Where to begin with Andrzej Wajda

A beginner’s path through the Polish masterpieces of Andrzej Wajda.

4 March 2016

By Ben Nicholson

Ashes and Diamonds (1958)

Why this might not seem so easy

A career that stretches over more than 60 years. A filmography bulging with several dozen features. It would be completely understandable for anyone interested in tackling Andrzej Wajda’s substantial body of work to feel daunted. Emerging from the political and artistic thaw in Poland in the early 1950s, Wajda went on to be a key member of the Polish Film School; an informal collective drawing on influences of Italian neorealism through the late 50s and early 60s. Later he was a leading purveyor of the ‘cinema of moral anxiety’ which challenged communist oppression in the 1970s and is a perfect snapshot of a career brimming with innovation and defiance.

Katyn (2007)

Unlike several other famous Polish directors, Wajda has remained in his homeland producing challenging and beautiful meditations on national issues. Some filmmakers moved abroad – Roman Polanski, Krzysztof Kieslowski, Agnieszka Holland et al – while others, like Wojciech Marczewski, were hamstrung by state censorship. Wajda both stuck it out in Poland and continued to be active, which has given much his oeuvre a renown for being hermetically Polish in nature. Only occasionally does he seem to venture an eye into patently universal waters, and even those films harbour political undercurrents from home. The very conscience that shaped the ‘cinema of moral anxiety’ also gives audiences cause for concern that Wajda’s films will be unrelentingly serious, and impenetrable without a knowledge of the historical and social context that surrounds them. This is particularly pertinent during the period in which censors were keeping an eagle-eye and meaning often had to be astutely concealed within the text.

This reputation is perhaps part of the reason that Wajda has received frustratingly little distribution in the UK despite being consider a titan of European cinema for much of his career. Only 11 of more than 50 features since 1955 have made theatrical bows in this country. His last great resurgence was in the early 1980s, but as Kieslowski’s star rose, Wajda’s waned. While DVD distributors such as Second Run are doing a sterling job of championing his films, with the exception of 2007’s Katyn hardly anything has appeared in British cinemas for well over two decades even as he continues to produce new work into his 90th year.

The best place to start – Ashes and Diamonds

Ashes and Diamonds (1958): Spanish poster, 1964

It’s absolutely the obvious choice, but there’s ample reason for that: it really is difficult to look past Ashes and Diamonds (1958). Considered by many to be the greatest Polish film ever made, and by most to be Wajda’s finest work, it was his first film after the thaw. Despite being the culmination of his thematically connected ‘war trilogy’, it was free of the proscriptive shackles of social realism that been imposed on the previous entries by Soviet control. Instead, Wajda was able to fully flex his storytelling muscles, crafting a poetic and deeply symbolic work that explored the dualities of the postwar national psyche and energised the industry.

Those dualities were reflected throughout the production, not least in the famous use of deep focus that allowed for stark juxtaposition of the action in the foreground and that in the background. Similar conflict radiates from turmoil of the tragic hero, a member of Poland’s lost ‘war generation’ played by the iconic Zbigniew Cybulski. He centres the complex commentary that Wajda is weaving through his various threads. There is focus on thematic concerns that are rife in Wajda’s work (the plight of the country’s youth, social upheaval, Polish history) and a flair for conveying them through striking imagery. His analysis concludes on a symbolic tableau devoid of all hope at the prospect of national rebirth – though one that Wajda cunningly argued to the censors was intended to be read in exactly the opposite way.

The coalescence of historical setting, political resistance, and visual and allegorical lyricism are key tenets of Wajda’s work and, while an early entry, Ashes and Diamonds is one of the most potent and widely available examples of their deployment.

What to watch next

How long is a piece of string? There are numerous exciting directions to head in after Ashes and Diamonds – though admittedly some are less easy to lay hands on. Catching up with A Generation (1955) and Kanal (1957) would complete the aforementioned war trilogy, but there’s a wealth of equally stimulating options.

The ‘solidarity trilogy’ would be the most natural of these and its first instalment, Man of Marble (1977) is available on DVD in the UK. It’s a dizzying work that deconstructs the mythology of a proletariat hero of the 1950s, while concurrently exploring the rise of the world-famous solidarity movement in the late 70s and reflexively examining his cinematic form. Using a filmmaker as a lens into the past, the film is structurally and formally breathtaking, imbuing an epic canvas with urgent political vim.

Man of Marble (1977)

A few years later, Wajda would follow up with Man of Iron (1981), a sequel that treads an equally interesting line and questions the role of filmmakers and the press while shaping the modern day myth of the Gdansk shipyard strikes. The story of the real-life hero of these events, the trade unionist Lech Walesa, was finally portrayed explicitly in the much later third film, Walesa: Man of Hope (2013).

Another recommended option would be the staggering The Promised Land (1975), the darkly engrossing tale of a triumvirate of brash young industrialists in late 19th-century Lodz. This film shows the symbolic birth of modern Poland amid vulgar mansions and the broken backs of the exploited.

Where not to start

True duds are hard to come by in Wajda’s filmography but The Wedding (1973) would be an inadvisable place to cut your teeth. Precisely the kind of film that international critics and audiences find difficult to understand due to its deeply ingrained national allegories, it is a challenging adaptation of a Stanislaw Wyspianski play. Compelling and cinematically vibrant but undeniably dense, it is ultimately essential viewing, but perhaps one to work your way up to. It’s best kept for when time allows a bit of reading around it.

The Wedding (1973)

Another that won’t appeal to all tastes is Innocent Sorcerers (1960), which taps the same spirited vein as the concurrent French new wave. It’s another portrait of Poland’s youth, like much of Wajda’s early work, but lacks visual and thematic force in its attempt to capture a generational malaise. While readily available in the UK, and definitely an interesting watch, it might feel like a meandering wrong-turn on the otherwise smooth road to Wajda fandom.

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