Zbigniew and James

Cybulski as Maciek in the ruined chapel.

Zbigniew Cybulski (1927-1967) has often been called “the Polish James Dean,” partly because he was the very public face of the hot new Polish art cinema of the late 1950s and early 1960s, partly because (like Dean) he died young, at the age of thirty-nine, in an accident.  I was thinking more about the comparison upon rewatching Andrzej Wajda’s masterpiece Ashes and Diamonds (1958) earlier this week, in which Cybulski plays Maciek, a hip, scrappy, embittered soldier of the Polish Underground, tasked by his comrade to assassinate a newly appointed Communist Party secretary on V-E Day (the entire film unfolds over the course of some twenty-four hours, much like Rebel Without a Cause).  While he waits for an opportune moment to carry out the assassination, biding his time in the bar of the hotel where his target is attending a victory banquet, Maciek busies himself by making eyes at a pretty barmaid.  Together they enjoy one night of happiness, making love and wandering through the ruins of the small Polish town before the appointed time comes, he completes his mission, the sun rises, and he is gunned down in the street. 

Maciek with Krystyna (Ewa Krzyzewska).
So, much like the characters in the James Dean canon, all those troubled boys with their masc, punchy, one-syllable names (Jim from Rebel, Cal from East of Eden, Jett from Giant) Maciek is a bad boy and a romantic, beautiful and doomed, a figure for tragic youth.  He struts through the film wearing a pair of shades (I like to imagine they’re yellow-tinted) until finally he dies on a garbage heap, writing in pain and kicking his heals in the air, letting out a last gasp as the film fades to black: one of the great unforgettable endings in European art cinema.  The connection to Dean also has something to do with a shared acting style specific to the mid/late 1950s.  Cybulski’s performance is poised somewhere between the grand gestures of the classical style (there’s a moment where, in the ruined church with Krystyna, he lashes out with his whole body in an expression of torment that feels deliberately composed rather than natural) and the spontaneity of Method acting.  Cybulski may not walk that line as carefully as Dean did in his best roles, but his Maciek is still unforgettable and heartbreaking.  And there is dark humor there, too, as when Maciek tries to distract Krystyna by getting her to talk about her family (“and what about your brothers and sisters?”) while he fumbles to pick up a stray bullet from the floor of his hotel room.

A touch of farce: looking for the lost bullet.

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