Andrzej Wajda: An Introduction

This is the complete text of the introduction to Andrzej Wajda that I gave at BFI Southbank (May 6) and the POSK Polish Cultural Centre in Hammersmith (May 24) - this is the slightly revised POSK version. I’ve added release dates and Polish original titles to reflect Kinoblog’s house style, but otherwise this is pretty much as it was performed.


CLIP – Ashes and Diamonds (the burning shot glasses scene)

That was, of course, one of the pivotal scenes of Ashes and Diamonds (Popiół i diament, 1958). Celebrating its 50th anniversary this year, it’s still regarded by many not just as Andrzej Wajda’s greatest film but the defining masterpiece of Polish cinema. And while I promise that some of the other clips I show will be a bit less obvious, I wanted to start with that one because it encapsulates so much of Wajda’s particular brand of cinema.

Like many of his films, it’s set just after a pivotal historical event has occurred - in this case the end of World War II. And while Poland has been victorious, these two men, Maciek and Andrzej, know that they’re on the losing side: they’ve just discovered that their assassination attempt on a Communist official has not only failed but has resulted in the deaths of two innocent men - and even if their mission had succeeded, the historical tide is clearly moving in a particular direction and they’re powerless to resist it. As a result, the tone of the scene could be described as romantic fatalism, a description that could be applied to Wajda’s outlook as a whole. Above all, like so many of Wajda’s great set-pieces, this material has been turned into unforgettable images - in fact, the burning shot-glasses are as integral a part of Polish film history as Charles Foster Kane’s sled was to its American counterpart. Wajda had already established an international reputation with Kanal (Kanał, 1957), the second film in an unofficial World War II trilogy that began with A Generation (Pokolenie, 1954) four years earlier, but Ashes and Diamonds cemented his stature as a director of world class.

OK, let’s jump forward to 1983 - exactly halfway between the release of Ashes and Diamonds and today. If you asked any film buff back then to name the most important European filmmakers of the era, it wouldn’t take very long before Andrzej Wajda’s name came up. His war trilogy had been augmented by an equally remarkable trio of films in Man of Marble (Człowiek z marmuru, 1977), Rough Treatment (Bez znieczulenia, 1978) and Man of Iron (Człowieka z żelaza, 1981), which anatomised the communist era, from the Stalinist 1950s to the rise of Solidarity in 1980. Man of Iron went on to win the Palme d’Or at Cannes and secure Wajda his third Best Foreign Film Oscar nomination in six years.

With the eyes of the world then being concentrated on Poland thanks to the Gdansk shipyard strike, the rise of the Solidarity trade union movement and the subsequent declaration of martial law in December 1981, Wajda’s films were discussed far more widely than the usual coterie of arthouse film buffs as they were widely seen as essentialy texts that offered vital commentary on what was happening at that very moment. The NFT invited him to give a Guardian lecture in 1980, the BBC devoted an Arena documentary to him in 1981, BBC2 and Channel 4 showed at least eight of his films between 1981 and 1986 - utterly unimaginable on a terrestrial channel today - and his work also had regular airings on London’s then flourishing repertory cinema circuit.

Last year, Sight & Sound asked me if I fancied interviewing him. Naturally, I said yes immediately - not least because it would give me a perfect excuse to swot up on his career and watch some of the films I hadn’t managed to see. And that’s when I discovered that Wajda has been almost invisible in this country for nearly twenty years.

The last time a Wajda film was given a British theatrical release was Korczak, way back in 1990, though he’s made several since then. Even big domestic hits like 1999’s Pan Tadeusz, which sold nearly twice as many tickets in Poland as did Titanic, or 2002’s The Revenge (Zemsta), which features Roman Polański in a lead role, failed to attract any interest - and I checked earlier today with the Polish Cultural Institute to confirm that Katyń, another massive domestic hit which may well be the most historically and culturally important Polish film for years, still hasn’t found a British distributor, and I don’t think it’s found an American one either, despite the Oscar nomination. I suspect things might be different had it actually won.

His back catalogue fares little better. As of today, there are just four Wajda films out on British DVD labels - not entirely surprisingly, they’re the 1950s war trilogy and Danton, which stars Gerard Depardieu and is widely perceived as an arthouse-friendly French film. Even on VHS in the 1990s, the only titles on offer were the four I’ve mentioned, plus Man of Marble and Landscape After Battle (Krajobrazu po bitwie - both out of print today. Similarly, the rights to Wajda’s films on 35mm mostly expired years ago, and haven’t been renewed, so they’re generally only screened in retrospectives such as the recent one at BFI Southbank, with the prints being shipped over from Poland.

OK, the picture isn’t quite as bleak as I’ve made it sound. For starters, there are quite a few Wajda films available on American DVD labels, and a very substantial number on Polish ones - and most of those have English subtitles, so non-Polish speakers can certainly watch a fair chunk of his output if you’re prepared to do the international legwork. But we’re still faced with the situation that a man who by any standards was one of the most important European auteurs from the late 1950s to the early 1980s, and who remains active to this day, has almost dropped off the radar of British film buffs.

Hence this talk, which will attempt to give a general introduction to Wajda’s life and work, illustrating it with many clips from his films, and suggesting some reasons as to why he’s fallen so dramatically out of fashion. My Polish friends and acquaintances seem to have mixed feelings about him: on the one hand, his historical and cultural importance is impossible to deny, but on the other, and I’m quoting more than one person here, “he makes lots of boring films about history that we were forced to see at school”.

