Central Europe Review: politics,
society and culture in Central and Eastern Europe
Vol 2, No 12
27 March 2000

Andrzej Wajda's Popiół i diamant (Ashes and Diamonds, 1958)
Zbigniew Cybulski in perhaps
Wajda's finest film
K I N O E Y E:
Hollywood Finally Cottons On
Andrzej Wajda's work acknowledged by Tinseltown

Andrew James Horton

On Sunday 26 March, Hollywood acknowledged the talent of one of the men commonly regarded as the father of modern Polish cinema, by awarding Andrzej Wajda with a special Oscar for lifetime achievement. Given that Wajda has been in the Polish film business for half a century and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has previously shown little interest in the director, it is hard not to interpret the gesture as anything other than an tacit admission that for five decades Hollywood's great mutual back-slapping exercise for the vacuously glamorous has been missing out on where the real cinematic action has been happening.

Of course, Wajda is not the stuff of Hollywood success. His film career has been devoted to exploring moral ambiguities, whereas Hollywood prefers good and bad to cut and dry, and he has always been keen to explore politics through film and how the individual relates to the time he or she lives in, also a bit of a no-no for mainstream American film-making.

But if the Oscars don't like politics to get heavy, that's their loss. Wajda's career has spanned a wide variety of styles, but it is his political films which have won him the greatest fame. A look at his life makes it clear both why Wajda chose the course he did and why the meeting of his art and his times makes him one of the most important contemporary European directors.

Wajda was born in Suwałki in 1926, a year in which the modern Polish state was a mere eight years old following its reformation from the fragments of the collapsed German, Austrian and Russian Empires. These early years of Poland were heady times, and national optimism was mixed with political instability. The country entered into conflicts with Russia, Germany, Lithuania and Czechoslovakia between 1920 and 1921 and by the year of Wajda's birth 14 governments had led the country.

When Wajda was just two months old, the much-loved and respected Marshal Pisudski carried out a military coup and installed a right-wing, anti-Semitic government which eventually became highly authoritarian, with little time for ethnic or religious diversity. It also failed to soothe the mounting tension rising with Germany over the issues as the free port of Danzig (now Gdańsk) and Poland's allotted corridor of access to the Baltic Sea, which split off Prussia from the bulk of Germany.

The Poland Wajda grew up in was, therefore, already a highly politicised one and what is more one permeated by unclear issues of identity and morality, all of which would become visible later in his films. With the outbreak of World War II, though, he turned his political instincts to more practical ends and joined the Resistance at the age of 16, an experience that would later provide him with material for three of his most famous films.

Destroying Socialist Realism

After the war, he started studying painting, something he soon gave up to join the famed film school at Lodz. He made his first short in 1950 and in 1952 worked as assistant director to the veteran director Alexander Ford on Piątka z ulicy Barskiej (Five Boys from Barska Street), commonly credited with being the only vaguely watchable piece of cinema Communist Poland produced before the death of Stalin in 1953. The film broke away from the conventions of the time to show real characters with all their faults and flaws, something which won it criticism from the authorities.

But to Wajda it marked the way forward, and with the pressures of Stalinistic policies slowly easing he was in 1954 able to follow Ford's example to make his directorial debut Pokolenie (A Generation). As well as being Wajda's first feature, it was also the first of three films known collectively as the "war trilogy," films which are becoming essentials on any film studies syllabus.

Pokolenie also used convincing characterisation, following a politically unaware boy who steals coal off German trains who is forged by a tragic love affair into a Resistance leader. The film made concessions to the regime - notably a brief lecture on the merits of Marx, the depiction of the Communists as working closely to save the Jews and the boy's conversion to Socialism - and had to have several important scenes cut to enable its approval for release by the censors. However, that did not detract from the depth Wajda was able to give his characters and the grim visual beauty of the film, nor did it prevent the film (as was Ford's) from being heavily criticised.

With his next film, Kanał (a title which usually goes untranslated, but in fact means Sewer), shot in 1956, he pushed his level of characterisation even further. War films were a sticky issue for the Communist authorities. While they were good show-cases for demonstrating the evils of right-wing politics and the necessity of Socialism, they were also reminders of the fact that there had been two resistances, one led by the Communists and another by nationalists - the Home Army - seeking to re-establish Poland as a Western-aligned democracy led by the government in exile. Wajda, controversially, made the non-Communist resistance (which he had been part of) the subject of Kanał.

