He studied and documented his country’s history, politics, and national myths in both film and theater, and was a beloved mentor to countless young filmmakers.
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Andrzej Wajda was jumping to catch a glimpse of Ground Zero through a tiny peephole cut high in a surrounding fence.
It was Oct. 8, 2008, and Poland’s acclaimed director, at the time an octogenarian, had asked me to visit the site with him on a break from a hectic schedule promoting a retrospective of his work at Lincoln Center in New York City. With his vivacious wife of 36 years, the costume designer and actress Krystyna Zachwatowicz, Wajda paused in the drizzling rain to honor those killed in the 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center before wandering around the site and stumbling into an adjacent building adorned with plastic palm trees. Upon seeing the trees, his eyes lit up, he locked glances with his wife, and, within seconds, the two had pulled cameras out of their pockets and were posing for each other like teenagers on a beach. And then, just as suddenly, he disappeared into a bar, where his wife later found him deep in conversation with one of its patrons. On the way home, I felt like the one with the jet lag: Here I was, in my own country and visiting my national monument for the first time, exhausted, damp, and cold, while the bright-eyed, elderly couple from Poland sought to engage me in a smart, sympathetic discussion of recent American history.
Andrzej Wajda passed away on Sunday evening, October 9, in Warsaw at the age of 90. He worked until the very end of his life, finishing his last film, Afterimage (Powidoki, 2016), about the avant-garde artist Władysław Strzemiński, in time for a proposed January 2017 general release. In his nine decades, he directed several dozen films and stage productions; survived World War II; successfully navigated a career as an artist under Communism; served as an elected senator in the early years of democracy; married four times; and raised a daughter, filmmaker Karolina Wajda, with actress Beata Tyszkiewicz. He also founded a film school, the Wajda School, and studio, the Wajda Studio, in Warsaw; won a Lifetime Achievement Award at the 2000 Academy Awards ceremony; made legions of friends and lost far too many of them to emigration and tragic deaths.
Wajda was born on March 6, 1926, in Suwałki, northeast Poland, into a family of public- sector leaders as the eldest of two sons to Aniela and Karol Wajda. His mother was a schoolteacher. His father was a respected cavalry officer in the Polish Army who was taken prisoner soon after the Nazi invasion of Poland in 1939. The elder Wajda was murdered in a massacre of 4,300 Polish Army officers by Soviet troops in the forests of Katyń in 1940, a crime that was blamed on the Germans for decades. The young Wajda survived the war with his mother in the countryside. After it, he studied painting at the Academy of Fine Arts in Cracow for three years before transferring to the new Leon Schiller National School of Film, Television and Theater in Łódź, which had been created to help fill the void left by the destruction of the prewar film industry. Of the multifaceted career that followed, Wajda said, “There’s something in my family that pushes us to lead.”
Wajda depicted the Katyń massacre as well as nearly every significant period in the modern history of Poland in his films. Although he made a few relatively small films, he reveled in the process of orchestrating dozens of actors and depicting epic stories of his nation’s past. He adapted Polish 19th-century literary classics from the lyrical Pan Tadeusz (1999) and The Wedding (Wesele, 1972) to the panoramic The Promised Land (Ziemia obiecana, 1974), and made many of the iconic films of his generation’s youth, including A Generation (Pokolenie, 1954), Kanal (Kanał, 1956), Ashes and Diamonds (Popiół i diament, 1958), Innocent Sorcerers (Niewinni czarodzieje, 1960), and Everything for Sale (Wszystko na sprzedaż, 1968). He was a lover – of cinema, theater, laughter, intrigue, sweeping narratives, feisty female characters, and, most of all, his country.
If he made us sentimental, we might look for clues as to why in the sheer size and breadth of his oeuvre, a forceful and eclectic canon of works that delve into the past in a way that reminds us of his own cinematic ideal from his university years, Citizen Kane. He prodded, he probed, and he came to a few inconclusive conclusions. While his colleagues emigrated or turned to other pursuits, he put together the pieces of his country’s jigsaw puzzle in film after film. Colloquially termed the “Polish Citizen Kane,” the first film in his Solidarity Trilogy, Man of Marble (Człowiek z marmuru, 1976), spent 14 years in development and sealed his reputation in the West. The film follows a young film school student as she attempts to make a documentary about a missing Stakhanovite bricklayer in Communist Poland. Next, in Man of Iron (Człowiek z żelaza, 1981), a journalist seeks to discredit the bricklayer’s son, who has become active in the Solidarity movement. Unable to make films in Poland for a few years, he followed Man of Iron with two films made outside of the country, Danton (1982) and A Love in Germany (1983). He made the third film of the trilogy, Walesa: Man of Hope (Człowiek z nadziei, 2013), decades later. The film chronicles the journey of Lech Wałesa, famous for his drooping mustache and gift of gab, from defiant Gdansk shipyard worker and co-founder of the independent trade union to first president of contemporary Poland.
Part of his appeal is that he made his first major films six decades ago, when the country was struggling to emerge from the war’s destruction. He earned international acclaim in the 1950s for his War Trilogy, which included A Generation, Kanał, and Ashes and Diamonds. The trilogy takes us from 1942 to 1945 and from a group of young resistance fighters on the streets, to the sewers on the 56th day of the ill-fated Warsaw Uprising, to a couple of former Home Army fighters who have been assigned to assassinate a Communist leader on the the final day of the war. Still images from these films have achieved iconic status: five bitter fighters with a young Roman Polanski in the middle; two beautiful teenagers stuck inside a sewer that opens to the Vistula River; a man hanging upside-down, surrounded by rubble, in the midst of a conversation between two characters. This is the fatalistic nationalism that probably felt so right to viewers who had witnessed a Poland devastated by a brutal occupation and rebuilt by a hostile empire but that is now tempered by a better understanding of how hostile that empire became.
His magnificent adaptations, including Ashes (Popióły, 1965), Landscape after the Battle (Krajobraz po bitwie, 1970), The Wedding, The Promised Land, The Maids of Wilko (Panny z Wilka, 1979), and Pan Tadeusz (1999), brought attention to Polish literature and showcased his talents as a visual artist. It was easy for critics, particularly but not exclusively in the West, to find in his adaptations a lack of worldliness. But what these criticisms are also pointing out is an important element of Wajda’s career and his life: Of the most accomplished of his generation of filmmakers, Wajda was one of the only ones who chose not to emigrate permanently. He studied and documented his country’s history, politics, and national myths in both film and theater, and was a beloved mentor to countless young filmmakers.
With his easy smile and sparkling eyes, Andrzej Wajda was the kind of Polish nationalist who made people wonder what went wrong with nationalism. In recent years, Wajda spoke of nationalism as a threatening presence in Polish society and openly opposed the right-wing policies of the current government. Yet he will likely always be remembered for his unwavering dedication to his native country. For a filmmaker who depicted national fatalism in many of his films, it seems important today to recognize that he left behind a legacy of hope.
Hollender, Barbara, Od Wajdy do Komasy, część 1 (From Wajda to Komasa, Part One) (Warsaw: Prószyński Media Sp. Z o.o, 2014)
Kaufman, Michael T., “Andrzej Wajda, Towering Auteur of Polish Cinema, Dies at 90,” http://www.nytimes.com/2016/10/10/movies/andrzej-wajda-towering-auteur-of-polish-cinema-dies-at-90.html