display.
Such elements in a film sometimes attract criticism for being unrealistic, but considering that the script has been helmed by a man who was himself part of a resistance operation and survived in the sewers, his credibility can hardly be doubted. Much like the initial display of courage is entirely believable, so is the gradual draining of enthusiasm. As the gas fumes begin to destroy the troops in body and spirit, their hopes begin to dwindle and so does their frame of mind. Differing mindsets and conflicting opinions regarding the code of honour and general ethics result in deception and animosity. It is an accurate depiction of fear, madness and a decline of morals.
While the writing shimmers with intelligence and well-timed twists, Wajda's visual portrayal of it shines in the darkness, literally! The first half gives us a tour of the dusty ruins on the exterior, and the entire second half practically takes place in the dark sewers. It gives the director ample opportunity to show off some fine chiaroscuro lighting effects and an effectively eerie use of shadows. The underground passage is unknown to most, much like their fate. The surprise gas attack adds to the chaos. Wajda taps this setting extremely well to create a hellish, surreal atmosphere; a seemingly endless, Kafkaesque tunnel of no escape. The resulting sense of confusion and hysteria that prevails, is aptly demonstrated by the filmmaker. He owes a lot to his actors as well, who seem to lose themselves in their characters, making you feel their predicament.
"Kanal" is a tragic, disturbing masterpiece of Polish cinema, one that is so powerful that you might feel the need to play something cheerful post the film to lighten up the mood.