It’s certainly true that Polish history is Wajda’s major preoccupation - it runs throughout his creative career from his 1950s trilogy to Katyń. And it does so not just in terms of Wajda’s onscreen depiction of events in Polish history, but also the fact that many of his films were themselves shaped by various historical currents. He spent most of his adult life living and working under communism, which amongst other things made certain subjects completely off-limits: a film about the Katyń massacre was impossible even to contemplate until Mikhail Gorbachev formally admitted Soviet responsibility, overturning decades of official lies. And though Wajda was able to make films that were sometimes sharply critical of the communist regime, Man of Marble took nearly a decade and a half to get from script to screen, while its sequel Man of Iron was ultimately banned, and clandestine screenings of pirate VHS copies were raided by the police. After martial law was declared in December 1981, Wajda spent most of the following decade making international co-productions in tandem with French and West German companies, though paradoxically it was at this point that international interest in his work began to wane, possibly because the films were seen to be moving too far away from his image as Poland’s great national director and conscience.

More fundamentally, his entire approach to film was shaped by the communist system. Fully aware that censors were more sensitive to words than images, he made sure that the latter reigned supreme, and were open to alternative, government-pleasing interpretations. For instance, when the hero of Ashes and Diamonds dies on a rubbish-tip at the end, Wajda told the censors that this could only be translated as “whoever raises his hand against People’s Poland will end up on the rubbish heap of history”, quoting Hegel for good measure. Naturally, Polish audiences interpreted the scene, and Maciek’s whole existential struggle, in very different terms.

Condensing Wajda’s entire career into a single talk like this is something of a fool’s errand - so I apologise in advance for any gaps and elisions. A true workaholic, he made his first feature film in 1954, and he’s produced around fifty films and television programmes since then, most of them feature length. Many assumed that Katyń would be his final film, but next month, at the age of 82, he’s scheduled to begin production on Tatarak, his fourth adaptation of a novel by one of his favourite writers, Jarosław Iwaszkiewicz - and I’d just like to apologise right now for any similar manglings that I inflict on Polish names over the next hour or so.

Like Ingmar Bergman, another prolific European auteur who achieved international fame at roughly the same time, Wajda has also had a prolific stage career - his website lists some 36 theatre productions between 1959 and 1998, including many works that he would subsequently film. These include three productions based on or inspired by Hamlet, an apposite choice for a man whose screen protagonists are often marked by crippling indecision at moments of national upheaval. He’s been nominated for a Best Foreign Film Oscar four times, and although he came away empty-handed on every occasion, he was awarded a lifetime achievement Oscar in 2000 - and although this is the kind of thing that us sophisticated European cultural mavens often sneer at, Wajda has stressed how important this international recognition was both to himself and to Polish culture in general - as illustrated by this commemorative postage stamp.

SLIDE - Postage stamp

On top of all that, he’s also found time for various administrative roles: he was President of the Polish Film Association for five years from 1978-83 (in other words, across the period that saw the rise of Solidarity and the imposition of martial law), a member of the Advisory Council of Lech Wałęsa’s Solidarity movement throughout the 1980s, and following the party’s victory in the 1989 elections, he served as a Solidarity senator in the Polish parliament until 1991. Perhaps most significantly for Polish film, between 1972 and 1983 he was the artistic director of Zespół filmowy X, or the X Film Unit, one of the small number of autonomous film units that was responsible for much of the country’s feature film production - whose output included not only many of Wajda’s best films but also Agnieszka Holland’s early work and Ryszard Bugajski’s Interrogation (Przesłuchanie, 1982), the fallout from which contributed to the unit’s demise.

I’ve been racking my brains trying to think of an equivalent of Wajda either in Britain or the English-speaking world in general: you’d have to go to nineteenth-century Italy and the composer Giuseppe Verdi to find an artist who has become such an important and indelible symbol of his country’s history - and not just its cultural history: Verdi, like Wajda, also had a brief stint as an elected MP, and his operas, and particular their choruses were similarly seized upon by Italians desperate for someone who would articulate their concerns. I don’t want to force what is already a rather contrived parallel, but there was a memorable choral intervention in one of Wajda’s films when in 1981, at the world premiere of Man of Iron, the audience stood up and spontaneously sang the Polish national anthem - an act that becomes all the more poignant when you consider that martial law was only months away, and the Solidarity victory that the film implies was imminent actually took nearly a decade to bring to fruition. In fact, this could almost be a scene in a Wajda film in its own right.

So how did Wajda get to this position? It seems both simplistic and a trifle tactless to say that he was simply in the right place at the right time, since he would seem to have been born under the ancient Chinese curse that goes: “may you live in interesting times”. But personal tragedies often make memorable art, and Wajda’s great gift has been to be able to delve deeply into his own and others’ experiences as a basis for his films.

James Joyce once boasted that if Dublin was razed to the ground, one could build a perfect replica using only the information in his novels, and Wajda’s films could be said to offer a similarly encyclopaedic survey of Polish history dating back to the early 19th century. They also provide a crash course in Polish literature: most of his films have a literary source of some kind, and his adaptations range from those by contemporary novelists to acknowledged classics by nineteenth-century writers like Aleksander Fredro, Stefan Żeromski, Stanisław Wyspiański and of course Adam Mickiewicz. That said, there unfortunately seems to be an inverse correlation between the national importance of the source material and the likelihood of the resulting film getting British distribution - with the obvious exception of Danton, most of Wajda’s pre-20th century period dramas like Ashes (Popioły, 1965), The Wedding (Wesele, 1973), Pan Tadeusz and The Revenge are virtually unknown over here. There are also strong relationships between Wajda’s films and Polish art history, and Wajda’s website offers a quick guided tour of his favourite paintings.