To do this, he presented a script that showed the inevitable failure of the patriotic resistance and how it was a spent historical force. What he filmed, without deviating from the script, emerges as something rather different. The film mocks the traditional concepts of heroism prevalent (globally) in war films of the time and through its fated characters bestows the Home Army with a sense of nobility in defeat which the critic Frank Bren believes gives the film the air of a "modern Greek tragedy." The noir-ish mood is greatly enhanced by the convincing and atmospheric recreation of the Warsaw sewer system

Rebel with a Cause

The final film of the trilogy, Popiół i diamant (Ashes and Diamonds, 1958), also treated an enemy of Communism with considerable sympathy. This time the "anti-hero" was an assassin stalking a Communist leader on the last day of the war. The film was characterised by a now trademark atmospheric use of black and white and - more importantly - the commanding presence in the lead role of Zbigniew Cybulski, the man who was to subsequently shoot to international fame as "the Polish James Dean." He was to play a number of roles in the years to come, but he repeatedly returned to the image he made famous in the character of Maciek Chełmicki in Popiół i diamant, with the trademark sunglasses.

As well as casting a sex-symbol-to-be to be as an anti-Communist, the film also lampooned the authorities with a depiction of a riotously drunken celebration by Party big-wigs. The authorities were apoplectic when the film was smuggled to Venice and shown at the film festival without their permission.

The film was more than just cock-snooking to the authorities, though. Beyond its political subversion, Popiół i diamant presents the viewer with the very real moral dilemmas of those murky times and is a sensitive study of the relationship of the individual to the times he lives in, its political realities and all.

Wajda's interest in war did not end there, and his career saw him return repeatedly to either periods of war (such as Lotna [1959], Samson [1961], Popioły [Ashes, 1965] and Korczak [Dr Korczak, 1990]) or the period immediately after (such as in Krajnobraz po bitwie [Landscape after a Battle, 1970]). Although he presented a variety of different facets of life and a range of characters in different situations, they are all unified by their emphasis on psychology rather than action, their disdain of heroism and their exploration of individual responses to harsh circumstances.

Collaboration with Cybulski did not stop their either and the actor was to appear in Wajda's Niewinni czarodzieje (Innocent Sorcerers, 1960) and L'Amour à vingt ans (Love at Twenty, 1962), the latter which showed the generation gap between those who had fought in the war and those to whom it meant nothing. But apart from Popiół i diamant, the other great film which brought the two names together was Wszystko na sprzedaż (Everything for Sale, 1968) Wajda's response to Cybulski's tragic death under the wheels of an express train he was trying to board as it sped away. The death was recorded officially as an accident, but mystery still surrounds it and some have suggested that it was suicide.

The gaping hole that Cybulski left in Polish film culture is mirrored in his absence from the film Wszystko na sprzedaż. The story concerns the making of a film entitled Wszystko na sprzedaż, whose erratic but charismatic lead actor one day fails to turn up. The scene that should be filmed depicts the main character trying to board an express train but slipping and falling under the wheels. Debate then ensues about whether the actor (who is never named) is just being as unreliable as usual, or whether something has really happened to him, something which is confirmed to them at the film's end after a long and exhausting search.

The film is not just homage to Cybulski but also a caricature of Wajda himself (in the character of the Andrzej, the director of the film within the film) and a devastating critique of the film and art in general. On screen, real-life people act themselves, often voicing criticism of Andrzej (and therefore of Wajda) for being unfeeling and opportunistic. The distinction between the reality of stars as screen presences and the reality of them as human beings is constantly questioned - a fitting way to remember a man who spent so much of his life building up an artificial persona.

Exploring Stalinism

Wajda again proved that he set the agenda for what could and couldn't be discussed in public with his Człowiek z marmuru (Man of Marble, 1976), a film which looked at the personality cults of the Stalinist era. The story of a feted Stakhanovite worker who falls from grace and has his hero status stripped was one which Wajda had originally wanted to tackle in the early 1960s, but it was far too politically sensitive to gain approval.

