[Marxism] Andrzej Wajda, Towering Auteur of Polish Cinema, Dies at 90

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Mon Oct 10 07:50:49 MDT 2016

NY Times, Oct. 10 2016
Andrzej Wajda, Towering Auteur of Polish Cinema, Dies at 90

Andrzej Wajda, who mined Polish history to create films that established 
him as one of the world’s great directors and won him an Academy Award 
for his life’s work, died on Sunday. He was 90.

The Associated Press reported his death without specifying where he 
died, saying only that a colleague, the film director Jacek Bromski, 
said Mr. Wajda had recently been hospitalized.

 From his trilogy of Poland’s wartime resistance (“A Generation,” 
”Kanal” and “Ashes and Diamonds”) to his twin portraits of workers under 
Communism (“Man of Marble” and “Man of Iron”) to his final film, 
“Afterimage,” released this year, Mr. Wajda unceasingly drew on Polish 
reality, sensibility and memory, stressing elements that were at times 
mystifying to foreign viewers.

His absorption in Polish sensibilities, and in quintessentially Polish 
subjects, like the romantic appeal of lost causes, extended beyond plot 
and subtext to the iconography with which he filled his movies, a 
tendency he lamented but could not escape. “I would gladly trade in this 
clutch of national symbols — sabers, white horses, red poppies — for a 
handful of sexual symbols from a Freudian textbook,” he once said. “The 
trouble is that I just wasn’t brought up on Freud.”

He was also aware that the tensions of the Cold War sometimes estranged 
Western audiences from his subjects and his style. “Films made in 
Eastern Europe seem of little or no interest to people in the West,” he 
wrote in “Double Vision: My Life in Film” (1989). Western audiences, he 
said, “find them as antediluvian as the battle for workers’ rights in 
England in the time of Marx.”

But the biggest problems he faced were the practical ones of government 
disapproval, and sometimes outright censorship, before Poland rid itself 
of Communist control. That he succeeded in overcoming so much to produce 
towering works of art earned him the enduring regard of his countrymen.

And as opaque as his allusions may have seemed outside Poland, his 
international reputation grew steadily. Western film historians 
eventually mentioned him alongside Ingmar Bergman, Federico Fellini and 
Akira Kurosawa. He was given the Japanese Imperial Prize for his 
contribution to film in 1996 and an honorary Academy Award in 2000. Mr. 
Wajda also received lifetime achievement awards from the film festivals 
in Venice in 1998 and Berlin in 2006.

The images and textures that shaped the imaginative landscape of Mr. 
Wajda’s films were drawn from a life that reflected Poland’s tragic 
modern history, beginning with the outbreak of World War II, when the 
Nazis invaded and obliterated Poland in partnership with the Russians. 
The agony continued through nearly six years of German occupation, when 
the Nazis used Polish soil to establish the ghettos and killing fields 
of the Holocaust. Then, with liberation, came more decades of 
totalitarian oppression as successive regimes in Moscow sought to impose 
Soviet-style Communism on a devoutly Roman Catholic country, an effort 
that even Stalin once conceded was like “putting a saddle on a bull.”

Andrzej Wajda (pronounced ON-jay VIE-dah) was born on March 6, 1926, in 
Suwalki, a garrison town near Poland’s border with Lithuania. His father 
was a cavalry officer, and as young Andrzej moved with his parents from 
camp to camp, he and his brother would playfully choreograph their own 
battles while all around them real troops carried out training maneuvers.

When he was 12, the German Army invaded. Two weeks later, the Russians 
joined in the dismemberment of Poland. The country was quickly overrun 
by Nazi and Communist forces carrying out the collusion of the 
Hitler-Stalin pact.

As it did for many Poles, history turned personal for Mr. Wajda. His 
father was taken prisoner, one of the 4,300 Polish officers the Russians 
killed and secretly buried in the Katyn Forest in Ukraine.

Though most Poles eventually came to understand who was responsible for 
what was known simply as Katyn, during the years of Communist rule the 
official version of events insisted that the Polish officers were killed 
by the Germans. Only in 1991 could Mr. Wajda, by then an elected senator 
in post-Communist Poland, make a documentary called “The Katyn Forest” 
in homage to his father and those murdered with him.

His 2007 dramatization of the same story, called simply “Katyn,” was an 
Oscar nominee for best foreign-language film. A. O. Scott, in The New 
York Times, praised it as “a powerful corrective to decades of 
distortion and forgetting.”