Andrzej Wajda was born on March 6th 1926, which makes him less than eight years younger than the modern Polish state. He was born in Suwałki, in north-east Poland, but that was because his father’s garrison was based there - Jakub Wajda was a junior lieutenant in the Polish army at the time, while his mother Aniela was a teacher. They moved when he was still a child, so he actually grew up in Radom, roughly equidistant from the three cities that would loom large in his adult life: Warsaw, Łódź and Kraków.

Of these, Kraków had the deepest roots. The bulk of Wajda’s family was based there, thanks to his late grandfather purchasing a house in the city, which was being restored and maintained by Wajda’s father and uncles up to the point when war broke out in 1939. Later, Wajda would spend much of the war in Kraków, would study at the Academy of Fine Arts, and would constantly return there, both to direct plays and as locations for his films.

By 1939, when Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union invaded Poland and began to carve it up under the terms of the laughably ill-named Non-Aggression Pact, Jakub Wajda had been appointed captain of a Polish cavalry regiment. Anyone who’s read a recent interview with Wajda will know what happened next: he was rounded up with his fellow officers, shipped off to Katyń and murdered by the Soviets. The scene in Katyń where the sister of one of the dead officers tries and fails to get a tombstone engraved with the date and place of his death was partly autobiographical: Wajda wasn’t allowed to add the details on the family tomb until 1989. Furthermore, although he knew that his father had been a Katyń victim when he heard that his name was listed in a German newspaper during the war, when he subsequently tried to find a copy, he discovered that the Polish authorities had removed it from archives and libraries. And although there was never any serious doubt about his father’s fate, his mother spent the final decade of her life believing that he’d still return.

Meanwhile, Andrzej Wajda, spent much of the war in Kraków. He’d tried to respect his father’s wishes that he follow in his footsteps by enrolling in cadet school, but he failed the exam. He had a certain talent for drawing, and he briefly enrolled at an art school, but abandoned his studies after the German occupation became more brutal. He lived with his uncles in Kraków, and he frequently had to hide in the house. As the son of a Polish army officer, he was under constant threat of being arrested and forced into slave labour, or worse, so he generally stayed close to home, working in the locksmith’s shop owned by one of his uncles, which adjoined the house. He was just in his teens when the war began, and not yet out of them when it ended, and although he was active in the Polish Home Army, the non-communist resistance organisation that was chiefly responsible for the Warsaw Uprising of 1944, which Wajda would later film so memorably in Kanal, he had no direct experience of the Uprising himself. In fact, he later offered this as an explanation of why he was so attracted to pivotal events in Polish history - he said: “When the war began, I was 13, and couldn’t participate in the action. I didn’t participate in the Warsaw Uprising, I was not in the sewers, I hadn’t been wounded, and I was not taken to Auschwitz, and in 1945, I was not with the Polish Army, entering Berlin. I confess that in this respect, I am a very atypical Pole, and as an atypical Pole, I couldn’t exist in a Poland where everyone is typical. I had to explain myself in some way. In two senses: one, to justify myself somehow, two, to relive the war for myself. In this way, I have justified myself by the film Kanal, and by Ashes and Diamonds, and then by Lotna (1959) So in a way, this is a sort of therapy, to self-justify, in a country where everybody went through fantastic misery and imprisonment.”

After the war, he initially trained as a painter at the Kraków Academy of Fine Arts, and he still paints and draws to this day, albeit never professionally. The examples I’ve found are all from the 1980s or later, so clearly not representative of what he was producing in the 1940s, but I thought I’d show you them anyway:

SLIDES - selection from these pieces, taken from Wajda’s website

He spent about three years at the Academy, but much of that time was spent wrestling with his conscience, as neither the older Academicians, with their traditionalist views on landscapes, still lives and nudes, or the Communist sympathisers, with their fondness for socialist realism, offered what he was looking for. Wajda later said “We felt that we had another story to tell, but our painting expressed what we meant very incompletely - or not at all. We had seen the smoking chimneys of the crematoriums, the arrests, the street roundups, the Warsaw uprising - and our teachers were like Cézanne, who when he was asked: What did you do when the Prussians advanced on Paris? answered, I painted some landscape studies. Our professors dared to paint landscapes and still lives during the war, and this was a kind of resistance against the war and all the things that the German occupation brought to Poland. But now the war had ended and we thought that we should paint in a different way.”

However, Wajda also wasn’t enamoured of the move in the direction of socialist realism. He didn’t object to painting workers and peasants, but he felt that he was being asked merely to imitate Soviet painting, instead of producing something distinctively Polish. So he left the Academy, and enrolled at the then newly-formed Łódź Film and Theatre School.

There, he found there was less ideological tension, because the war had led to a far more decisive break in Polish film history: hardly any films had been made in Poland throughout the duration of the war, and most of the pre-war filmmakers had either emigrated or didn’t survive it. More importantly, it gave Wajda valuable exposure to films being made elsewhere, especially the French avant-garde: he cites Léger’s Ballet Mecanique and Buñuel’s Un Chien andalou and L’Âge d’or as being crucial formative influences. Wajda never understood why he was being groomed as a socialist realist filmmaker on the one hand and shown all these decidedly different films on the other, but he wasn’t minded to complain.