Returning to the story in the 1970s, the original screenplay by Alexander Scibor-Rylski was no longer contemporary, and Wajda was faced with a similar dilemma that he'd had to overcome in the making of Wszystko na sprzedaż - namely how to paint a portrait of a person from the past without resorting to facile historical biopic. His answer in this case, was to shift the story to being about a young film-maker trying to make a documentary about a Stakhanovite bricklayer. The film, with its Citizen Cane-style narrative of reminiscences, combines analysis of the 1950s with an examination of how contemporary Poland was ignoring its inglorious recent past.

Wajda was able to carry this off because of his by now enormous international reputation and the waves that had been created by the very fact that the film was in production. The regime, ever keen to validate itself as just and morally superior to the West, could not have risked banning the film, as domestic and international outrage would have followed. The official Polish papers were also faced with pressures not to be too positive about the film in their reviews to discourage domestic attention, but at the same time not to be too negative so the authorities could still claim to the world that it had a free press.

The film was not just important in bringing the 1950s back into focus, but also in that it (along with Krzysztof Zannusi's Barwy ochronne [Camouflage, 1976]) inspired a new generation of directors to tackle moral issues in everyday life. And thus was born the trend which became know as kino moralnego niepokoju (usually translated as "the cinema of moral anxiety" and less often, but perhaps more accurately, as "the cinema of moral concern").

Shipyard theatre

These films did not just reflect debate in Polish society, they also precipitated it. In this time, there was increasing restlessness about the Communist regime and its social iniquities. These had already manifested themselves in riotous (and brutally suppressed) anti-Communist demonstrations in 1956 and 1970 in response to the increasing prices of essentials such as bread and milk. But in the late 1970s, anti-regime feeling was to flower in a more organised way, leading to strikes which forced the authorities to permit the formation of the Solidarność (Solidarity) trade-union movement in 1980.

Wajda not only played an indirect role in this moral awakening of Poland, but also participated the defining political moments of it. He choreographed a ritualist unveiling ceremony for a giant monument to the victims of the strikes of 1956 and 1970 outside of the Lenin Shipyards in Gdańsk.

Representatives of every walk of Polish life - including the regime - attended this vast theatrical floodlit event, at which an orchestra and choir played Krzysztof Penderecki's Lacrimosa, the actor Daniel Olbrychski recited the names of the victims of 1970 (with the choir responding to each one "He is still with us") and Lech Wałęsa lit an eternal flame from a welder's torch. The event was documented by Tomasz Pobog Malinowski in his film Sto dni (A Hundred Days, 1980), the title referring to the length of time it took to build the 140-foot high monument, which still stands.

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Taking advantage of the current spirit of "national accord" and recognising that the regime would not stay that liberal for long, Wajda started work on a sequel to Człowiek z marmuru - Człowiek z żelaza (Man of Iron, 1981). The production was pushed forward at an ironically Stakhanovite pace, with the script completed in a mere eight days. The final film was hastily assembled from documentary footage of the 1980 Gdańsk strikes and scripted action following directly on with the story and fictional characters of Człowiek z marmuru, but weaving in historical characters playing themselves (such as Lech Wałęsa and Anna Walentynowicz, the docker whose sacking sparked off the Gdańsk strikes in the first place).

The haste of the film's production is clearly evident, but nevertheless critics at Cannes were greatly impressed by its vision and immediacy and awarded it the Palme d'Or. Poles flocked to see it.

The film is all the more remarkable in that it had an underlying cynicism which proved to be shockingly accurate in retrospect. At the film's close, a party official admits to one of the characters that the agreement signed with the striking dockers would never be honoured. In real life, martial law was imposed on 13 December 1981, just months after the films release.

Martial law

The film would not be shown again on Polish soil until after the fall of Communism in 1989. It was not the only film to vanish: Ryszard Bugajski's Przesłuchanie (Interogation, 1982) which could only be made (even in the liberal period) with Wajda's patronage as producer, was also withdrawn due to the ferocity of its denouncement of the Stalinist years and the very notion of a police state. Wajda was also removed as head of the film production company X and the films of the following years were made abroad, with the reluctant consent of the authorities who granted him the necessary visas. Perhaps they hoped that by allowing him out of the country he would emigrate and spare them further embarrassment.

