On the most basic level, A Generation is a coming-of-age story, about a young man, somewhere between adolescence and young adulthood, who joins a communist resistance group to fight the Nazis during World War II. Wajda bookends the film with scenes showing innocence and experience, with Stach, our protagonist, representing innocence in the beginning, and representing experience, as a hardened veteran at the end of the film, and overall the film makes for a very good, and very gripping look at the way a person evolves while managing a day-to-day, sometimes minute-to-minute type of existence. Most of all, and most impressively, we see Wajda’s skill at creating set pieces on full display, a skill still apparent in that shattering, nearly heart-stopping finale of Katyn.
It is impossible to divorce A Generation completely from its political baggage: Scenes where one character nobly expounds the wonders of “the cause” to another character are hard to take at anything beyond face value. It’s a piece of socialist realism, and during some of these scenes, it seems to be operating in a similar vein to some of the pro-Soviet films that Hollywood churned out during World War II, albeit more skillful in execution. A Generation also overstates the size and scale of the communist resistance fighters in Poland at the time: They are depicted as the only group resisting the Nazis, when in fact they were a fairly small group (much smaller than Poland’s Home Army) and did absolutely nothing to resist the Nazis when they were preying on Jews and fellow Poles; they only joined the anti-Nazi fight after the Nazis attacked the Soviet Union. Much of this, Wajda has said, was due to political pressure from the Soviet Union, and a close reading of the film will show a few sly subversions of the State-mandated ideal: The Cause is shown destroying the individual, often turning a blind eye to the Nazi extermination of Jews, and one major character essentially gives his life for The Cause that has both literally and figuratively abandoned him. In that scene, the character in question, who had shown serious misgivings about the Cause and who had rejoined only out of loyalty to friends, is chased by the Nazis through town and ultimately up a winding staircase. When he gets to the top the only door opens to prison bars, a visual metaphor that powerfully suggests, among other things, the impossibility of escaping fate. This casts the remainder of the film in a completely different, much more fatalistic light. Even the happy ending with Stach being joined by some new partisans is not really a happy ending because of what we have seen happen to the other resistance fighters over the course of the film.
Visually, I think Wajda was just finding his way at this point (he credits Italian Neorealism as a heavy influence, but this seems to have more in common with late-40’s Hollywood Noir), and the fairly dishonest political baggage does hinder the film somewhat. At the same time though, it would be pretty easy for someone to look at A Generation—Wajda’s first feature—and Katyn—his forty-first—and tell that they are works of the same man, and I don’t think that statement can be made about many “major” filmmakers.