Andrzej Wajda starts with a bit of bravura, the credits run over a sprawling, spiraling track around the Warsaw slums, passing by children, shepherds and other fastidiously posed dumpster-dwellers before settling on a trio of lads playing with knives. One of them lies dead atop a Nazi supply train moments later, such are the lives of "patriotic thieves." The theme is the scrappy passage "from journeyman to hero" in the 1942 Poland of curfew sirens and corpse-adorned fences, film noir is the stylistic bedrock. The callow protagonist is a carpenter’s apprentice (Tadeusz Lomnicki) who joins the underground resistance, galvanized by Janusz Paluszkiewicz’s avuncular foreman ("There once was a wise bearded man named Karl Marx...") and Urszula Modrzynska’s comely pamphlet-thrower ("We have blood, tears, and destruction to avenge"). The contrasting character is the bewildered comrade (Tadeusz Janczar) who agonizes over tangled emotions, kills for the cause, and finds himself on the edge of the precipice. Between them is the uprising and incineration of the Jewish ghetto, a credibly clumsy excursion into a tavern to shoot a Gestapo officer, paintings hawked amid the rubble, and Roman Polanski still in short pants. Closer to the deep-focus clutter of The Third Man than to the fragmented astringency of Open City, Wajda’s Warsaw is a striking panorama of burgeoning political consciences unfortunately weighed down by studied Film School Shots (a cupid’s cutout view of doomed lovers, the sky above the fairgrounds blackened by ominous smoke). Still, expressive anxiety trumps mandatory jingoism -- beaming youngsters line up for a sunny Eastern Bloc poster in the censors-patting finale, yet the lingering feeling remains the panic in Janczar’s eyes. With Ryszard Kotys, Ludwik Benoit, Zygmunt Zintel, and Zbigniew Cybulski. In black and white.
--- Fernando F. Croce