Entering the sewers of human warfare (spoiler notice)
Kanal opens on German flamethrowers from a distance, setting alight a Polish town. There are no people running or screaming, no characters at all, just the fiery volleys and collapsing structures. The message is clear: the year is 1944 and terror stalks this country. We follow a militia of ordinary men set to oppose the occupier, but in the first line of narration learn their fight is hopeless and these men and women will die.
And indeed, fatalism hangs over all of them. Hunted down to a shell of a garrison, the platoon tries to maintain spirits through music, booze or love, all while waiting for the inevitable. When the fortress is lost, the troops retreat into the titular underground canals, desperate to escape to fight another day.
What hellish, subterranean maze have these people unknowingly entered? The canals were reported to be safe, and indeed the enemy dares not follow, but it turns out to be a torturous death trap. Someone quotes Dante, but I'm more reminded of the works of Jheronimus Bosch. The people, some of them wounded, split up. Other survivors drop in, oftentimes running and screaming about gas. No one knows where to go. The fumes are choking. Desperation and paranoia set in.
The characters aren't deeply developed, and I think this is both because of the ensemble cast nature of the film and to allow for easier connection to the audience. They're archetypes, rather than characters. The artist, the commander, the drunk soldier, the smuggler, the volunteer not taken seriously. Everyday people like us, and like we would in that situation – they're breaking down. Why is it so fascinating to watch these people engage with their ordeal, each in their own way? To see some of their vanities stripped away and others consume them?
It's here that Kanal shows its true colors: this isn't a war movie, but a horror film. In its depiction of a group of people running scared through a closed environment and slowly getting picked off by unseen enemies and unknowable forces, it prefigures later genre works such as Cube and even the Silent Hill video games. And there's indeed something very disturbing about this World War 2 setting. The characters' torment is understandable and they're slowly losing their mind. The artist and the drunkard are only the first to go; the former disappearing into the sewer in a fugue state, playing the ocarina, the latter sinking in liquor and scared out of his wits.
And for good reason. There's something almost metaphysical about the Nazi enemy. We never see them up close (up until the very end), and their role in the film is that of an elemental force of horror. They send infernal puppet tanks strapped to an umbilical cord to clear out the hiding place. The only early time we see a German soldier his face is instantly gored beyond recognition by a stone. At the hands of the artist no less – a commentary on the beastly nature of even the most delicate souls in these circumstances. Once in the sewers, their threat becomes one with the ghastliness of the environment. They (apparently) spill gas into the tunnels, drop grenades down manholes and shoot anyone who dares head for the light. We never leave the perspective of the militia, so when a tunnel wall collapses and a flood of grime washes in, is it an act of the enemy, or of God?
Each fragment of the original party eventually meets their end, distributed in the flavors ironic, soul-crushing or bone-chilling. When at last the original commander of the unit surfaces, the only one to do so safely, he realizes he's lost everyone and, his spirit broken, slinks back into the hellhole he just escaped from. He does so bathed in utter silence, and only when the screen cuts to black does music crash in with a final shriek, as if suddenly recognizing the atrocity of it all.
I don't know any of Wajda's other movies, but Kanal, taken on its own, is an expression of utter loathing. A resentment for history and what we do to one another. Wajda makes his characters wade through human sludge for most of the movie, he shows them at their weakest and most fragile. There is much compassion inside the claustrophobic chutes and between the characters, but not much regard for what happens to them. Did Wajda make this film to get the war out of his system? But what irony that a descent in such incredible filth and shit could be so riveting and beautifully shot! Kanal is a fascinating treat, a war/horror film made from a place of genuine, chilling, historic revulsion.