He graduated in 1953, and got his first job assisting the veteran director Aleksander Ford on the film Five Boys From Barska Street (Piątka z ulicy Barskiej, 1953), a then groundbreaking film about juvenile delinquency as a by-product of war. On it, Wajda met several important future collaborators, notably cinematographer Jerzy Lipman and two young actors named Tadeusz Łomnicki and Tadeusz Janczar. All three would work on A Generation, Wajda’s debut feature. Made in 1954 and released in 1955, it was a product of the tail-end of the socialist realist era - Stalin had died in 1953, but there had yet to be a cultural thaw. Accordingly, it’s the most overtly pro-Communist of Wajda’s films, with the protagonist Stas, played by Łomnicki, in many ways an archetypal working-class hero: for all his occasional faults, he does at least learn the Marxist-Leninist lessons proffered by his older mentor.

On the other hand, Wajda also gives us a far more interesting character in Stas’s colleague Jasio, played by Janczar, who is far less certain of his ideological position and unwilling to commit himself to a single cause. Naturally, he dies before the end, but he shows far more genuine heroism in the process than many of his peers, and Wajda seems to identify far more with him than he does with Stas. I’m about to show a scene that comes just after Jasio has murdered a German to prove himself after being taunted that “you’re not a communist, you’re a coward” - I picked it because it not only features all three leads - Stas, Jasio and Dorota, the leader of their Communist Youth unit, but you should also be able to spot a young Roman Polański as one of their sidekicks - he was 21 at the time.

CLIP - A Generation

By the time he made his second feature Kanal, the post-Stalinist thaw had given Wajda far more creative freedom, and Polish cinema as a whole had finally begun to establish a distinctive postwar identity, having emerged from the shadows of both the pre-war generation and the more or less rigid imposition of Socialist Realism between 1949 and 1956. Wajda would become one of the leading directors of what became known as the Polish School - a term coined by the critic Aleksander Jackiewicz in 1954 when he called for a school of filmmaking that could stand proudly alongside the great tradition of Polish art. Influenced more by Italian neorealism than the Soviet models that they had until recently been expected to follow, the films of the Polish School marked an important bridge between the grand tradition of Romantic Polish art and the need to engage with its more recent past and indeed present. And Kanal helped give the Polish School an audience well beyond Poland’s borders.

Though Wajda had himself been active in the Home Army, the main non-communist wartime resistance movement, in A Generation he was obliged to include scenes depicting it explicitly as being inferior to the communist youth movement. By contrast, Kanal focuses entirely on a Home Army unit, and although we’re told from the start that they’ll all be dead by the end of the film, they’re the people whose eyes we will be looking through. It’s a film of two halves, the first being set during the Warsaw Uprising in which German tanks laid waste to the city (the Soviet Army was only on the other side of the river, a detail Wajda didn’t need to mention because his entire target audience would have known). The second half follows the surviving platoon, by no means all made up of professional soldiers, down into the Warsaw sewers, their only means of being able to dodge the Germans and reach the city centre. But Wajda isn’t so much interested in the wider strategy as in the painfully realistic depiction of the conditions underground, with people waist-deep in effluent and indescribable stenches mingling with rumours of gas attacks. If the historical background needed footnotes for non-Poles, it was impossible to deny the film’s visceral immediacy, and it went on to win the second prize at the 1957 Cannes Film Festival, putting not just Wajda but also Polish cinema firmly on the international map.

And then came Ashes and Diamonds, which completed the transition from exceptionally promising new talent to world-class giant. A crucial factor in its success was the lead performance of Zbigniew Cybulski as Maciek, whose Dostoyevskian agony over his motives for assassinating a communist official dominates the narrative. Poles generally dislike Cybulski being described as the Polish James Dean, and it’s easy to see why: he had a much longer career than Dean, and had also fought for his country prior to becoming an actor - but it’s easy to see why the comparison was made: Cybulski, like Dean, also came to embody the hesitancies and uncertainties of an entire generation. His dark glasses became iconic, though as he explains in the film, they weren’t a fashion statement so much as a medical necessity, as the character had damaged his eyes fighting in the sewers.

After this brilliant beginning, Wajda had his first failure with Lotna (1959), which he says is the film he’d most like to remake, as the material was too personal and he was simply too inexperienced to do it justice. It’s set in September 1939 and revolves around a Polish cavalry unit trying to maintain traditional virtues while belatedly recognising that the Nazis have rewritten the rules of war, and it’s obviously at least partly a tribute to Jakub Wajda and what he represented. Lotna herself is a magnificent white Arab mare that the men end up fighting over, a symbolic acknowledgement that the Polish cavalry tradition died at least as much due to its built-in failings as to any external factors. Here’s a clip from about halfway through, in which a heroic cavalry charge turns into an ignominious retreat.

CLIP - Lotna

We then come to Innocent Sorcerers (Niewinni czarodzieje, 1960), Wajda’s fifth feature, and his first set in the then present day. Tadeusz Łomnicki, the lead in A Generation, plays a young doctor with a distinctly jaded attitude towards women, largely because he’s never found seduction particularly difficult - though he’s also fought shy of taking a relationship to a higher level. Not surprisingly, a woman ends up turning the tables on him. It’s hard to recognise as Wajda’s work - it began as a collaboration between him and writer Jerzy Andrzejewski, who wrote Ashes and Diamonds, but when a much younger writer named Jerzy Skolimowski got involved, the end result had much more in common with the kind of films that Skolimowski would himself go on to make in the 1960s and 70s, what eventually became known as the third cinema in Poland, following the pre-war generation and the Polish School of the 1950s.

