Stach is your average teenage boy from a European movie, much happier breaking his mother's heart by hanging out flicking knives with a gang of ne'er-do-wells than looking for an honest job. Except that Stach lives in Nazi-occupied Poland, so when he and his two mates engage in some cheeky robbing of coal from the top of a passing train, the rather disproportionate outcome is one of them shot and another run off, never to reappear in the film. Pretty much all childhoods in Criterion movies are going to be depressing, but this one is still up there.
A random encounters ensuing from the non-great train robbery result in Stach meeting a man he doesn't yet know is a communist activist, and being offered an apprenticeship in a workshop. There he absorbs a few seditious ideas about just how much bosses exploit their workers' labor. But his journey towards being a full-blown member of the Communist underground doesn't really take off until another chance encounter with the rather attractive "Dorota" recruiting for the cause at his school. As in Closely Watched Trains (#131), a free Poland is a thing much to be wished, but it is always going to come second place in any red-blooded young patriot's mind to getting laid. With impressing Dorota now his primary objective, Stach is soon doing great work for the resistance, stealing a gun from his workplace, recruiting a new gang and even going so far as to mount a hit on a German that gave him an undeserved beating on his daily rounds.
Yes, we have the advantage of knowing that one day Poland will achieve its freedom. But that doesn't make this a happy story. Another mission, in solidarity with comrades from the Jewish ghetto, results in his new best recruit being cornered and killed by stormtroopers, and while he does finally manage to get it on with Dorota for a night it's pretty much just in time to watch her being taken away by the Germans - joining the resistance is all fun and games until you lose your girl and your best friend. The film ends somewhat magnificently with Stach, now leader of the communist cell, wiping away tears before turning to the latest intake of attractive, smiling young people that he needs to induct into the same horrors that he has recently experienced.
I found it interesting to compare and contrast something like this with, say, Billy Liar (#121), where another horny teenage boy's extravagant dreams aren't a match for harsh reality. One would obviously prefer to be doomed to a Northern mill town than to Nazi bullets but that just makes Stach's story more heartbreaking - the idealism of all young men is broken, but how much worse to be broken by so much war and death. A lost generation indeed.