His first martial law film, Danton (1983), was a French production examining the events following the French Revolution and the power struggle between the hardline revolutionary Maximilien Robespierre and moderate bourgeois bon vivant Georges Jacques Danton. The French were utterly bemused and largely felt that Wajda had misinterpreted their history by concentrating on events around Danton and coming down too heavily against the po-faced and ascetic Robespierre he paints.

Strangely enough, few stopped to consider the possibility that France might have been very far from his mind when making the film and that his attention was more on contemporary events in his homeland. In Poland, there were no doubts that Wajda was making a statement about the crushing of Solidarity and the habit of revolutionaries to use repression to validate their power long after their political sell-by date.

Wajda, though, denied that his films - or indeed those of any Polish director - sought to validate themselves by being antagonistic to the censors for the sake of it.

With the fall of Communism, Wajda was able to return to film-making in Poland, with his Korczak (Dr Korczak, 1990), a typically double-edged look at a character who is difficult to view as black or white, set against the backdrop of World War II.

More than this, he was able to enter politics formally, becoming elected to the Polish Senate in 1989. With the politics proper as a vent for his concern with moral welfare, many felt that his cinematic powers were starting to ebb. He retained the role of an outside critic of society, and in Panna Nikt (Miss Nobody 1996) was deeply critical of the shallow materialism and individualism that pervades post-Communist Poland. Although notable for registering a voice of dissent in an era of free-market mania, it failed to impress critics as an aesthetic work of art.

Second wind

He almost considered bowing out of film gracefully to leave the stage clear for a younger generation, but instead went on to make Pan Tadeusz (1999), a film which has re-established his reputation both domestically and internationally.

Andrzej Wajda's Pan Tadeusz (1999)
An unexpected return to form
Wajda's importance to Polish film has come from his consistent ability to reinvent himself and to set the course of Polish film-making. With Pan Tadeusz he has done it again, this time adapting a Polish literary classic - Adam Mickiewicz's epic poem of the same name. The original Pan Tadeusz was written in Paris at a time when Poland had been wiped off the map, and depicts a rustic love story set against the background of a failed uprising against Russian rule.

The film is not the first to appeal to a sense of national pride in Poland, and follows in the wake of Jerzy Hoffman's adaptation of Sienkiewicz's Ogniem i mieczem, another piece of essential reading for every patriotic Pole. Whereas Hoffman's high-tech saga - complete with computer-generated castles on the Polish landscape - exudes something of the Hollywood cheesiness it is trying to rise up against, Wajda manages to achieve something more subtle and complex, meaning that his adaptation is likely to be the more enduring of the two and will set the standards for historical dramas to come.

And it is at this stage that Hollywood finally cottons on. It would appear that the Academy has recanted (slightly) on its really quite racist habit of ghettoising films which have the indecency not to be made in English with its "Best Foreign-language Film" category and at last acknowledging Wajda's talent with the lifetime achievement award.

Or are they?

Cynics might argue that the Oscar has more to do with financial success than artist merit. Pan Tadeusz is thought to have made a new world record, with around two and a half per cent of the entire national population seeing the film in its first seven days and it just as likely to have been this fact which inspired the awe of Tinseltown than the film itself.

The move is certainly unlikely to signal the start of a new era in which the Academy judges films on merit and treats world cinema on a level playing field with pro-America English-language films. The idea that the Oscar for Best Film might go to a film which is in a language that is anything other than English is certainly laughable and the entire ceremony is likely to remain ever-susceptible to accusations of discrimination.

Inherently racist as the awards may be, interest in Wajda will undoubtedly increase as a result of his Oscar, and, even if the motives for giving the great director this honour are unclear, this can only be a good thing.

Andrew James Horton, 27 March 2000

To watch realtime video clips of Wajda's films check out Gazeta Wyborcza's filmography.

To buy Wajda films on video, check out the Polish section of the Kinoeye Video Store

Other articles on Wajda
A Bygone Harmony
Andrzej Wajda's Pan Tadeusz
Pan Tadeusz in France
Wajda's film gets a mixed reception abroad
A Glossy Symbolism
Andrzej Wajda's Panna Nikt

For links to external articles about Wajda see
the Kinoeye Archive

 

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