Samson (1961) was Wajda’s first film in anamorphic widescreen - not a format he often uses - and, more importantly, his first film that directly depicted the experience of being Jewish in Nazi-occupied Poland. It’s well worth noting that Wajda has shown an unusual level of interest in Jewish issues compared with many other Polish directors: Land of Promise (Ziemi obiecana, 1975), Korczak (1990) and Holy Week (Wielki Tydzień, 1995) also feature strong Jewish elements, and even A Generation, his very first film, touched on them. It’s also worth noting that Wajda had a huge influence on Schindler’s List, which was shot in Poland with some of Wajda’s regular technical team and in a style that suggested that Steven Spielberg had devoted a fair amount of time to studying Wajda’s work. One of Wajda’s perennial complaints, incidentally, is that American directors are far keener to study the European masters than vice versa, and he’s often said that Polish cinema could learn a great deal from the narrative and technical assurance of American cinema.

Wajda never went to Hollywood, but his next film was Siberian Lady Macbeth (1962), his first international co-production, and his first period drama set earlier than World War II - it’s a Polish-Yugoslav adaptation of the Nikolai Leskov novella that inspired Shostakovich’s far better known opera The Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District - indeed, Wajda even used instrumental snatches of the score. Perhaps because Wajda was outside his usual cultural milieu, it’s much more stylised than his earlier films. He himself acknowledged that it had problems, admitting that the cinematography and production design were generally far stronger than the performances. To quote him directly, “I understood that a little freedom abroad was not enough: I needed more freedom at home, in Poland”.

So he returned to Poland for his next film, an episode from the French-Italian-Japanese-Polish portmanteau film Love at Twenty (L’Amour à vingt ans, 1962), which also featured episodes by François Truffaut, Renzo Rossellini, Marcel Ophüls and Shintaro Ishihara. I’ve only managed to see the Truffaut episode, which isn’t much use here, though the critical consensus is that Wajda’s contribution was one of the better ones. It’s about a disillusioned war veteran who performs an anonymous act of heroism when he saves a child from a polar bear in the zoo, and it reunited Wajda with Zbigniew Cybulski for what turned out to be the last time.

Then there was a three-year gap, broken with the release of Ashes, a four-hour epic that followed the fortunes of a peasant during the upheavals of the Napoleonic Wars - he’s played by twenty-year-old Daniel Olbrychski, who would become one of Wajda’s favourite leading men. It was much criticised in Poland for a variety of reasons, not least the claim that it was insufficiently patriotic, though Wajda pointed out that he was being entirely true to Stefan Żeromski’s novel. However, it’s better to be controversial than ignored entirely, which was its fate in English-speaking countries.

Somewhat surprisingly, a similar fate awaited Gates of Paradise in 1967 - I say “surprisingly” because it was actually in English to begin with. But Wajda has since more or less disowned it as an unqualified disaster and it’s been virtually impossible to see ever since. He was almost equally scathing about Hunting Flies (Polowanie na muchy, 1969), a satire of the sex wars that Wajda admitted was overly coloured by his own negative attitudes towards women at the time. Just before that he made an odd little television film called Przekładaniec, whose English title is either Hodge-Podge, Roly-Poly or Layer Cake, depending on translation. It’s based on a story by Stanisław Lem, who’s best known for Solaris - this is Wajda’s sketch of him:

SLIDE - Stanisław Lem (reproduced from Wajda’s website)

And if only for sheer rarity value, I thought you might like to see a short extract from Wajda’s only sci-fi comedy - a Frankensteinian farce about the ethical problems of transplant surgery.

CLIP - Hodge Podge

Well, I think we can say that, as with Robert Bresson’s slapstick comedy Affaires publiques (1934), Andrzej Wajda hasn’t really missed his true vocation. Incidentally, it’s only half an hour long, which I think is about right.

But by far the most interesting film he made in this period was Everything For Sale (Wszystko na sprzedaż, 1968), which remains Wajda’s most personal film. On a very superficial level, Everything For Sale is Wajda’s or Day For Night in that it’s about a film director, clearly modelled on Wajda himself, wrestling with creative uncertainty. He’s even called Andrzej, and Wajda later said he should have been brave enough to play the part himself. But what sets Everything For Sale apart from Fellini’s and Truffaut’s films is that it was inspired by a real-life tragedy: the accidental death of Zbigniew Cybulski in January 1967, while running to catch a train.

Despite Wajda and Cybulski’s names being indelibly linked by Ashes and Diamonds, they didn’t actually work together that often - he has a very small part in A Generation where, somewhat unnervingly, he’s also shown running for a train, and a slightly bigger supporting role in Innocent Sorcerers, but the only other lead he played for Wajda was in the latter’s contribution to Love at Twenty, essentially a short film. So when Cybulski died, Wajda immediately felt intense guilt that he hadn’t made as much use of him as he’d wanted to, and vowed to redress the balance with his next film. Unable to come up with an appropriate way of paying tribute, Wajda decided to make a film about this creative uncertainty, as demonstrated by this scene:

CLIP - Everything For Sale

Although Wajda has given any number of introspective interviews over the years, this was the first time he’d ever put so much of himself into one of his films, and the fact that he is so clearly uncertain about how to do it is one of many elements that gives Everything for Sale its tension - and it’s a tension that was never entirely resolved: as with Lotna, another very personal project for him, Wajda has given several interviews taking the film apart and explaining how he’d have done it differently if it had been made under different circumstances. But this seems to miss the point that Everything For Sale was made under these specific circumstances, and it’s precisely Wajda’s evident loss of control and uncertainty of tone that makes it so unusually fascinating - together with the revelation that while Wajda is in his element when it comes to national history, personal history is something else entirely.

