Critic’s Notebook: Andrjez Wajda Fought Tyranny With Truth, Propaganda With Poetry

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The veteran Polish dissident director became an Oscar-winning elder statesman, but he never forgot cinema's duty to expose uncomfortable truths.

Andrjez Wajda was not just the conscience of Polish cinema, he lived and shaped his nation’s troubled history first-hand, standing up to tyrants and bureaucrats with a courage that almost cost him his career. Wajda died on Sunday, aged 90, just two weeks after his final film, Afterimage, was announced as Poland’s official Oscar contender.

Directing more than 50 films over six decades, Wajda continually returned to Poland’s long decades of repression by hostile occupying forces, first Nazi Germany and then Soviet Russia. Behind the camera, he became a master of visual poetry, but also a sharp critic of cinema's propagandistic power. As a former member of the Polish wartime resistance, whose own father had been murdered during one of Stalin’s brutal mass purges, he had bitter personal experience of seeing history rewritten by the winners.

The New York Daily News once described Wajda’s standing in Poland as “Steven Spielberg, Martin Scorsese and Francis Ford Coppola rolled into one.” This is a little hyperbolic, and arguably off target. Wajda may have cited Orson Welles as an early inspiration, but his career path mirrors European masters like Bergman, Fellini and Godard more than any American contemporary.

Watching them today, Wajda’s career-launching trilogy, A Generation (1955), Kanal (1957) and Ashes and Diamonds (1958), certainly feel like a bold stylistic blueprint for the French New Wave with their cool monochrome look, sullen young protagonists and street-smart location shooting. Barely a decade after World War II, Wajda’s subversively cynical takes on official accounts of Polish wartime heroism are an early sign of his artistic courage.

After graduating from the legendary Lodz film school, Wajda became a mentor and inspiration to younger Polish directors including Jerzy Skolimowski, Roman Polanski and Krzysztof Kieślowski. But as his global profile grew, Hollywood acolytes also embraced his work. Speaking to British newspaper The Independent, Scorsese hailed the Polish master for a “great emotional and visual power” that crosses national borders. “The subtext of great conflict and cultural identity is universal,” he explained. “Even if you don’t know the history of Poland, the themes in these films will resonate, as they did profoundly for me.”

Scorsese even paid sly homage to Wajda with his own breakthrough film Mean Streets (1973), giving Harvey Keitel’s character sunglasses modelled on those worn by Zbigniew Cybulski, the “Polish James Dean”, in Ashes and Diamonds. Cybulski died in 1967 while running for a train, and Wajda paid his own eccentric tribute with his semi-autobiographical Everything for Sale (1969), a self-referential exercise in Fellini-esque metadrama. Among his dozens of films, this swinging '60s oddity remains one of his most stylistically experimental and self-consciously hip.

Like most great filmmakers who grew up under Communism, Wajda was obliged to perform a delicate diplomatic dance with state-controlled cultural institutions, often cloaking his anti-government critique in literary and historical allegory. The Polish authorities were ambivalent about their most globally renowned director, cautiously supporting his projects and welcoming the prestige he earned abroad, but increasingly alarmed by his politically outspoken themes.

In 1972, the Polish government even gave Wajda his own film production stable, Unit X. This partly reflected a period of political thaw, but also an attempt to co-opt and contain the nation’s most feted director. He repaid them with handsome, Bergman-esque historical epics like The Promised Land (1975) and The Maids of Wilko (1979), whose pointed contemporary parallels were well disguised behind their lavish costume-drama surface. Decades later, their emotional and aesthetic riches transcend any political context, which is one test of an enduring masterpiece. Both films were Oscar nominated.

But Wajda also used his growing power and prominence to fuel a golden decade of increasingly anti-Communist films that won awards abroad and energized political dissent at home. The twin milestones of this epoch are Man of Marble (1977), a stylish thriller about a chain-smoking journalist (Krystyna Janda) trying to investigate a heroic worker who was lionized then vilified during the Stalin era, and its strikingly timely sequel Man of Iron (1981), a sour portrait of a boozy TV reporter (Marian Opania) recruited by the secret police to discredit Poland’s emerging Solidarity union movement.

Switching between color and monochrome, past and present, both films are kinetic docudramas in the freewheeling '70s style. Man of Iron even features a cameo by Solidarity leader Lech Walesa. The jittery government submitted the film as Poland's official Oscar contender, then tried to withdraw it as Moscow-imposed martial law clamped down on free expression. It was banned domestically, but shown at clandestine private screenings, mostly in Catholic churches.

Winning the Palme d’Or in Cannes, Man of Iron revitalized Wajda’s reputation as a heavyweight dissident voice in Eastern Bloc cinema. It also ensured he would be censored and exiled to Western Europe for much of the next decade, but this only confirmed his place on the right side of history when Communism collapsed in the late '80s. Two decades later, he completed the trilogy with his reverential Walesa biopic, Man of Hope (2013).

The end of Communism was a euphoric release for Wajda. “I never thought I would live to see the moment when Poland would be a free country," he told the Associated Press in 2007. “I thought I would die in that system. It was so surprising and so extraordinary that I lived to see freedom.”

After Poland’s liberation from Soviet occupation, Wajda dabbled in politics, launched his own successful film school and received a Lifetime Achievement Oscar in 2000. But the new era also brought fresh career challenges. With bittersweet irony, finding funds for his film projects initially proved harder under the new capitalist system. However, he still managed to produce some arresting late works, including the unorthodox Dostoevsky adaptation Nastasja (1994) and the sumptuous Pan Tadeusz (1999), a painterly pageant about feuding Polish dynasties in the 19th century.

The third act of Wajda’s career was defined by starchy chamber dramas and staid period pieces like his final film, Afterimage (2016). But his one autumnal masterpiece is undoubtedly Katyn (2007), a decades-in-gestation personal project about the notorious cold-blooded massacre of Polish army officers and civilians by Russian secret police in 1940. Officially blamed on Nazi Germany, the truth only emerged after the Soviet Union imploded. Katyn re-creates this monumental tragedy in a daringly elliptical manner, but ends with a chillingly forensic depiction of monstrous evil. Wajda’s father Jakub was one of more than 22,000 victims.

In later life, Wajda may have been a cuddly national treasure and internationally revered elder statesman, but he remained perpetually wary of the dangerous power of film, both to spread lies and expose them. His rich cinematic legacy adds up to a quietly furious warning: never forgive, never forget.

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