When thinking on Marxist commentary in films, one often reverts to the films of Godard or the work of experimental American filmmakers throughout the sixties. One, however, usually overlooks the films released in countries that indeed experienced heavy feuding between proletariat and the bourgeoisie who felt no apathy towards their fellow citizens. At least, this is clearly the case in Andrzej Wajda's 1955 film A Generation. Set in Poland, it captures the true struggles of working class youth in Poland with an almost documentary like exactness. From the opening scenes of desolate, yet crowded streets to focused imagery of workers in factories, A Generation realizes its place in a cinema verite structure and only fractures from this association when Wajda makes scenes particularly dramatic to affect an emotional response in the films viewers. A Generation, is perhaps the most Marxist of films in that while it is certainly a product being produce and released for money, it is not done so with the attachment to a capitalist industry as is often the case for most filmmakers critical of bourgeoisie power, including controversial filmmakers like Godard, Bunuel and Von Trier. Perhaps it is Wajda's close ties with the youth ideal or his keen sense of economic depravity, but the degrading nature of the world depicted seems so real and as a viewer it is near impossible not to find yourself cheering for the films good guys, while also vilifying the antagonists, a task made all the easier given that they are Nazi's.
A Generation finds its narrative placed in a working class section of Warsaw that is being overseen by Nazi occupants. Specifically it focuses on a young man named Stach (Tadeusz Łomnicki) who finds himself at odds after the recent murdering of his friends during an attempt to steal coal from a passing train. Realizing the rather dead-end nature of his existence, he agrees to take up work at a workshop, despite knowing full and well that the shops owner works under Nazi supervision. At first, Stach is rather complacent in the job and moves through the motions in a clear state of malaise. However, his attitudes change when he is cued into the activities of an underground communist organization that desires to overthrow the factory and subsequently the Nazi's running the place. He joins the fight primarily for its social and political implications, but also because he finds himself infatuated with the young woman who runs the organization Dortoa (Urszula Modrzyńska) both physically and mentally. Along with Dorota come a group of other revolutionaries including the relatively quite Mundek, played by an incredibly young Roman Polanski. As their zeal for revolt increases, a member of the group slips up and murders a Nazi in public, which leads them to become targets for the SS, resulting in a suicide of one of the members to avoid death at the hands of attacking Nazis. Tragically, Stach loses friends in the resistance and is exiled from Warsaw, but in the closing scenes he is introduced to a new group of young revolutionaries that provide him with hope for Poland's future and the communist revolution.
While A Generation is, on a very real level, about a coming of age narrative, Wajda's work is far grander and concerns itself with understanding the political climate of World War 2 Poland. This is evidenced by the varied opposing views within the narrative, whether it be the social conservative Nazi's or the diatribe spewing old man who is clearly on board with revolt, commentaries are made depicting both sides of the struggle during the era. In a coming of age sense, Stach is attempting to find his own voice within the constant bickering of two countering ideologies. At first, Stach appears complacent to lay low and remove himself from the discourse, but as he finds himself caring for the individuals involved within the struggle, particularly Dorota, and after losing a friend to the revolution, Stach realizes the very real nature of his voice in the political commentary and thus enters into the political rebellion with guns blazing. In terms of the Marxist theory within the film, Stach represents the image and ideas of a working class individual who is attempting to affect change. The existence in which Stach lives is one of daily survival and money, the source of power in communism, provides something far less than relief and helps to maintain a unspoken loyalty within the factory. As many of the works note, to work under the Nazi's in rough conditions still trumps no work at all, or, even worse, death. Wajda's film notes, however, that if this group were to quit collectively their opposition would surely be successful, because if they work in numbers their power will be unstoppable. Similarly, Stach realizes that as the capitalist organization exists now he cannot purchase anything, nor does he possess financial power, which leads him to steal a gun from one of the higher ups, an act that allows him a powerful tool in revolt. Such a scene could suggest that in order to destroy bourgeois power, one must steal their symbols of power, beginning with one that is incredibly lethal. All of this manages to occur within eighty odd minutes and does so amidst some stellar cinematography, most notably the stairwell death scene. To some extent, A Generation is revolutionary, like the characters shown on screen, purely by existing.
A Generation is part of a stellar box set released by Criterion some time ago and is well worth picking up if you find yourself with in a considerable amount of extra cash.