This is the seventh film I have watched in "My Letterboxd Season Challenge 2022-23", "A 33 week long challenge where the goal each week is to watch a previously unseen feature length film from a specified category." This is the 8th annual challenge, and my fourth time participating (my first year can be found at "My Letterboxd Season Challenge 2019-20", the second year at "My Letterboxd Season Challenge 2020-21", and last year at "My Letterboxd Season Challenge 2021-22"). Week 7 is called "Polish Film School Week":
This week's challenge is to watch a previously unseen film from the Polish Film School movement.
The Polish Film School was an informal group rather than anything specific, that arose in 1956 after changes in Polish politics. Andrzej Wajda was one of the first directors in this group to release films, with Kanal being the second in a trilogy (I have only seen one other, and can't remember it). I don't think it's crucial to know about the trilogy, or even the School, but some context about the period Kanal depicts (September 1944, at the end of the Warsaw Uprising) and the period in which it was made are helpful.
But Kanal stands on its own, in any event. It's vision of heroism might carry special weight for the Polish people, but it resonates for all of us. There are plenty of people in Kanal who try to be heroes. But none of the them succeed, or rather, heroic or not, they fail. Wajda offers a pitiless view of the limits of heroism. As a narrator tells us at the beginning, "These are the tragic heroes: watch them closely in the remaining hours of their lives."
Visually, what is most noteworthy about Kanal comes in the second half of the picture, when the rebels go down into the sewers to escape the Nazis. This isn't the clean sewers through which Harry Lime runs in The Third Man. No, these sewers are full of excrement ... the heroes get progressively filthier. And the claustrophobia is almost unbearable. No one seems to really know exactly where they are going, and if they do emerge from the sewers, Germans are waiting for them.
We care about these tragic heroes; their characters are well-drawn. I found Teresa Izewska particularly noteworthy, perhaps because her blonde hair made the filth more noticeable. For me, though, Kanal is a film without much in the way of hope.