In Memoriam         ANDRZEJ WAJDA

Andrzej Wajda
Polish film director whose own experiences inspired his acclaimed 1950s war trilogy A Generation, Kanał and Ashes and Diamonds


andrzej wajda

Polish cinema burst upon the world in the 1950s with Andrzej Wajda's war trilogy, A Generation, Kanał and Ashes and Diamonds, with the director becoming the voice of disaffected postwar youth. A generation later, Wajda, who has died aged 90, was the voice of Poland again, as the country struggled to survive political and economic turmoil.

Wajda was born in Suwałki, in north-east Poland, the son of Aniela (nee Białowąs), a schoolteacher, and Jakub, a cavalry officer killed by the Soviets in 1940 in what was known as the Katyn massacre. It was many years before Wajda decided to cover the tragedy, making the film Katyń (2007).

During the second world war, Wajda had joined the resistance at the age of 16, and after liberation he enrolled at the renowned film school in Łódź. On graduating in 1952, he worked as assistant to Aleksander Ford on Five Boys from Barska Street (1954), a rather preachy piece that paralleled the rehabilitation of juvenile delinquents with the reconstruction of Poland.

Wajda's first feature gave a very different view of Polish youth. A Generation (1954) forcibly expressed a youthful bitterness and an anti-romantic attitude to the war. The title refers to Poland's "lost generation", those who had been teenagers during the war. Kanał (1957), literally translated as "sewer", starkly created the claustrophobic nightmare of Polish patriots escaping the Nazis in the sewers of Warsaw during the uprising of 1944. In this, his second film, Wajda's great technical skill was immediately apparent from the remarkable opening tracking shots. Some weaknesses in characterisation and heavy-handed references to Dante's Inferno did not lessen the powerful theme and imagery.

Andrzej Wajda in 2016. During the second world war, Wajda had joined the resistance at the age of 16. Photograph: East News/Rex/Shutterstock

The crown of the trilogy and perhaps Wajda's finest work, Ashes and Diamonds (1958), takes place on the last day of the war. Its enigmatic, twilight world communicated the "Polish experience" beyond the frontiers as few films have done. The brilliant young actor Zbigniew Cybulski embodied the sceptical new generation in his anti-heroic role of a nationalist ordered to kill a communist leader. The assassination scene, Cybulski's death and the slow motion polonaise climax are stunningly realised. The great theme of Polish cinema – the occupation and resistance movement – was shown in a new light. "The war was no longer regarded as a heroic necessity, but a supreme example of suffering made up of individual tragedies which could never be wiped out by either a common faith or the victorious outcome of the war," wrote the critic Antonín Liehm.

Driven by "censorship behind closed doors", Wajda made films from the mid-1960s to the mid-70s that were mainly adaptations of Polish allegorical novels, but even in his period films (The Birchwood, The Wedding, The Young Ladies of Wilko), he was able to comment obliquely on contemporary Poland through the use of symbolism and ironic allusions. Landscape After Battle (1970) was taken from the stories of Tadeusz Borowski, an Auschwitz survivor who took his own life in 1951, aged 28. 

The film, made in a non-realist, lyrical style using subdued colour, not only portrayed a tender love story but raised a polemical voice on the ambiguity of Polish behaviour during the war.

With the slight relaxation of censorship, Wajda returned to overt political subjects, reflecting on the immediate past with Man of Marble (1977), a bold, no-frills, no-holds-barred story on the life of a worker-hero of the Stalinist 50s who falls from official favour, relevant in audiences' minds to the crushing of the workers' action in Gdańsk in 1970

Like his hero, Wajda was thought to have gone over the official limits, and the film's release was held up for four years. "His theatrical and film output and the interviews he gives demonstrate that, in ideological and political terms, he is not with us. He takes the stand, often met with in artists, of an impartial judge of the history of our days." So read a passage from the file on Wajda kept by the censors' office.

Man of Iron (1981), the sequel to Man of Marble, leapt off the screen as freshly as the day's headlines. Filmed under enormous pressure during the actual events, it took the personal story of the son of the hero of the first film (played by the same actor, Jerzy Radziwiłowicz), and set it against the wider struggle for the recognition of Solidarity. The interest of the two "Man" films, told in a straightforward, unfussy narrative technique, depended to a large extent on their political topicality. Yet Wajda's recognition of the fragility of the people making history, and his avoidance of heroics, continues to keep a hold after the events depicted have moved into the dim past.

It is a theme he returned to in Danton, which was made in France in 1982. At the time of its release, the central ideological conflict between the warmly idealistic Danton (Gérard Depardieu) and the coldly pragmatic Robespierre (Wojciech Pszoniak) seemed analogous with that of Lech Wałęsa and General Wojciech Jaruzelski, although the film was based on a 1931 Polish play.

At the end of Man of Marble, a film director and a shipyard worker walk arm in arm to face the controlling bureaucrats together, a symbol of the unity of workers and artists and of the significant part played by the Polish cinema in bringing it about. By 1990, the symbol had become a reality when Wałęsa won the presidency and Wajda became a senator.

Wajda's post-communist films had less urgency, but he was able to take a sober look at the past. Korczak (1990) told the story of the eponymous Jewish physician and educator who protected Jewish orphans during the war. "Jewish themes in Polish culture had been virtually banned for 20 years," Wajda explained. Among the best of his later films was Tatarak (Sweet Rush, 2009), a 50s set romance between a middle-aged woman (Krystyna Janda) and a younger man. But it also became about film-making when the cinematographer Edward Kłosiński (Janda's husband), who had worked on many films with Wajda, died during the shooting.

In 2013, Wajda made Wałęsa: Man of Hope, a biopic of his national and personal hero. "I thought I would die in that system," Wajda remarked. "It was so surprising and so extraordinary that I lived to see freedom." His last film, Afterimage (2016), about the avant-garde painter Władysław Strzemiński, has recently become Poland's official entry for best foreign language film for the 2017 Oscars. Wajda received an honorary Oscar in 2000. He was married four times. His first three marriages, to Gabriela Obremba, Zofia Żuchowska and the actor Beata Tyszkiewicz, ended in divorce. He is survived by his fourth wife, the costume designer Krystyna Zachwatowicz, and his daughter, Karolina, from his third marriage.

• Andrzej Wajda, film director, born 6 March 1926; died 9 October 2016.

Ronald Bergan
first published in:
www.theguardian.com/film/2016/oct/10/andrzej-wajda-obituary
 

 

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