On Sunday, October 9th, 2016, the 90-year old Polish film director Andrzej Wajda (pron: on-JAY vhy-duh) passed away. News of his death reverberated across cultural centers and news outlets worldwide. In his sixty year career, he directed and produced over fifty full-length films, was awarded with one honorary Oscar, one Palme d’Or, and was frequently nominated for Oscars and Academy Awards, particularly in the Foreign Film category. Considered to be the king of modern Polish cinematography, he was one of several Polish movie directors who formed the so-called “Polish Film School”, and one of the most prominent Polish film directors known worldwide, alongside the likes of Roman Polański, Agnieszka Holland, or Krzysztof Kieślowski.
In addition to his cinematographic contributions, Wajda was a politically engaged individual, known for his public support of the Solidarity movement, which opposed the communist authorities throughout the 1980’s. In June of 1989, he participated in the first partially-democratic elections in the Soviet Bloc in over forty years, won as a member of the Solidarity coalition, and served until 1991 as a senator in the first post-communist government. Despite his minute successes in protecting Polish art and cinema during the transitional period to free-market capitalism in the early 1990’s, Wajda ceased his political career and returned to directing films. Indeed, it is for his cinematographic contributions and successes that Wajda is most revered and celebrated. In short, one can argue that Wajda’s success domestically is due to the ability of his works and films to resonate with everyday Polish life and society of the 20th Century. This is most evident and highlighted upon by his own upbringing and experiences as both a young adult in Nazi-occupied Poland, and an adult whose career and works were constantly under threat by the communist authorities.
Wajda was born in 1926 inter-war Poland in Suwałki, a region in the northeast of Poland co-inhabited for hundreds of years by ethnic Poles and Lithuanians. In the mid 1930’s, his family moved to Radom, a city located halfway between Warsaw and Cracow in the center of Poland. His father, a captain in the Polish Army, was mobilized in early September 1939 as a result of the German invasion of Poland, never be reunited with his family again; captured and held as a prisoner of war at the conclusion of the September Campaign in 1939, Wajda’s father was transferred from German hands to the Soviets in April 1940, and executed by the latter during the Katyń Massacre.
During the war, a young Wajda attempted to continue his education by participating in the school system established by the Polish Underground, yet was forced to work due to the family’s dire financial straits. From mid-1942 to the autumn of 1943, the 16-year old served as a liaison officer in the Polish Home Army, the primary and dominant Polish anti-Nazi resistance organization. Following the infiltration of his battalion by the Gestapo, Wajda hid in Cracow for half a year until early spring 1944, only to learn that most of his compatriots were executed by the Gestapo.
Following Cracow’s liberation in January 1945, Wajda enrolled as a painter at the Jan Matejko Academy of Fine Arts. Since the early years of the war, Wajda was interested in and displayed talent in painting. His paintings – although lesser known compared to his cinematographic accomplishments later in life – were largely influenced by surrealism, and were largely representative both abstract and naïve art. However, by the late-1940’s Wajda grew increasingly interested in cinematography and film, and in 1949, he dropped out of the Matejko Academy. He moved to Łódź just south of Warsaw, and enrolled in the newly-established National Film School, subsequently graduating in 1953.
Wajda’s initial cinematographic amateur works were rather insignificant. In 1955, he produced his first successful film, simply known as A Generation. The film carefully balanced historical fact and complying with state-mandated socialist propaganda; it portrayed the lives of young Poles enlisted in the Polish People’s Guard – a communist resistance organization of historically small significance and combat experience – and the resistance they posed to the German occupation. Despite the fact that the film was well-received by English-speaking critics for its acting and filming, the film wascriticized by Polish émigrés living outside of communist Poland precisely for its historically inaccurate overemphasis of the influence of communist resistance in Nazi-occupied Poland. On the other hand, Wajda was not spared by the communist authorities either, who criticized the film’s deviation from state-mandated socio-realist representations of art.
The mid to late-1950’s proved extremely productive and successful for Wajda, who created and produced films almost every single year, nearly all themed on the Polish experience of World War II, particularly Polish resistance to the German occupation. For example, he broke through into the international scene in 1956 with Kanał. Kanał portrayed the heroic struggles, sacrifices, and eventual tragedy of the Home Army during the 1944 Warsaw Uprising. The film’s international success was highlighted through its premiere at the Cannes Film Festival in France and being awarded with the Silver Palme d’Or.
However, his successes in this time period culminated and were most represented by his 1958 film Ashes and Diamonds. The film received global fame and praise – as well as condemnation by the communist authorities domestically – for its portrayal of inter-ideological relations between the Polish non-communist and communist resistance movements in 1945 Soviet-liberated Poland. More specifically, Wajda negotiated in his film the difficult and often tense relations which existed in the immediate post-war time period between Soviet-backed communist sympathizers and non-communist Poles, who were weary and distrustful of their communist compatriots. The work is considered one of Wajda’s most prominent expressions of symbolism and romanticist cinematography, a genre of art that has been highly influential in the formulation of Polish tradition, culture, and the Polish Weltanaschauung.
