In one of the final texts published before her 2004 death, Susan Sontag explored the brutal topography of suffering in Regarding the Pain of Others, specifically the pain conveyed through photojournalism of war and militaristic violence, and the type of suffering that is experienced by those who observe these images. The particularities of the agony in the photos, and the agony of those witnessing the photos, is—according to Sontag—predicated first upon a strange bereavement for the decimation inflicted upon buildings and landscapes. This phenomenon encourages the viewer to make a subconscious connection between the rubble and the unfathomable human casualties that accompany the virulent destruction of territory in war. It seems one can only reconcile with the enormity and appalling nature of physical, human loss by first contending with the wreckage left behind in the destroyed buildings. By doing so, the viewer is able to access the complex matrix of emotional responses necessary to feel the ghastly revulsion and commiseration that are the ramifications of war.
This accessibility to one’s innermost revilement at war and collateral brutality, and the ability to contend with the daunting question of what is to be done about war, is central in Andrezj Wajda’s blistering 1956 film Kanał. The second in his trilogy of war films focusing on the unique hardships endured by the Polish people throughout the Second World War and the discombobulating aftermath (it is preceded by A Generation, and followed by the brilliant Ashes and Diamonds), Kanał seemingly stands as a Sontagian testament to the vitriolic emotion attached to imagery of war-ravaged scenery.
Kanał opens with solemn tracking shots of shadowy, belletristic figures traipsing through an utterly rampaged, war-torn countryside and city. The images, which are shot and presented in an unfurling fashion as dirge-esque as the simple score that accompanies them, are stirring in their desolateness, but certainly not unfamiliar. Exploded buildings, acres upon acres of debris, abandoned weaponry, smoke effusing, strewn bodies and appendages that are indiscernible from the wrecking of homes and edifices—this scenery is undoubtedly rueful, even jarring, but it is a scenery which recalls countless images of war and conflict. Certainly, too, this filmic portrayal of the desecration war creates would be vividly and agonizingly at the forefront of the consciousness of those viewing the film in the 50s, the acrid sting of the Second World War’s effect ever present. Sontag’s assessment of the aching impact of war imagery would seem, especially with the mass proliferation and omnipresence of burgeoning war-centered media, to be diminished by familiarity in this case.
But what then is unique about Kanał, and is a particular strength of Wajda’s throughout his powerful oeuvre, is the transition from exteriority to interiority, which transfers sentiments of doom and repulsion for war into something more intimate, more immediate, more excoriating. In Kanał, this transition happens quite literally—set in the last days of the cataclysmically fated 1944 Warsaw Uprising, Kanał’s action centers around a small group of beleaguered survivors of a small, makeshift militia who, in their attempt to flee the rapidly encroaching German combatants, retreat into a grimy, desolate canal. This retreat is not something Freudian, some plunge into a thinly veiled sexualized metaphor—and to reduce it to such is to a do a disservice to the film. Rather, this escape into the canal is a submersion into the desperate subconscious of dread and agony—it makes the distanced repulsion intimate; the internalized pain becomes an actual set device, a diegetic tool to explore the anguish and traumas of war. The canal, and the characters’ gradual psychological disintegration coupled with their refusal to acknowledge their undeniable defeat and fate, complicate the Sontagian premise. The sewer-canal makes literal the anguish and the confusion that is experienced when an individual examines photographs or films of the wreckage of war. As the characters become hopelessly lost and turned around in the dreary, crumbling underbelly of their decimated town, both the characters and the audience are confronted with the poignant cyclicality of trauma and grief.
At various points, different characters think they have escaped the bowels of the canal. They emerge only to find their German aggressors are waiting for them, and that their belief that their comrades successfully navigated their way out of imperiled Warsaw has in fact been myth, and their comrades have been captured or executed. As the characters wander frantically around the canal, their gnawing fears grow more and more debilitating, and the dark chutes through which they meander only serve to make their loss and pain more profound. The only character who comes to terms with the symbolism of the canal, critically, is Michal, who seemingly loses his grasp on sanity and roams off through the dark passages, mindlessly playing an ocarina. Wadja’s film seems to suggest, though, that Michal is perhaps not truly deranged, but that he embodies the alternate response to images and realities of war and its atrocities—one either stumbles around, aghast and anguished, unable to acknowledge reality; or, one succumbs wholly to the horrific nature of what they are witnessing and experiencing.
Sparsely shot and capitalizing on the most menacing implementations of chiaroscuro in a very Eisentein fashion, Kanał is purposefully bleak. When met with the question of what should be done about war, the answer, in film, seems to be nothing. War acts upon, war devastates, war is the monstrosity greater and more powerful than the individuals who create it. In the Sontagian view, Kanał’s depiction of the wreckage and ruin of war is merely the surface wound that glimpses at the excoriation done by war. It can only begin to fathom the savagery of war and cyclical trauma. By placing his characters in the lower intestine of the beast, Wadja savagely rips open the surface wound of sorrow evoked by the familiar visions of war in the first few frames of the film. As the characters are immured in their frenzied pain, unable to escape yet unable to accept their already determined fate, the viewer is meant to experience the absolute hopelessness that even in a time removed from the Second World War seems viciously piercing.