Remembering Andrzej Wajda, a Director Who Distilled Life Onto Film

Wajda's life and work can be traced as a cultural barometer of Poland and a substantial measure of its psychological preoccupations.

Andrzej Wajda, Poland’s most famous film director, died on October 9, 2016. He was 90. Obituaries the world over were fulsome in praise, and quite rightly so. In a career spanning 60 years, he made 40 films, many of them resonant with his existentialist dilemmas through youth to old age in communist Poland and later in a democratic one, struggling with European nations against an economic recession largely brought about by the US.

Wajda’s life can be traced as a cultural barometer of Poland and a substantial measure of its psychological preoccupations. His father, Jakob Wajda, was one of the 22,500 Polish army officers shot by the Soviet Union soldiers under the command of Joseph Stalin. The incident occurred before the Soviet Union’s entry into the second world war on June 22, 1941, when Nazi Germany invaded. Poland was fighting a losing battle against the military might of the Soviets in the 1930s. This massacre was the subject of Katyn (2007), one of Wajda’s important last films.

Katyn was lionised in the West, probably for the wrong reasons! It is remembered for its matter-of-fact scenes of brutality towards the end, thus bringing home with much greater force the perversion and senselessness of such exercises brought about by the madness of war.

On a personal note; I first saw Wajda’s films in the 1970s when the Film Society Movement in Delhi was in full swing. In Ashes and Diamonds (1958), I remember a disillusioned, dissenting Polish youth of Wajda’s generation, a wartime member of the Polish Resistance, shot in the back by the military police in post-war Warsaw, collapsing against a line of washed, white bedsheets and dying there. Cybulski staggering along, one hand clutching his wounded back, finds an echo in Jean-Luc Godard’s Breathless, also from 1958, where Jean-Paul Belmondo’s small-time gangster, also shot in the back by the police, limping at some speed along the streets of Paris, trying to flee from the law, only to fall and die.

The scenes from Ashes and Diamonds and Breathless deal with separate and distinct existentialist dilemmas. In Wajda’s film, Cybulski’s immediate problem is of survival in a society taken over by Soviet-backed communists after six years of unthinkable cruelty inflicted by Nazi Germany that conquered Poland and sent millions of Jews to the gas chambers. In Breathless, set thirteen years of the second world war, a France recovering from defeat has to also accommodate the meanderings of an amoral, though charming thug.

Godard, unquestionably one of the greatest of modern masters, said in a moment of humbling modesty that he did not wish to meet Wajda because he might find himself kissing the Polish director’s knees. Integrity – artistic and personal, were paramount to both Wajda and Godard.

Wajda’s international success probably kept him out of prison in communist Poland. The authorities allowed him to work abroad. One of his greatest successes, Danton (1983), was made in France and starring the charismatic Gerard Depardieu. It is a polemical film full of dialogue, set in the period following the French revolution of 1789. The dominant set is a grubby looking French parliament. A struggle for power is clearly evident and one of the original revolutionaries, Charles Desmoulins, a recent father, is shown his baby son by his beleaguered wife, as he tries in vain to question the Dumas that will shortly order his death. Despite the constant flow of words, Danton remains an eminently cinematic work because Wajda effortlessly maintains two cardinal principles of cinema – plasticity and the organic flow of time. Its message seems to be ‘revolutions however well intended are ultimately consumed by the revolutionaries who turn on each other, not necessarily for ideological reasons’!

The treatment of emotions in his films to the uninitiated Eastern mind used to heighten feeling may appear to be bland, even casual. In Poland, a highly evolved culture with a robust intellectual and artistic life of its own, constantly trying to shake off the crudeness of a Russian political, and hence, cultural imposition over long periods in 300 years or more, the expression of emotion in the arts is restrained and its appreciation mature. This holds good even in the practice of music. A highly emotive pianist like Artur Rubinstein, is exceptionally sophisticated; what the listener gets from him is distilled emotion. Such is the case with Kryzstoff Zanussi too, in particular, his masterpiece, Wherever You Are, a story of irreparable loss during the second world war, though the memories of particular people killed are forever cherished. In Wajda’s films, however, beneath the apparent detachment, there is often seething anger.

Man of Marble (1977) looks like a film within a film. It is indeed one. A female TV journalist examines the crimes of the Stalinist era; among others the life of Birkut, a heroic Stakhanovite bricklayer, marble statues of whom proliferate the country. The real life person is very ordinary. This grappling with illusion and reality is an ideal constituent in history-making and film-making and is remarkable for its sense of cool detachment on the surface and a sense of anger and loss just beneath it.  This duality was to inform Wajda’s best works, amongst them, The Promised Land (1975), Pan Tadeusz (1999).

During the war, Wajda had at 16 been a messenger in the resistance movement. He joined the Krakow Academy of Fine Arts and by all accounts was a fine student of painting. Wajda, however, did not pursue a career in art after he saw the paintings of his friend Andrzej Wroblewski (1927-57) whose depiction of a ravaged post-war Polish psyche was overwhelming. He realised that he would have to find similar illuminations into the human soul in another medium, namely the cinema and he did.

Wajda’s training as a painter helped him find a visual style for all his films. In each case, it was arresting and accurate in the telling of a given story.

Painting, through its key component – drawing, composition and colour – gave a sense of form that would help him find his way into cinema. Right from his first film, A Generation (1955), he revealed a visual flair handling light and shadow and locations with a sureness of touch not seen often at any time in cinema.

His sense of film structure was innate.  Handling of dialogue, particularly in the latter works, may have been enhanced by his experience in theatre; he was a distinguished stage director in Poland. His handling of colour in cinema obviously came from his training in painting. He used colour with distinction in Danton, Katyn and Pan Tadeusz, among other films.

Wajda often used a literary source for the scripts of his films. Ashes and Diamonds was based on a novella by Jerzy Andrzejewski. The Maids of Wilko (1979) was adapted from a novella by Jaraslaus Iwaszkiewicz. There were other like Sweet Rush (2009) also taken from a novella by Jaroslaw Iwaszkiewicz. Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment was also filmed by Wajda in 1984. An admirer of literature, he was also an exceptional medium for transforming the written word into a memorable audio-visual experience.

Aleksander Ford, a competent though not inspired director of overt communist leanings, gave Wajda a chance to do an apprenticeship under him and then, his first break on A Generation. Wajda too had a hand in starting off distinctly talented young directors like Roman Polanski (director of Knife in the Water, Rosemary’s Baby, Tess of D’urburville, Oliver Twist, China Town) and Jerzy Skolimowski, who directed the Walkover and The Shout, amongst several other major films in the last 35 years.

It is of extreme importance to inform the young film enthusiasts of today made lazy by the convenience offered by digital downloads on the internet of the significance of Wajda and his major contribution to the evolution of cinema in the last 60 years.  The young today, despite their obvious talent, seem quite at ease in a climate of global political amorality. Most of them, though not all, seem to be happy solely with material success. Their indifference to the suffering in the world is distressing. Wajda’s exemplary life as an artiste and his deeply thoughtful films may in some measure help shake off some of the mental inertia that has gripped the young.