Now we come to the 1970s, or to be more precise the period from 1970 to 1983, which is by more or less universal consensus Wajda’s strongest run as a filmmaker. It coincided with what for him was an unprecedented amount of creative freedom - in charge of his own film unit, Zespół Filmowy X, he still needed official approval of his various projects, but this was generally easier to come by, and by the end of the decade he had even started exploring contemporary Polish political issues, which would have been completely taboo not that much earlier.

The 1970s themselves were bookended by two quiet and elegiac adaptations of the work of Jarosław Iwaszkiewicz, one of Wajda’s favourite authors - The Birch Wood (Brzezina, 1970) and The Young Ladies of Wilko (Panny z Wilka, 1979), the second of which I’ve seen. Set in the 1920s, and is about a man revisiting the site of a perfect summer that he spent before World War I, only to reach much the same conclusions that L.P. Hartley did when he described the past as a foreign country - complicated here by the fact that the young ladies of the title are women he’s been romantically involved with.

Wajda began the 1970s with two major films in Landscape After Battle and The Wedding. The first is a powerful and sombre account of what happened to Polish concentration camp inmates at the end of World War II. The Wedding was a hallucinatory adaptation of Stanislaw Wyspiański’s play, set at the turn of the 20th century, in which a wedding becomes an allegory of the various historical currents shaping Poland at a time when it had yet to achieve its present independence, the wedding guests ranging from recognisable human beings to decidedly more supernatural manifestations. It needs more historical and cultural background knowledge than many Wajda films for full appreciation, but is one of his most visually vivid creations, as this clip demonstrates.

CLIP - The Wedding

Land of Promise was his largest-scale film since Ashes nearly a decade earlier, and his most heartfelt tribute to the city of Łódź, where he’d studied film. It’s a vivid, Dickensian portrait of Poland in the early industrial era, with three separate capitalist factions - Polish, German and Jewish - seeking to come out on top. Wajda has revised it twice, extending it for television and then producing a “director’s cut” in 2000, in part to tone down criticisms of anti-semitism in its depiction of Jewish characters. This got Wajda his first Oscar nomination, but this failed to translate into significant international distribution: he later found out that his would-be US distributor had misread the German character Müller as being Jewish, interpreted the film as being flagrantly anti-Semitic, and refused to release it properly. Wajda even offered to make cuts, but to no avail. And thus it was, as Wajda put it, that his most American film (because it’s about the rise of capitalism) was barely shown in America.

His next major project was far more successful, not least in getting made in the first place. Man of Marble was originally written in the early 1960s, as it was felt that a decade’s distance was sufficient to present a serious analysis of the Stalinist era. However, the then minister of culture disagreed, and the project was put on ice until 1976, when it was updated and finally filmed - losing the culture minister his job in the process. It was all the better for its long gestation, not least because Wajda was able to cast Krystyna Janda as the female lead. It is a fair criticism of Wajda that his films generally lack strong female roles, but this is a major exception, her film student Agnieszka being a force of nature that’s impossible to resist. Here she is in a very early scene, essentially blagging her way into a museum’s storage area.

CLIP - Man of Marble

She’s making a film about Mateusz Birkut, a bricklayer who became a Stalinist icon in the early 1950s, with his face becoming ubiquitous on propaganda posters and even statues - hence the title. But as Agnieszka and Wajda delve more deeply into the facts behind the legend, the film becomes nothing less than a Polish Citizen Kane, albeit with the crucial difference that instead of investigating the life of a tycoon, Birkut is a genuine working-class hero, though for reasons his Stalinist masters would prefer to keep under wraps, since his notions of socialism turn out to be altogether more idealised than theirs.

Man of Marble was one of the key works of what became known as the “cinema of distrust” or the “cinema of moral anxiety”, a Polish cinema movement of the late 1970s whose other works included Krzysztof Kieslowski’s Camera Buff (Amator, 1979) and Krzysztof Zanussi’s Camouflage (Barwy ochronne, 1976). What characterised these films is their concern with contemporary Polish issues in general, and the conflict between the interests of the state and the individual in particular. Wajda’s next film, Rough Treatment moved further down this road in its portrayal of a formerly successful journalist, granted privileges most Poles could never have dreamed of, who falls into official disfavour and finds his entire world crumbling around him. Whereas Man of Marble analysed the past, Rough Treatment explored the era in which it was made, painting a bleak portrait of a society where staying on the right side of the authorities was more important than telling the truth.

Wajda would develop this theme further with The Conductor (Dyrygent, 1980), in which world-famous emigré musician Jan Lasocki, played by John Gielgud in a rather unlikely bit of casting, returns to his native Poland after succumbing to overwhelming nostalgia. So far, this seems to be a throwback to earlier, more romantic Wajda films, but the film then sets up a personality clash between the naturally talented artist Lasocki, whose genuine love of music is inspiring in itself, and the authoritarian martinet who runs the local orchestra by fear rather than respect and who seems to have achieved his position through contacts and official preferment rather than actual ability. The underlying message was unmistakable.

