Andrzej Wajda obituary: Poland’s man of memory

From the Nazi invasion of his homeland through four-and-a-half decades of Soviet dominion, across 40 features including the towering classics Ashes and Diamonds, The Promised Land and Man of Iron, Andrzej Wajda – who has died at the age of 90 – embodied and expressed the tumultuous history of twentieth-century Poland.

6 March 1926–9 October 2016.

Michael Brooke
Updated:

Web exclusive

Andrzej Wajda

Andrzej Wajda

People had long since given up predicting that the latest Andrzej Wajda film would be the final one, and the general assumption was that he fully intended to die on the set, megaphone in hand. In the event, the end came less than a month after the Toronto world premiere of Afterimage (2016), and when introducing the first Polish screening in Gdynia shortly afterwards, a frail but still visibly charismatic Wajda said that he was already planning his next feature.

We may not have that, but the completed legacy is astonishing: 40 features over more than six decades, of which at least half a dozen are world-class masterpieces, plus parallel careers as theatre director, politician (both within the film industry and the Polish parliament) and painter, the role for which he originally trained. Despite achieving huge international stature very early in his career with the almost back-to-back premieres of Kanal (1957) and Ashes and Diamonds (1958), he remained largely loyal to Poland, with few of his films being made elsewhere and many of those thanks to financial or political circumstance rather than personal inclination.

Andrzej Wajda

Andrzej Wajda

For much of his life, over and above his creative output, Wajda was one of the key custodians of his country’s conscience, and there are few obvious cinematic parallels: Giuseppe Verdi seems a closer fit, not only because both men so brilliantly crystallised their national mood at several points in their careers but also for their brief parliamentary careers representing the winning side of a revolutionary upheaval – and if their legislative achievements were undistinguished, the symbolic import of their presence amongst their country’s elected representatives was anything but.

Wajda didn’t just document history, he also helped make it, and the inclusion of a clip from his Man of Iron (1981) in a montage featured in his penultimate feature Wałęsa: Man of Hope (2013) wasn’t so much a cheekily self-referential cameo as an accurate acknowledgement of the role that his own work played in triggering the collapse of Polish Communism. As former Polish PM Donald Tusk said in response to the announcement of Wajda’s death, “We all stem from Wajda. We looked at Poland and at ourselves through him. And we understood better. Now it will be more difficult.”

When Wajda was born (in Suwałki, northeastern Poland, on 6 March 1926), what we think of as present-day Poland had existed for just over seven years, having achieved its independence from Germany as a by-product of the end of WWI. Wajda duly lived through every subsequent historical ruction, much of which fed into his work, be it WWII from the perspectives of Poles (Kanal, 1957; Lotna, 1959; A Love in Germany, 1983; Katyń, 2007) and Jews (Samson, 1961; Korczak, 1990; Holy Week, 1996), the war’s immediate aftermath (Ashes and Diamonds, 1958; Landscape after Battle, 1970; The Crowned-Eagle Ring, 1993), the early 1950s Stalinist era (Man of Marble, 1977; Afterimage), the ‘jazz age’ of the post-1956 thaw (Innocent Sorcerers, 1960), the 1980 Solidarity protests (Man of Iron) or the coming of martial law in 1981 (Wałęsa: Man of Hope). If he had little to say about the post-Communist era (1996’s obscure Miss Nobody being a rare exception), that’s at least as much a reflection of the fact that he understandably wanted to tackle highly personal subjects that for various reasons had been unfilmable before – Katyń, Wałęsa, Afterimage – as a general feeling that his ‘period’ primarily spanned the half-century from 1939 to 1989.

Andrzej Wajda

Andrzej Wajda

But he also drank deep from the wellspring of pre-WWII Polish history, often by adapting its great literature. In 1965, Stefan Żeromski’s 1902-03 novel Ashes became a four-hour widescreen epic, and in 1972, Stanisław Wyspiański’s 1901 play The Wedding became a hallucinatory reflection on Poland at a historical crossroads.

