From the Archives: Remembering Andrzej Wajda

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Andrzej Wajda, one of Poland’s most celebrated directors, died on Oct. 9 at the age of 90. Film Journal International had the privilege of speaking with this accomplished and courageous filmmaker for our January 1985 issue, during a period when he was working outside his country due to political pressures from the Communist government. (Along with creating outspoken films, he also organized the Solidarity filmmakers’ union.) Wajda was honored in 1990 with an Academy Award for his body of work. His final film, Afterimage, premiered last month at the Toronto International Film Festival. Here are excerpts from our 1985 profile.

In Hollywood circles, “taking risks” usually refers to some bold stylistic experiment or the tackling of subject matter—migrant workers, toxic waste dumps, nuclear holocaust and the like—that isn’t likely to be boffo at the box office. But in some parts of the world filmmaking can be an authentic act of courage, and few have been more courageous than Andrzej Wajda, Poland’s leading film director for the past 30 years.

Always a provocative artist, Wajda startled viewers at the 1981 Cannes Film Festival (and subsequently won its Golden Palm) with his amazingly timely drama about the still-burgeoning Solidarity movement, Man of Iron. The imposition of martial law came just a few months later, and since that time Wajda has not been permitted to make any films in his native country (although he has been active as a stage director). In May 1983 the government shut down Wajda’s Studio X (one of the 10 state-sanctioned Polish film groups) and the following December demanded his resignation as president of the Polish filmmakers’ association in exchange for that organization’s continued existence.

Wajda followed Man of Iron with two projects made outside Poland: Danton, a 1981 French-Polish co-production about the French Revolution with a stirring lead performance by Gerard Depardieu, and A Love in Germany, a 1983 drama about Nazi Germany starring the gifted Hanna Schygulla which Triumph Films is just now releasing in this country.

Meeting with Film Journal in New York this fall, the gracious, craggily handsome 58-year-old director spoke gingerly but honestly (with translation provided by Michael Kott) about his precarious status as an artist whose personal ties to his country remain strong. Some of his difficulty in Poland, he implies, stems from his own exacting standards. “It’s difficult to find a subject for a film that’s somehow ahead of the audience after all the things I’ve been able to do already,” he says. “The audience in Poland expects a movie from me to give some direction. At present, the situation is unclear—it’s difficult to explain in words, and more so in film.”

Does Wajda see grounds on which he can agree with the Polish government? “I have no other choice,” he laughs ironically. “In Poland there is only one state cinematography, the state is the only producer.”

Within that structure, however, Wajda has continually stretched the limits of what can be portrayed in a Polish film. His first feature, 1954’s A Generation, was not only stylistically fresh (with elements of Italian neo-realism and  Wajda’s own baroque sensibility) but introduced a new kind of protagonist—a troubled World War II resistance fighter with echoes of the West’s alienated heroes of the '50s. Roman Polanski, who began his film career as an actor in A Generation, has said, “For us it was a film of tremendous importance. The whole Polish cinema began with it.”

Wajda’s next two features became international classics: 1957’s Kanal, the shattering story of a resistance group’s attempted escape from the Nazis through the sewers of Warsaw, and the surprisingly daring Ashes and Diamonds, in which the main protagonist is an anti-Communist with orders to kill a party secretary on the final day of World War II. The director continued to make an average of one film a year, but it wasn’t until 1977’s Man of Marble, the predecessor to Man of Iron, that he again made an international splash. Its portrait of the politically motivated rise and fall of a workers’ hero ultimately led to the dismissal of Poland’s Vice Minister of Culture, but Wajda, a national celebrity and winner of three Moscow Film Festival awards, remained—for a time—invulnerable.

Working outside his country, Wajda has continued to court controversy. Danton, with its complex and highly personal view of the French revolutionary spirit, met some heated criticism in France and now A Love in Germany, produced for German television, has brought a similar tumult. The story of a married Germany woman’s reckless love affair with a Polish prisoner of war, the film deliberately avoids some of the more barbaric images one normally associates with films about the Nazi period.

“These have already been seen in other films,” Wajda argues. “There’s another aspect that needs to be shown—the small provincial town, ordinary people, an ‘innocent’ atmosphere, an event that at first doesn’t seem particularly threatening that suddenly becomes something horrible, that forces these people to contradict and deny themselves. Through this the system becomes more visible—the fascism, the cruelty, the great spectacle.”

Wajda says he was surprised by the vitriolic response in Germany to his approach: “I thought this film was an entirely innocent love story. But the passion of the German reviewers who attacked it gave me reason to think there was something extremely irritating about it. Perhaps it’s showing the ordinary, everyday life of fascism, in which everyone is part of the machine, that arouses such resistance.”

Is Wajda startled by the amount of international attention his films have received over three decades? “I’m perpetually surprised,” he comments. “I’m amazed that there are so many in the world who want to watch films which I always make with the Polish audience in mind.”

Does the director have any regrets about the acclaim Man of Iron received in the West and the subsequent negative effect on his career in Poland?  “I’m proud of this film, that I was able to make a film openly in praise of Solidarity,” he responds. “All the consequences of this fact are irrelevant.”