Shot very quickly towards the end of 1980 and premiered in early 1981, Man of Iron was the logical culmination of this trend. Wajda hadn’t originally planned to make a sequel to Man of Marble, but he needed to work fast in order to capture events in the Gdansk shipyard as they actually happened, so he decided to resurrect the filmmaker Agnieszka, now a political prisoner, and the son of Mateusz Birkut, now a prominent political activist and conveniently also played by Jerzy Radziwiłowicz to maintain continuity. The other key character is entirely new: the journalist Winkel has been hired by the authorities to infiltrate the shipyard and dig up as much dirt on the strikers as possible. He does indeed dig up plenty of dirt, but it incriminates an altogether different group, as demonstrated by this sequence shortly after he meets an old acquaintance with access to a projector.

CLIP - Man of Iron

The stormy reception of Man of Iron, which was initially given restricted distribution and then banned, and the banning of Ryszard Bugajski’s Interrogation, a memorably head-on confrontation with the Stalin years that had been produced by Wajda’s X Film Unit, meant that he was unable to work effectively under martial law. Accordingly, he moved production of Danton from Poland to France, though it retained several strongly Polish elements, notably Stanisława Przybyszewska’s source play The Danton Affair and the casting of Wojciech Pszoniak, another of Wajda’s favourite actors, as a thin-lipped Robespierre, opposite Gérard Depardieu’s shambling Danton. The end result was widely interpreted as an allegorical portrait of the struggles in Poland that were going on at the time, with Danton as Lech Wałęsa and Robespierre as General Jaruzelski, though to a post-1989 viewer it makes most sense as a more generalised essay on what to Wajda was still very much the illusion of freedom.

CLIP - Danton

International co-productions dominated the rest of the decade, including A Love in Germany (Eine Liebe in Deutschland, 1984), which returned to one of Wajda’s favourite themes of exhuming the past, and the Dostoyevsky adaptation The Possessed (Les Possedés, 1987), which never played over here and which seems to have vanished from circulation. The last Wajda film to begin production before the collapse of the Berlin Wall, Korczak, about a real-life Polish-Jewish hero who tried to prevent the children in his orphanage from being shipped to Treblinka, had some arthouse success in the US, thanks to its Holocaust theme, but disappeared surprisingly quickly.

And in the 1990s, despite finally having total creative freedom of a kind he had never dared envisage before the collapse of the Soviet Union, Wajda by his own admission lost his way. We’ve already seen that international distributors largely lost interest in his work after Korczak, and even Polish audiences generally stayed away: Wajda was associated with the past, and in any case they had all these shiny new American blockbusters to distract them. Indeed, Wajda himself had his senatorial duties to attend to in the immediate aftermath of 1989. I should point out that I haven’t actually had a chance to see his 1990s films myself - as I said, they weren’t released in Britain and it’s quite revealing that there’s also a big gap in the Polish DVD catalogue between Korczak and Pan Tadeusz in 1999, though the rest of his career is quite well covered.

First, there was The Crowned-Eagle Ring, also known as Ring of the Crowned Eagle (Pierścionek z orłem w koronie, 1992) - because it was never properly distributed in an English-speaking territory, there’s no official English title. By all accounts this was a somewhat self-conscious return to themes first explored in Kanal and Ashes and Diamonds (it even quotes the image of the burning vodka shot glasses). It begins with the 1944 Warsaw Uprising and then follows a young survivor as he contemplates building bridges with the communists, though he’s ultimately defeated by political naïvete. It was neither a critical nor a commercial success, and Wajda ruefully reflected that “Because everything that I had done so far came under the scrutiny of an entirely different audience, with which, in its time, I sought an answer to the question of how to live in an enslaved world. The films of those years served such considerations well. Closed out and deprived of contacts with the Western world, we sought communion with Europe through film. Unfortunately, my truth about those times was no longer useful for anyone, especially for those who today come to a movie theatre, which has resumed its former function: to amuse and to horrify.”

After preserving one of his stage productions as Nastasja (1994), he then made Holy Week (1995), which returned to territory first explored in Samson over thirty years earlier in its portrait of a Jewish woman trying to seek sanctuary with a Polish friend in the wake of the uprising in the Warsaw ghetto. And then, after this revisiting of old ground, he attempted to explore Poland’s recent transition to capitalism in Miss Nobody (Panna Nikt, 1996), which saw an impressionable girl from the countryside find herself out of her depth in the city, until she discovers that she can only retain her friends by accepting their consumerist values and renouncing her traditional ones of religion and family ties.

As one critic pointed out, this is such a hackneyed plot device that it almost becomes original, but the film found few friends, and it wasn’t until 1999, when he adapted Poland’s great national epic poem Pan Tadeusz into a big-budget crowd-pleasing costume drama, that he finally had a big domestic hit again. Since virtually everyone in Poland has to study Mickiewicz’s work at school, and he knew in advance that international appeal would be limited, it’s very much a film for those already familiar with the poem - for instance, the fact that he leaves the opening lines, just about the most famous in all of Polish literature, right to the very end of the film won’t have any impact at all on people who won’t recognise them. But even without the specific textual knowledge, the film is great fun - Wajda and his cast are clearly enjoying themselves immensely, as I hope this clip makes clear:

CLIP - Pan Tadeusz

He stuck with verse-speaking period costume drama for 2002’s The Revenge, a film that really demands competence in Polish for full appreciation, as the subtitles on the version that I saw apparently didn’t come anywhere close to capturing the scintillating wit of Alexander Fredro’s original play - though it’s still worth seeing for the return of Roman Polański as an actor in a Wajda film, this time in an overtly comic role.

