Andrzej Wajda – A Great Artist

Andrzej Wajda died on 9 October 2016. He was 90
By Barbara Hollender

The news came as a shock to us. Andrzej Wajda seemed indestructible. He lasted. He has always been here with us. It is difficult to imagine our cinema without him. It is also difficult to imagine Poland without him. I know this may sound pathetic, but it is the truth. Times would change, the history of the country would change and he would always remind us about our roots, he would always ask questions: “Who are we?”, “Where do we come from?”, “Where are we heading to?”

He told me once: “During the years of my work in the People’s Republic of Poland, I have grown accustomed to talking to society. My films reached to the people who were in the government and to those whom I valued highly – to the intellectuals and writers. But primarily to viewers. I still keep the letters from people from small towns who wrote to me because I told them something important. I have never adopted the perspective of Warsaw or any other perspective. I have always wondered if my film would be enjoyed in Suwalki or whether it would be accepted in Lódz. This was the Poland that I was talking to.”

Wajda was born in Suwalki on 6 March, 1926. He said that he was formed by the officer’s home, the patriotic school and the Church. His father, second lieutenant of the Polish Army, served in the 41st Infantry Regiment. When he was transferred to the 72nd Infantry Regiment, the family moved to Radom. At one time, I tried to ask Wajda about his childhood and the war, because these times were so important in the biography of his generation. He answered: “Childhood? I have always wanted to be a grown-up person. And the war? My father went away to fight and I never saw him again. I saw the world of my parents collapse and a new one being born. After such experiences, history could not surprise me anymore.”

Wajda spent the wartime in Radom, and later lived in Kraków, with his uncle. He worked in his uncle’s locksmith’s shop. He would work all day and in the evenings, he sat on the balcony and drew the narrow streets of the Salwator district of the city. After the war, he studied at the Academy of Fine Arts in Kraków. But this was the time of socialist realism and the studies disappointed him. He dropped out after three years. In a newspaper, he read that recruitment was open for the Film School in Lódz. He went there and got in. The cinema has become his passion. His life. At the end of the 1950s and the 1960s the so-called “Polish Film School” was born thanks to his films, the films of Andrzej Munk and Jerzy Kawalerowicz.

Since that moment, he has always accompanied Poles. The unforgettable, symbolic scenes of the Polish cinema derive from Wajda’s films. The shots of glass burning on the countertop like candles for those who died. Maciek Chelmicki dying on the garbage heap of history. Insurgents reaching a barred hatch with the Vistula River looming in the distance – the viewers knew that the Soviet tanks were waiting on the other bank. Korczak in the concentration camp walking with children to death – in pairs, as though they were on a school trip. A young director running along the corridor at a TV station and putting everything aside in order to discover the truth about a piece of Polish history. A several-minutes long, shocking sequence of Polish officers being murdered in Katyn. Wajda used the political thaw to fill in the white spots on the map of Polish history during communist times. He said he “talked with Poland” above the heads of censors. When August 1980 came and, later, the political transformation in 1989, he did not have to roll up his sleeves and start anew. He simply continued talking about the history of the country or tried to face the new reality.

We owe him the most important political films of Polish cinema: from settlements made by the Polish Film School in “Kanal”, “Ashes and Diamonds”, through “The Ashes”, “Man of Marble”, “Man of Iron” and “Walesa. Man of Hope” up to “Katyn”.

Wajda sometimes created Polish myths and sometimes he opposed them. He loved Poland, but he was also critical of it – for example, when he showed Samosierra in “Ashes” and responded to the accusations about his anti-Polish stance: “It is not Sienkiewicz that I am adapting for the screen, but Zeromski. You have to be critical and sometimes say sorry.”

He also left other films. “It is not easy to proceed from a harsh tone to poetry and lyricism,” he would say. Still, he was capable of doing it: during the communist times because he wanted to catch a breath, but also to offer a moment of respite to the censors. Later, when Poland relished its freedom and its culture started to come under the influence of America, he wanted to remind us who we are by adapting “Pan Tadeusz”. Apart from it, he loved Polish literature: Iwaszkiewicz, Reymont, Wyspianski and Mickiewicz. To Wajda, we owe such films as “The Promised Land”, full of poetry “Maids of Wilko” and “The Birch Wood”, as well as the energetic, but bitter “The Wedding” and quite recently, the moving and fascinating “Sweet Rush” (2009), which he filmed with the Polish actress Krystyna Janda. The film was honoured at the Berlin Festival with Alfred Bauer Prize for innovation. Even though this story about dying has the wisdom and the suffering of an experienced man, any searching author of the young generation would feel akin with its language.

Wajda was a unique personality. He was a man of great spirit, who has always taught Poles independence, freedom and dignity. It is therefore not surprising that in 1980, the shipyard workers invited him to the shipyard and that after 1989, he became a senator. He decided to take part in the elections, because he believed that this was his obligation. But later he returned to the cinema, because this was the place of the real artist. A great artist.

He was presented with the honorary Oscar for his contribution to the international cinema; he had four Oscar nominations for foreign-language film, the Golden Globe award, Palme d’Or from Cannes, the Golden and Silver Bears from Berlin, the Golden Lion from Venice, the French César, BAFTA and many other awards. Martin Scorsese had the poster for “Ashes and Diamonds” hanging in his assembly room and Steven Spielberg, when backing Wajda’s candidacy for an Oscar in 2000, wrote in a letter to the American Film Academy that the Polish artist reminded the film-makers that history may sometimes demand courage from them and that in certain situations, you have to risk your career to defend people’s rights.

For people in Poland Wajda was more than just a director. He belonged to the generation that believed that art could change the world. His films really changed us. We walked out of the cinema stronger.

In these hasty, shallow and quite mediocre times, he was one of the last true Polish authorities. Today, his wisdom and independence are much needed. His last film, “Afterimage”, about the painter Wladyslaw Strzeminski, who was destroyed by the communist regime, is the Polish candidate for the Oscar and constitutes great political cinema. He showed the tragic times when the authorities wanted to decide the shape of the art and the life of the citizens. He has left the film like his last will, a cry for freedom – so that we do not forget.

The artist presented “Afterimage” in September, during the last Film Festival in Gdynia. He was in great shape. He said that he was working on a new film. This film will not be finished. Wajda died on 9 October, 2016. He was 90 years old. But he seemed so young. In Gdynia, surrounded by his actors, he was really happy. Today, it is difficult to imagine that he is gone. We will remember what he said receiving an Oscar: “I think in Polish, so I speak Polish.” We will miss him. I already miss him. But as long as we watch his films – he will be here with us.  

Barbara Hollender