Shortly afterwards (1974), Władysław Reymont’s 1898 novel about the physical, financial and social price of rapid industrialisation, The Promised Land, became an epic of such force and pace that its three-hour running time seemed half that. Wajda’s 1999 adaptation of Adam Mickiewicz’s poem Pan Tadeusz outgrossed Titanic at the domestic box office, although legions of school parties admittedly gave it a hefty push in that direction, and its success undoubtedly encouraged the production of the sprightly Revenge (2002), adapted from Count Aleksander Fredro’s 1833 Romantic (as opposed to romantic) comedy. Despite its status as a ‘French’ film, Danton (1983) began life as a 1935 play by Stanisława Przybyszewska. Wajda turned Joseph Conrad’s The Shadow Line (1976) into a TV movie, and was particularly fond of the novellas of Jarosław Iwaszkiewicz, adapting them three times (The Birch Wood, 1970; The Young Ladies of Wilko, 1979; Sweet Rush, 2008). He also collaborated directly with the writers Jerzy Andrzejewski (Ashes and Diamonds; Gates of Heaven, 1967; Holy Week) and Tadeusz Konwicki (A Chronicle of Amorous Incidents, 1986).

Further afield, he adapted Dostoevsky twice (The Possessed, 1988; Nastasja, 1994) and Nikolai Leskov’s The Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District as Siberian Lady Macbeth (1962). This last title offers a reminder that if Wajda never adapted Shakespeare directly for the big screen, he was no stranger to the Bard throughout his parallel career as a stage director, and there’s something distinctly Shakespearean in his constant returning to themes of shifting loyalties and power structures.

Between surviving the horrors of WWII (which saw his cavalry-officer father Jakub murdered by Stalin’s forces in the Katyń forest when Wajda was just 13) and enrolling at the then-new Łódź Film School in 1949, Wajda trained at the Kraków Academy of Fine Arts (1946-48), intending to become a painter – an experience that threads its way throughout his films, whether it’s his own muscular visual compositions, his oblique citations (the cattle on the hillside immediately after the opening killings in Ashes and Diamonds is a conscious quotation from Ferdynand Ruszczyc’s The Land, and the original can be briefly glimpsed during the whistle-stop gallery tour in Man of Marble) or direct references (Andrzej Wróblewski’s paintings in Everything for Sale, 1968). His final film Afterimage is not only about a great Polish painter – the avant-garde pioneer Władysław Strzemiński (played by Bogusław Linda, a familiar face from earlier Wajda films such as Man of Iron and Danton) – but also a denunciation of the aesthetic doctrine of Socialist Realism that had been compulsorily applied to all Polish creative work from 1949 to 56 – including Wajda’s first feature A Generation (1955).

A Generation (Pokolenie, 1955)

A Generation (Pokolenie, 1955)

This is often billed as the first part of ‘Wajda’s war trilogy’, but that was never Wajda’s intention – and in any case it’s more a tetralogy if you include the equally WWII-set but little-seen Lotna, his fourth feature. In fact, A Generation is one of the more independently-minded Socialist Realist films, an early indication of Wajda’s ability to appear to be sticking to the rules while quietly subverting them, since it’s clear to the viewer that Tadeusz Janczar’s ideologically conflicted, deeply troubled Jasio is the film’s real protagonist, rather than Tadeusz Łomnicki’s more straightforwardly noble Stach. (As an aside, a young actor named Roman Polański has a supporting role here, and it was thanks to Wajda’s encouragement and references that Polański switched to directing. Other major Polish filmmakers who derived early benefit from Wajda’s personal support included Andrzej ŻuławskiAgnieszka Holland and Ryszard Bugajski.)

The timing of his second feature, Kanal, benefited both from the end of compulsory Socialist Realism and a then-groundbreaking agreement that it had become appropriate to tackle one of the most controversial periods of recent Polish history: the heroic but doomed attempt by Poland’s Home Army to defend Warsaw from the Germans as the Red Army sat on the other side of the Vistula river waiting for them to finish. He couldn’t depict the last bit directly, of course, but there’s a strong enough hint to anyone versed in the history, which at the time would have included most Polish adults.

Kanal (1957)

Kanal (1957)

The film’s premiere at the Cannes Film Festival in May 1957, where it won the Special Jury Prize, arguably jump-started postwar Polish cinema’s international reputation (Lindsay Anderson would become a notable early champion). Whereas a great many Polish films require substantial background knowledge on the part of the viewer – and many of Wajda’s later films are by no means immune from this – Kanal grips from the start, the visceral immediacy and claustrophobic horror of the setting in the Warsaw sewers required little translation. It’s still a remarkably effective film for which hardly any allowances for age and nationality need be made.