By now, Wajda was in his late seventies, and so it’s no surprise that he began to wind down his filmmaking activities - he made contributions to a couple of portmanteau films, but preferred to devote his time to the Andrzej Wajda Master School of Directing, which he co-founded in 2001. He still wanted to make a film about Katyń, but wanted to wait until he found the right source material. In 2005, he finally announced that Katyń would be going into production, based on Andrzej Mularczyk’s book Post Mortem, which was in fact the film’s original working title. It was premiered at the Gdynia Festival on September 17 last year, the date chosen because it was the anniversary of the Soviet Union’s invasion of Poland in 1939. Unsurprisingly, the film had a seismic impact in Poland - it was the second biggest box office hit of 2007, after Shrek the Third, generated reams of media copy, and it was also used as a political football by the right-wing nationalist Kaczyński twins in the run-up to the general election in October - something that Wajda had ruefully anticipated, and he condemned the hijacking of his film in no uncertain terms. As it turned out, the Kaczyńskis’ party went on to lose heavily.

I suspect when the immediate controversy has died down, Katyń will be regarded as middling Wajda - he certainly hasn’t lost his flair either for big symbolic set-pieces or his ability to fuse the personal and political in a single low-key scene, and the film’s climax, which restages the massacre itself, is one of the most powerful things that he’s ever shot. But his understandable desire to educate his audience means that the film is ultimately far less ambiguous than his greatest films: the characters rarely develop beyond archetypes such as the noble general, the waiting wife, the bereaved sister and so on. Curiously, given that this should be one of Wajda’s most personal films, the end result is oddly detached, though it still has some intensely moving moments.

However, it’s impossible to deny its cultural and historical importance. For someone who’s spent so much time, especially in the last two decades, publicly worrying about whether he still has anything important to say, the success of Katyń must have been particularly satisfying, it nonetheless provides ample proof that Andrzej Wajda, over half a century after his debut, still remains Poland’s most important cinematic voice.

5 Responses to “Andrzej Wajda: An Introduction”

  1. Local Hero Says:

    An excellent and thorough introduction to Wajda and his films. I may add that the UK is by no means the only western country where this great director seems to be half forgotten. The situation in Germany where I live is almost exactly the same. The last Wajda films to get a theatrical release here were “A Love in Germany” (which was a German coproduction starring Hanna Schygulla) and “Korczak”. Currently only “Korczak” is available on DVD in Germany. Very sad, if you think of it.

  2. Michael Brooke Says:

    Interestingly, Sight & Sound has really been plugging away at the “Katyn doesn’t have British distribution yet” issue - after my interview (June issue), Nick James wrote an editorial mentioning that influential City Screen programmer Claire Binns dismissed it as “old-fashioned” (July), Binns wrote a letter (August) saying that she did indeed say it was old-fashioned, but that she also admired it, and in the current (September) issue Mark Cosgrove of the Bristol Watershed says:

    “Let’s be honest about this: the failure or difficulty of Katyn - a film by one of Europe’s major directors - to get a theatrical release in the UK is a damning indictment of this country’s cinema policies, infrastructure and general attitude towards film, and not simply of one person’s taste.”

    And he’s absolutely right. Even though Katyn probably won’t be ranked alongside the great Wajdas once the dust has settled, it’s an important film by any standard and the kind of thing that would have got distribution automatically some thirty years ago.

    But to end on an upbeat note, this post by the blog The Case for Global Film concludes its analysis of 2007’s biggest European hits (impressively, Katyn is at number twelve despite having negligible play outside Poland) by saying this:

    The crunch film in the list is Katyn. Poland has both a potentially large domestic market and a large number of Poles both temporarily and permanently overseas. In the UK, Dogwoof has imported Polish films (see our review of Wesele). However, Andrzej Wajda is not only the doyen of Polish filmmakers, but also a world figure. There was some dismay when a rumour began that the major arthouse distributor in the UK did not want to buy Katyn, seeing it as ‘old-fashioned’. Now it seems it will be released in the next few months. The story, about the massacre of Polish Army officers by the Russians in 1940, is both a ‘national story’ for the Poles and a personal story for Wajda (whose father was one of the officers killed). The UK has missed out on similar films before (e.g. Wajda’s Pan Tadeusz in 1999).

    I’ll follow up the highlighted bit with my Polish contacts next week.

  3. Roy Stafford Says:

    I think I must have been mistaken about UK distribution of Katyn. I thought I had read something, but now I can’t find it and there is no mention via Google.

    Many apologies, I will edit my post. I hope that I didn’t imagine it and that the film will be released, but clearly I need to be more careful.

  4. clydefro Says:

    It looks like New York is getting an extensive Wajda retrospective in mid-October by FSLC.

  5. Michael Brooke Says:

    And a much more extensive one than the one in London, which only had about thirteen titles.

    Incidentally, I’ve heard on the grapevine that my hunch about Katyn was correct - it did get several offers for British and US distribution, but the Polish rightsholder wanted a completely unrealistic amount of money, presumably oblivious of the fact that a mega-blockbuster in Poland would at best be only a moderate arthouse hit in English-speaking countries.

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