Generous Orthodoxy  


This is an excerpt from my forthcoming book (still in progress) about the meaning of the Crucifixion.

The Criterion Collection is now bringing all the masterpieces of film to us who are not able to get to the few remaining art houses on just the right days to see them. I am happily in the process of seeing the ones I have longed to see for most of my life.

Kanal (The Sewer) is arguably the masterpiece of the great Polish film director Andrzej Wajda. Released in 1957, it was the first movie to be made about the Warsaw Uprising of 1944, and it is still the best.[2] Fifty years after its release, proliferating film festivals in Europe have enabled Kanal to find a new, young audience; in Wadja’s words, they have been able “to escape the ‘mono-culture’” of commercial American movies.

Kanal depicts the last days of a Polish Home Army company fighting to the death against the Nazis. The last half of the film involves their last-ditch, brave, hopeless effort to mount a defense of their city. The surviving members of the company, led by their dedicated and disciplined commander, Lieutenant Zadra, move from the outskirts of the city into the center via the sewer system. This is not the sleek, relatively pristine sewer of Vienna where Orson Welles splashes about in wingtips in The Third Man; this is a vile, miasmic cloaca you can all but smell.[3] At the climax of the story, Zadra and his sergeant-major emerge from a manhole into the city streets after hellish hours in the sewer, covered in unspeakable filth, but finally breathing fresh air and ready to take up the fight again. Suddenly, as Zadra rejoices in his temporary reprieve, he becomes aware that most of his men are not coming up immediately behind him as he expected. As the realization slowly dawns on him that they are still hopelessly lost in the maze and the darkness below, he says in anguish, “My company! My company!” He turns, stops, says, “My company!” again, and with excruciating slowness looks down into the hole, stoops, gets a handhold, turns again, and begins to descend into Hell and certain death. “My company!”[4]

This is an image—powerful, though imperfect—that helps illuminate the nature of the rescue performed by Jesus Christ. His emptying himself of his prerogatives, his descent into the sewer of this world, his deliberate offering of himself even when he knew there was no way out for him—all this was done, not simply for individuals of widely varying worth and usefulness, but for “my company.” It is for Jesus’ “company”—his family, his brothers and sisters, his Father’s children, the branches of his vine, the household of God—that he goes down into the depths of our wretched human condition, holding back nothing, enduring all things, confronting the devil himself in his own domain. For this he died: that he might create a new people holy to himself. It is this “company” that he calls into battle against the Enemy, even unto death; promising as he did to his commander Martin Luther King in “the kitchen epiphany,” “I will never, never leave you alone.”[5]

The purpose of telling the story of Kanal in this chapter is to help illuminate the nature of the rescue performed by Jesus Christ. His emptying himself of his prerogatives, his descent into the sewer of this world, his deliberate offering of himself even when he knew there was no way out for him—all this was done, not for individuals of widely varying worth and usefulness, but for “my company.” It is for Jesus’ “company”—his family, his adelphoi, his Father’s children, the branches of his vine, his comrades in arms against the Enemy —that he came down into the depths of our wretched human condition, holding back nothing, enduring all things, confronting the devil himself in his own domain. For this he died: that he might create a new people holy to himself, to be his own light in the darkness until all things are made new.





[1] Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s book Life With Others is well named.
[2] Not to be confused with the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, which was the equally doomed revolt of the Jews. The Warsaw Uprising was not related to the fate of the Jews. It was waged street to street for 63 days as the citizens of Warsaw, formed into an ad hoc Home Army, fought with desperate bravery against the Germans, counting on aid coming from the advancing Russians. The Russians could not have cared less about the Poles and the revolt was mercilessly crushed.
[3] “Everything that happens in these flooded, reeking, tentacular corridors is something that devils would laugh at” (essay by John Simon in the Criterion Collection notes for Kanal). Yet that is not quite altogether true. There is one moment of transvision. A young woman who has helped the Home Army and knows the sewer well is struggling to get her dying lover to the exit leading out into the Vistula River and deliverance; but since she was last there, the exit was barred by the Germans. They are doomed. She soothes the young man's dying with poetic images of green fields across the river. In lesser hands it could be mawkish, but not here; rather, it evokes the passage of the redeemed across the Jordan.
[4] There are some crucial plot twists in Kanal, and an act of betrayal, that I have omitted—partly for the sake of those who might like to see this great film, and partly because I am highlighting the commander’s action for the purposes of this book. Aspects of that action fall short of the parallel to the descent of the Son of God, but then it is not possible for any mere human action to duplicate the universal significance of Christ’s death.
[5] The story of the kitchen epiphany is told in all the biographies of King. It was one of the defining experiences of his life.
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