25 October, 2008
by Sandy Mandelberger, North American Editor
It is not stretching to declare the director Andrzej Wajda is indeed one of Poland's great cultural treasures. Well into his eighties, Wajda remains a current and consistent icon of European cinema. His last film, a meditation on one of the great tragedies of World War II, the massacre of Polish officers by the invading Russians in the film Katyn, was nominated for an Oscar last year. It is one of many international prizes the director has garnered in a career that spans over five decades, including an Honorary Oscar in 2000 for his illustrious career achievements.
For those who have not seen his ground-breaking films or those who want to re-experience them on the big screen, the Film Society of Lincoln Center, in association with the Polish Cultural Institute, has mounted a near-complete retrospective of the filmmaker's oeuvre, which is currently on screen at the Walter Reade Theater, the Film Society's flagship cinema at the Lincoln Center cultural complex in New York. The series will tour, thus renewing Wajda's status as an important cultural figure and a prolific filmmaker of over 50 films for the big screen and television.
Andrzej Wajda was born on March 6, 1926, in Suwalki, Poland. He described his childhood as a happy pastoral country life before the Second World War. His father, named Jakub Wajda, was captain in the Polish infantry and died at the Katyn Woods massacre in 1939 (the subject of his Oscar-nominated film Katyn). Wajda survived the Second World War with his mother and his brother in Nazi-occupied Poland.
Following the war, he moved to Krakow, where he studied painting, particularly the impressionist and post-impressionist painting, and was especially fond of Paul Cezanne. This interest in the visual arts translated into an interest in the moving image. In 1950, he moved to the city of Lodz to enroll in its world-famous Film School (which has produced other Polish film auteurs from Kieslowski to Polanski).
In 1955 he made his debut as director of a full-length feature, A Generation, about a generation of youth coming out of age during the Nazi occupation of Poland. This was followed by the two other films in a triology of Polish life during World War II. Kanal (1957), a dramatic recreation of the Warsaw uprising in 1944, won a Special Jury Prize at the Cannes Film Festival, bringing international fame to the 30 year old director. This was followed by Ashes And Diamonds (1958), about Polish resistance fighters, which won the FIPRESCI International Critics Prize at the Venice Film Festival. In probably his most famous film, Landscape After Battle (1970), Wajda adapts a celebrated novel of an Auschwitz survivor to tell a harrowing story of the liberated prisoners of a Nazi concentration camp.
Wajda was often at odds with the Soviet-dominated Polish authorities who tried to compel him to make jingoistic propoganda films that extolled the Communist paradise of post-war Poland. Wajda, positioned himself as an artist who was above the conflict. He still managed to make the films that he wanted during this repressive period, mainly due to his international status.
His Oscar-nominated The Promised Land (1975), a depiction of early 20th century capitalism in Poland, held criticisms of the meager lives that characterized Poland's citizens during the Communist period by contrast. The shooting of workers in the final scenes was a direct reference to the policies of killing outspoken proletarians that tooks place in both Russia and Poland in the 1960s. In the companion films Man Of Marble (1977) and Man Of Iron (1981), Wajda unmasked the Communist regime's manipulations against the "Solidarity" labor movement of Lech Walesa. Man of Marble won the Palme d'Or at the Cannes Film Festival, which heightened his international prestige but also put him in direct opposition with the Polish government, which considered the film an embarassment to their policies.
Under continued pressure from the Polish authorities, Wajda spent the next decade working in France, producing a number of historical epics, including The Possessed (1988), an adaptation of a Dostoyevsky novel about young Russian revolutionaries and Danton (1985), featuring an Oscar-nominated performance from Gerard Depardieu as the fiery French revolutionary statesman.
Following the collapse of the Berlin Wall and Poland's move towards democracy, he returned to his native land. From 1989-1991, he served as a Senator for the newly elected republic and then became the leading member of the Presidential Council for Culture. In recent years, he was awarded a Lifetime Achievement Oscar in 2000 and an honorary Golden Bear at the 2006 Berlin Film Festival.
For a complete list of the films to be screened in the Wajda series, log on to the website of the Film Society of Lincoln Center: www.filmlinc.com