Wajda’s third feature, Ashes and Diamonds, remains one of Polish cinema’s supreme masterpieces; had he died young, like his slightly older contemporary Andrzej Munk, his position in the pantheon would still be rock-solid. From start to finish it showcases Wajda’s remarkable ability to take a complex political situation that notionally requires explanatory footnotes and turn it into one indelible image after another – the burning vodka shots representing fallen comrades; the inverted and dangling statue of Christ, its stylised thorn-crown almost poking out of the screen – with the aid of some of the most daring casting he ever attempted. Zbigniew Cybulski (1927-67) was almost unknown at the time, his fleeting appearance in A Generation lasting seconds, and so casting him in the lead role was risky enough, never mind asking him to model his performance on James Dean, an actor unknown to the overwhelming majority of Poles. But it was the contrast between Cybulski’s nervy, Method-influenced tics and the more stolidly conventional characterisations of the supporting cast that made the film so riveting, both then and now.

Ashes and Diamonds (Popiol i Diament,1958)

Ashes and Diamonds (Popiol i Diament,1958)

It comes as something of a surprise, given the mutual career boost, that Wajda and Cybulski never made another feature together – Cybulski starred in Wajda’s short film ‘Warsaw’, part of the Love at Twenty (1962) portmanteau film, but that was their second and final collaboration. However, Everything for Sale was in large part a deeply personal reaction to Cybulski’s premature death at Wrocław railway station, although it’s also the closest that Wajda came to a genuine self-portrait – he even considered playing the central role (a film director) himself, before deciding that his acting chops weren’t up to it.

Wajda started 1959 as Polish cinema’s golden boy, but he then came a cropper with Lotna, his first colour feature. By his own repeated admission, he simply bit off more than he could comfortably chew at the time, attempting a large-scale tribute to Poland’s doomed cavalry units at the start of WWII that was simultaneously a personal homage to his father (whose fate at Katyń couldn’t be dramatised or even alluded to for several more decades). As ever, it’s studded with memorable moments, but it’s easy to see what Wajda meant when he said that this was the film of his that he’d most like to reshoot.

Lotna (1959)

Lotna (1959)

The thematic continuity of the early features became more diffuse, with Innocent Sorcerers, Samson, Siberian Lady Macbeth, Ashes and Gates of Paradise (Wajda’s second big failure, hamstrung by being an English-language international co-production) all occupying their own distinctive worlds. After Everything for Sale and the ill-advised anti-feminist satire Hunting Flies (1969), he reached back into the past for The Birch Wood, Landscape after Battle, The Wedding and The Promised Land before finally getting the go-ahead to make a film that he first proposed in 1963.

Although stylistically quite different, Man of Marble is just as important a film as Ashes and Diamonds, particularly in Poland. Somewhat neatly (and unexpectedly, as the female lead Agnieszka was originally conceived as fairly shy and mousy), it counterbalanced the earlier film by offering a similarly groundbreaking female character, again played by a near-unknown – although Krystyna Janda would be catapulted to stardom virtually overnight.

Man of Marble (Człowiek z marmuru, 1977)

Man of Marble (Człowiek z marmuru, 1977)

A heavily politicised riff on Citizen Kane, whose shadowy journalist Thompson is now under the spotlight and given a sex change, it not only attempted an anatomisation of the Stalinist period (Agnieszka is making a documentary about the true story behind the disappearance of an iconic ‘shock-worker’ who once broke a bricklaying record) but also implicitly criticised Poland’s entire Socialist project in general, by heavily implying that it had been based on propaganda and lies. This was why the script had been rejected before, and it nearly led to the finished film being banned outright after Prime Minister Piotr Jaroszewicz took strong exception to what he perceived to be the film’s message. Although given a deliberately restricted release (a common quasi-censorship tactic), it became a phenomenal word-of-mouth hit whose repercussions led to the resignation of Culture Minister Józef Tejchma later that year – he had personally backed the project, knowing that it was politically risky but sincerely believing that Polish cinema had become too ossified and stuck in the past.

With the exception of the elegiac period piece The Young Ladies of Wilko, Wajda’s next films would all be about contemporary politics. 1978’s Rough Treatment (whose original Polish title translates as ‘Without Anaesthetic’) is about the political persecution of a distinguished journalist, based on Ryszard Kapuściński. 1980’s The Conductor, despite being hamstrung by the unlikely (and, when speaking Polish, unconvincingly dubbed) presence of John Gielgud in the title role, is a heartfelt plea for bureaucrats to stop meddling in cultural matters.