One of the difficulties of outlining and describing Wajda’s successful cinematographic career was his constant production of and output of films. One may joke, but the truth is that in a good decade, Wajda would easily work on at least ten films. The sheer quantity of films produced is impressive, yet one must also take into consideration the politics of Polish cinematography and film business at the time. Specifically, one must be aware that Wajda’s films were often controversial, criticized, and held in “development hell” by the communist authorities. One such example is that of the 1976 film Man of Marble, whose manuscript was written and completed in the early 1960’s, yet was forbidden by the communist authorizes from production and filming due to its controversial theme and topic. Specifically, the film was one of the first in the Soviet Bloc that highlighted the failures and inadequacies of the communist system, as well as the hypocrisies of socialist authoritarianism and elitism. As a result, much of Wajda’s career – as was true with not only many other Polish artists, but the Polish population in general – was often held back and progressed at a snails pace due to political pressures from the communist authorities; although not impossible, social and economic mobility, however, was difficult to achieve for the common person if they were not Party members, not to mention if they had openly and publicly criticized the system and/or authorities at any point in their life.
Wajda will forever remain dear to Poles particularly due to his reanimation of pre-WWII Polish romanticism in a dull and tepid communist Poland, his relationship to Polish traditions and culture and his expression of patriotism, and especially his contributions towards embedding Polish martyrdom into Polish “pop-culture” through the medium of film, as well as its dissemination and popularization all over the world. Perhaps this is most evident in his 2007 film Katyń, which depicts the Soviet massacre of over 22,000 Poles in the spring of 1940. Polish military officials and members of the Polish intelligentsia were the primary victims of the 1940 massacre, and it remains a contentious matter in Russo-Polish history and politics to date. Although the film does not rival artistically the works of Ashes and Diamonds, Man of Marble, or Man of Iron (1981) – the latter having won the 1981 edition of the Palme d’Or at Cannes – it is the portrayal of an event that is considered to be exemplary of Polish martyrdom in recent Polish history.
It is also a monument to Wajda’s own father, one of at least 21,768 Poles executed in the jails of western Ukraine or the forests of western Byelorussia by the Soviets. Perhaps Wajda’s prominence and importance to Polish cultural life – and society in general – is because of his depiction of historical events that, in reality, have touched the lives of each and every Pole for the last century; the depiction of the Polish experience of World War II, the Cold War, and the communist regime, as it was truly experienced by the vast majority of Poles. For the most part, there has been no other individual that has been as vital in the reconstruction and portrayal of Polish experience, memory, and history, and whose works have been so widely disseminated and known since the romanticists of the 19th Century – Adam Mickiewicz, Juliusz Słowacki, Cyprian Kamil Norwid, Henryk Sienkiewicz, or Wincenty Pol, to name a few. In short, Wajda was the continuation of the Polish Romanticist legacy. Much like the 19th Century Polish Romanticists who experienced and expressed in their works the nature of life under foreign occupation/rule, Wajda and his works explored these very same facets in relation to communist authoritarianism, the latter as being something that is inherently foreign. Along with the sadness that accompanies his passing is a sense of loss and uncertainty – loss in the death of one of the few remaining representatives of Polish Romanticism, and uncertainty in who will continue its legacy.
Polish Cinema’s Finest, Cannes Film Festival, 1990. From left: Andrzej Żuławski (1940-2016), Andrzej Wajda (1926-2016), Agnieszka Holland (b.1948), Roman Polański (b.1933), Ryszard Bugajski (b.1943), Krzysztof Kieślowski (1941-1996). Photographer: Micheline Pelletier.
This blog post was written by Adam Staszczuk, a graduate history student at Villanova University. He is a student of European history, particularly modern Central European history with a specific interest in modern Polish history.
Individuals interested in reading more about Andrzej Wajda and his artistic work are highly encouraged to visit the biographical webpage compiled and written by Monika Mokrzycka-Pokora, accredited by the Adam Mickiewicz Institute. Please visit http://culture.pl/en/artist/andrzej-wajda
Hoberman, J. “Remembering Andrzej Wajda, Unflinching Observer of Modern Poland.” The New York Times, Oct. 12, 2016. Retrieved Oct. 13, 2016. Web. http://www.nytimes.com/2016/10/13/movies/remembering-andrzej-wajda.html?_r=0
Karol, Tom. “Letter: Andrzej Wajda obituary.” The Guardian, Oct. 14, 2016. Retrieved Oct. 14, 2016. Web. https://www.theguardian.com/stage/2016/oct/14/letter-andrzej-wajda-obituary
Lubelski, Tadeusz. Wajda. Portret mistrza w kilku odsłonach. Wrocław, Poland: Wydawnictwo Dolnośląskie, 2006.
Mokrzycka-Pokora, Monika. “Andrzej Wajda – Biography.” Culture.pl, January 2016. Retrieved Oct. 13, 2016. Web. http://culture.pl/en/artist/andrzej-wajda
Mondello, Bob. “Filmmaker Andrzej Wajda Dies at 90, Celebrated Resistance to Authoritarianism”.
National Public Radio, Oct. 11, 2016. Retrieved Oct. 13, 2016. Web. http://www.npr.org/sections/thetwo-way/2016/10/11/497569055/filmmaker-andrzej-wajda-dies-at-90-celebrated-resistance-to-authoritarianism
–. “Andrzej Wajda. Official Website of Polish movie director.” Prószyński Media Sp. Z o.o. in collaboration with Andrzej Wajda. 2011. Retrieved Oct. 13, 2016. Web. http://www.wajda.pl