After his father disappeared, young Andrzej lived through the war with 
his mother, a teacher, working at odd jobs in the countryside. He also 
had what he later called “a posting of no significance” with the Home 
Army, a resistance group sponsored by the anti-Communist Polish 
government in exile in London.

He enrolled in the Fine Arts Academy in Krakow after the war but 
transferred to the newly opened Film School in Lodz. Soon after 
graduating, he began making films.

A War Trilogy

His first, “A Generation,” finished in 1955, was shot in settings of 
rubble and ruin, in a Warsaw that had not yet recovered from the 
house-to-house devastation of the war. It centered on the wartime 
experiences of a tough Warsaw adolescent who joins a resistance group 
headed by a young woman with whom he has fallen in love.

Some aspects of the film reflect the Communist Party line of the time; 
the young Communist fighters are depicted as purer, braver and more 
committed than the members of the Home Army. But with its nuanced 
characters, “A Generation” transcends propaganda.

In 1956, in the wake of worker upheavals that preceded the Hungarian 
uprising against Soviet Communist domination, Mr. Wajda made “Kanal,” 
the second film of his war trilogy. It deals with another uprising: the 
1944 struggle of the citizens of Warsaw to free themselves from Nazi 

“Kanal” tells the story of a corps of resistance fighters who are cut 
off from the main insurgent force and try to escape through the city’s 
sewers. It follows three groups of men and women as they wander in the 
cold, dark water, fearful of German booby traps and electrical wires. 
Some break down; some die in the sewers; others sustain hopes and 
illusions, only to be captured by the Germans.

The last of the trilogy that established Mr. Wajda’s international 
reputation was “Ashes and Diamonds” (1958), a dramatization of a novel 
by Jerzy Andrzejewski, set on the day Germany surrendered in 1945. The 
Communists have taken over the wheels of government, and membership in 
the non-Communist resistance is suddenly suspect. Maciek, a young former 
soldier of the Home Army, is instructed to assassinate a Communist 
official who is arriving to take control of a provincial town.

The Communist official is a compassionate man who has suffered greatly 
in concentration camps. When Maciek encounters the official on the 
street, he shoots him dead. He slips away but panics when he sees police 
officers checking the papers of passers-by; he starts to run and is 
killed. As dawn rises, marking the end of the first 24 hours of peace, 
Maciek’s body is sprawled on a rubbish heap.

Mr. Wajda went on to direct more than 40 theatrical and television 
films, among them narrowly focused psychological portraits like 
“Innocent Sorcerers” (1960) and expansive adaptations of historical 
novels and stories by celebrated Polish writers, like Stefan Zeromski’s 
“The Ashes” (1965) and Stanislaw Wyspianski’s “The Wedding” (1973). His 
largely improvised “Everything for Sale” (1968) was a tribute to 
Zbigniew Cybulski, the charismatic star of “Ashes and Diamonds,” who was 
killed while trying to leap aboard a train in 1967. He returned several 
times to films set against the backdrop of World War II and focused on 
the tragedy of Poland’s Jews with films like “Samson” (1961), “Landscape 
After the Battle” (1970), “Korczak” (1991) and “Holy Week” (1995).

‘Man of Marble’

Most of these films were shown in the West, although it was not until 
the late 1970s that Mr. Wajda’s work again received the worldwide 
critical attention that had welcomed his earliest work. This phase 
started with “Man of Marble,” which he completed in 1976 but which was 
kept from audiences abroad until a political thaw in Warsaw emboldened 
bureaucrats to issue it an export license in 1978.

In that film, a student filmmaker, memorably played by Krystyna Janda, 
is trying to find out what became of a bricklayer who in the Stalinist 
’50s had won national fame for his enthusiastic productivity. After 
tracing the worker’s rise as a state-sanctioned hero, she uncovers his 
decline at the hands of the same government that once extolled him.

Mr. Wajda tells his story like a thriller: The truth emerges through the 
shifting Communist propaganda of two decades as depicted in interview 
after interview, newsreel after newsreel.

When “Man of Marble” was released in Poland, some three million people 
saw it in less than three months, and arguments about its content broke 
out all over the country. The Poles knew that the Communist government 
had censored the crucial final scene of the film and refused to allow 
its presentation at the Cannes Film Festival as an official entry. But 
it was shown there anyway, and it won the International Federation of 
Film Critics prize.

