Kanal – Andrzej Wajda – 1957 1

Kanal CoverOriginal title: Kanal
Rating: 3.5 Stars
Year: 1957
Directors: Andrzej Wajda
Duration: 91 min.
Genre: Drama, War


The year 1957 might just be the best year for film to date. With releases of 12 Angry Men (Lumet), Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal and Wild StrawberriesPaths of Glory (Kubrick), Witness for the Prosecution (Billy Wilder), A Face in the Crowd (Elia Kazan), The Bridge on the River Kwai, Nights of Cabiria (Fellini), Sweet Smell of Success, Tokyo Twilight (Ozu) and Throne of Blood (Kurosawa) it is hard not to think so.

Aside from the long list of master pieces, you’d almost forget there is more well worth watching. I chose Kanal, because it is a little different from most other films. You could classify it as horror-ish. It also has a dark war theme, is about suffering, solitude, madness and other such things. The war is viewed from the perspective of a group of Polish resistance fighters in 1944, during the Warsaw uprising.


The uprising was started to liberate Warsaw from the Nazi’s near the end of the second world war and was an extremely bloody one. It lasted 63 days in total, killing roughly 200.000 people, mostly civilians, in the process. Most of the city was destroyed during and after the uprising. The uprising was unsuccessful in the end, but that is of no importance to this film. Nevertheless, it is quite interesting to read up on.


So off to the film then. Kanal starts with a group of resistance fighters. The group is somewhat stuck in a certain part of town. They are being surrounded by Nazi troops. The only way out is to retreat into the Warsaw sewer system. Through the Kanal they can reach another safer part of the city to meet with other members of the uprising. At first the leader of the group, a lt. Zadra, is reluctant to accept defeat. Eventually he does end up leading his bunch into the sewers. Soon they get split up into smaller groups of people, and some end up alone.


Everyone starts out hoping they will make it through and reach the other side. Slowly though the situation gets more grim. People get wet and dirty and there is the constant threat of being found by the Nazis. You can see people losing themselves in the dark and lonely pipe maze that is the Kanal. There are explosive traps near exits, grates blocking passages and smoke and fumes misinterpreted for enemy gas. Some people are injured and the sewer isn’t a great place to be in for people with open wounds. Others just can’t handle the pressure and panic, or slowly go mad.

You start to think that maybe staying outside and fighting to a certain but honourable death wouldn’t have been all too bad. It leaves you wondering if anyone will make it out of the sewer alive, and where they’ll end up. One of the ways in which the director manages to create those feelings is by his way of filming. The camera often stays focused on dark empty corridors after the characters have passed by. Almost as if to insinuate someone else might be coming. It adds to the claustrophobic feeling on being in small dark tunnels under ground.

The defeat above ground means everyone has to wade through the deep filthy sewer. The walls are dirty too and there is smoke everywhere. It is caused by the fumes released by the sewer waste. Everything is silent. There is only the echo of distant noise and the sound of water flowing. The only thing that struck me as a little strange was the amount of ambient light. I can’t quite understand where it comes from, but I suppose without it you wouldn’t have much of a film. I always imagine a sewer as being pitch dark in most places, unless you bring a flashlight or a torch.

All in all it is a great film to watch on a gloomy night. It has certain horror that go really well with the themes of war and suffering. The underground canals make for the perfect location for such a story. It almost makes you forget the first half takes place above ground.


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One thought on “Kanal – Andrzej Wajda – 1957

  • james Turner

    Kanal is one of my favourite films, despite its grim theme and atmosphere. I think the underlying theme is anti-war and the futility of fighting a lost cause. This could not be stated openly in 1957, so the film is subtly disguised as a heroic film, not to say that the characters are not heroic. The battalion is sent through the sewers to the centre, but we learn later there is nothing there but rubble. This symbolism was certainly missed at the time. The uprising fighters of course used the sewers extensively, to smuggle weapons etc, and many Jews were able to escape through them.
    I like the characters. Zadra realises it is all futile but has to go through with it; hence he retreats back into the sewer at the end. Daisy is especially important as she represents the strong woman who regularly guides resistance fighters through the sewers, and in the film leads, and often drags the wounded Jachek. She conveys the impression of hope and determination, but in the end this is all dashed when they come up against a unbreachable grating. Halinka is my favourite character. She conveys the impression of innocence and trust, following her lover into the sewers, and enduring awful experiences as being nearly drowned under a massive wave of sewage, and seemingly oblivious to her awful surroundings, as she is obsessed with him, only to find he is already married and just using her. Her suicide is regrettable. She should have turned the gun on him. There is the composer, who is already half mad at the start and becomes totally delirious in the dark atmosphere of the sewers
    In the above ground scenes, the camera is at a distance, but in the sewers it home in close to the characters’ faces, giving an impression of claustrophobia, and at times panic.
    A memorable film