Man of Iron (Czlowiek z Zelaza, 1981)

Man of Iron (Czlowiek z Zelaza, 1981)

And Man of Iron, partly shot in the Gdańsk shipyard during the great 1980 strike, became the official cinematic text of the Solidarity movement, the presence of the real-life (and then world-famous) figures of Anna Walentynowicz and Lech Wałęsa as witnesses attending the wedding of two fictional characters implicitly granting the project their blessing despite understandable initial misgivings. Wajda would remain closely associated with both Wałęsa and Solidarity, serving as a Solidarity senator in the first post-Communist parliament under Wałęsa’s Presidency and later making the union firebrand the subject of his penultimate film, whose subtitle Man of Hope suggested a belated conclusion to the ‘Man of…’ cycle.

Greeted ecstatically by Polish audiences (who spontaneously sang the national anthem after the Polish premiere) and no less so internationally (a Cannes Palme d’Or, an Oscar nomination), Man of Iron was the highest-profile title to be banned when Poland’s recently-appointed leader General Wojciech Jaruzelski declared martial law in December 1981, although it did a roaring trade on the burgeoning pirate-VHS circuit. However, both that and the banning of Bugajski’s excoriating Interrogation (1982), produced by Wajda’s own Film Unit X, led to a reluctant period of exile, although Danton became one of his highest-profile international features to date, helped by a widespread (if inaccurate) perception that Wajda was using the real-life historical figures of Danton and Robespierre as surrogates for Wałęsa and Jaruzelski.

Danton (1983)

Danton (1983)

Other films from his international period include A Love in Germany and The Possessed, but from 1990 he remained firmly on home turf. The moving Korczak was his last internationally high-profile film before Katyń, which amongst other things cemented a lifelong friendship with Steven Spielberg, who borrowed much of Wajda’s regular crew for Schindler’s List (1993) and then lobbied for Wajda to receive an honorary Oscar in 2000. (Wajda received four Best Foreign Film Oscar nominations – for The Promised Land, The Young Ladies of Wilko, Man of Iron and Katyń – and just before his death Afterimage was picked as Poland’s official nomination for 2016.)

The 1990s was a troubled decade, both creatively and politically, with Wajda visibly struggling to remain relevant in a rapidly-changing post-Communist landscape (The Crowned-Eagle Ring, Nastasja, Holy Week and Miss Nobody barely troubled critics’ radar, never mind the public’s) while taking advantage of scarce film production resources – although his co-founding of the Andrzej Wajda Master School of Film Directing in 2002 was seen as a way of paying back this perceived debt. Thereafter, his profile was higher, but his films had become noticeably more conservative: costume dramas like Pan Tadeusz and Revenge (although the latter is well worth seeing for the spectacle of Roman Polański so thoroughly enjoying himself in a major acting role), the elegiac tackling of formerly taboo subjects in Katyń and Afterimage, and the surprisingly sprightly and energetic but nonetheless standard-issue biopic Wałęsa: Man of Hope.

Sweet Rush (Tatatak, 2008)

Sweet Rush (Tatatak, 2008)

The ugly duckling in this late period – whether it blossoms into a swan depends largely on it getting wider circulation – is Sweet Rush, which returns to the territory of Everything for Sale in combining a real-life tragedy (the death of star Krystyna Janda’s cinematographer husband Edward Kłosiński from cancer, the subject of a wrenchingly moving monologue) with a self-reflexive on-set drama about the shooting of an adaptation of the Jarosław Iwaszkiewicz story that gives the film its title. Although far from front-rank Wajda, it provides heartening proof that he was still refusing to rest on well-established laurels almost to the end. And if Afterimage is yet another example of a merely good film by a director who’s made too many great ones for that to be considered quite sufficient, it has the neat (if presumably unintended) effect of bringing his work full circle, since it’s set at the very outset of Wajda’s own extraordinary career.

 

☞ See the Andrzej Wajda films available on UK DVD and Blu-ray

 

Andrzej Wajda at the Polish premiere of Afterimage, September 2016

Andrzej Wajda receiving British DVDs of his films at the Polish premiere of his final film, Afterimage (2016), from their distributor Mehelli Modi

Andrzej Wajda receiving British DVDs of his films at the Polish premiere of his final film, Afterimage (2016), from their distributor Mehelli Modi
Credit: Maggi Hurt

Andrzej Wajda writing his signature

Credit: Maggi Hurt

Andrzej Wajda’s signature

Credit: Maggi Hurt

Afterimage (2016)

Afterimage (2016)

Access the digital edition

Back to the top