Reviewing the movie in The New York Times, Vincent Canby called it “a 
political epic, compassionate and as bitterly funny as a cartoon.”

‘Man of Iron’

As the disintegration of Communist rule accelerated in Poland, more 
quickly than in the other Soviet satellite states, Mr. Wajda played an 
active role as both an artist and a patriot. In 1981, when the 
Solidarity labor-union movement was mushrooming, Mr. Wajda released “Man 
of Iron,” his sequel to “Man of Marble.”

In this film, the Communist government sends a reporter to Gdansk, 
ostensibly to cover the strike of shipyard workers there but really to 
smear one of its leaders. The leader turns out to be the son of the 
bricklayer of “Man of Marble,” who is married to the young documentary 
filmmaker who uncovered the truth about his father. Soon the reporter 
gets caught up in the passion of the event he has been assigned to 

“Man of Iron” was made as Solidarity was gaining momentum. Real members 
of Solidarity, including the movement’s leader, Lech Walesa, appear in 
the film alongside fictional characters. A late entry at Cannes, it was 
awarded the Golden Palm.

Mr. Wajda was allowed to insert the censored last scene of “Man of 
Marble” into “Man of Iron.” “That was the best sign,” he later recalled, 
“that in the years between the two movies the Communists really started 
losing ground.”

He organized and ran the Solidarity filmmakers’ union and became an 
active member of the Committee to Help Workers, a major dissident 
organization. But the last Polish Communist government struck back and 
Gen. Wojciech Jaruzelski, its leader, banned Solidarity and declared 
martial law.

As censorship intensified, Mr. Wajda encouraged the clandestine 
distribution of banned films by his younger colleagues through 
underground cassettes. The government moved against him and for the next 
four years disapproved his film projects; he was not able to work in his 
homeland again until 1985.

Leaving Poland, he directed two films that drew critical praise. In 
“Danton,” made in France in 1982, he drew parallels to the political 
situation in Poland with his portrayal of the conflict between the 
moderate, democratic Danton (played by Gérard Depardieu) and the 
Stalin-like Robespierre (played by the Polish actor Wojciech Pszoniak) 
during the Reign of Terror that followed the French Revolution. In “A 
Love in Germany” (1983), a French-German co-production, he focused on a 
passionate and unconcealed love affair during World War II between a 
German woman (Hanna Schygulla) and a Polish prisoner of war working as a 
slave laborer (Piotr Lysak).

After Communism finally collapsed in 1989, Mr. Wajda was one of the 
national luminaries asked to run for the Polish Senate by Mr. Walesa, 
who was about to become president. Mr. Wajda served a single term and 
then returned to films. But in a situation repeated in other former 
Eastern bloc countries, Hollywood blockbusters became more readily 
available on Polish screens and the subsidies that had spawned and 
sustained a great national cinema dwindled.

Many Polish directors who followed in Mr. Wajda’s footsteps and who had 
worked with him began making movies abroad. In contrast, Mr. Wajda 
stayed home, where he devoted much of his energy to theater — he was for 
many years the director of the Stary Theater in Krakow, where he often 
staged works adapted from Russian literature — but also continued to 
make the occasional film.

Among his notable later works, in addition to “Katyn,” were “The 
Revenge” (2002), a period comedy with a cast that included Roman 
Polanski, and “Tatarak” (2009), the story of a middle-aged woman 
obsessed with a much younger man.

Mr. Wajda was married four times. Survivors include his wife, the 
actress and stage designer Krystyna Zachwatowicz, and a daughter, Karolina.

A Final Tribute

One of Mr. Wajda’s last films was “Walesa: Man of Hope,” released in 
2013 and considered by many to be the final part of a trilogy that began 
with “Man of Marble.” Starring the Polish movie and television actor 
Robert Wieckiewicz — who spoke in an interview with The New York Times 
about the pressure of “playing a legend, directed by a legend” — it was 
the first Polish film to examine Lech Walesa and his work with 
Solidarity in depth.

At a news conference announcing his plans to make “Walesa,” Mr. Wajda 
said that he viewed it as his greatest professional challenge to date.

“I don’t want to,” he said of making the film, quoting Mr. Walesa’s own 
words when he ran for president of Poland, “but I have to.”

Michael T. Kaufman, a correspondent and editor who covered Poland for 
The New York Times in the 1980s, died in 2010. Peter Keepnews 
contributed reporting.

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