Three key films: Kanal (1956), Ashes and Diamonds (1958), Man of Marble (1976)
Underrated film: Everything for Sale (1968)
“Today you’re in despair. Tomorrow you’ll be thinking it’ll make a great film…” Inspired by the death of Zbigniew Cybulski, acting icon and star of Ashes and Diamonds, Everything for Sale is Wajda’s 8½ (1963), a dazzling reflection upon the relationship between art and life, in which a film crew (led by a director called, yes, Andrzej) must deal with the death of its leading man in an accident. A fascinating experience in its own right, Everything for Sale is also an interesting companion piece to Wajda’s most recent film, Sweet Rush (2009), a collaboration with Krystyna Janda, that is another astute and poignant meditation upon loss and the filmmaker’s art.
Unforgettable moment: In Ashes and Diamonds, the increasingly reluctant assassin Maciej finally fulfils his remit to kill Comrade Szczuka, shooting him at point-blank range in the street. The dying man staggers forward and Maciej finds himself holding his victim in his arms. In a final expressionist flourish, fireworks from a party light the night-time sky behind the pair, locked in their strange, momentary embrace.
The Legend (1926-)
More consistently than any other Polish filmmaker, Andrzej Wajda has dedicated himself to presenting the social, cultural and political life of his country on screen. Born in Suwalki, north-east Poland, Wajda was 13-years-old when Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union invaded the country, an experience that would have an indelible effect on his psyche, and, ultimately, his cinema. His father, a cavalry officer, was among the thousands murdered by the Soviets in the Katyn massacre of 1940, an atrocity that Wajda would finally address in Katyn (2007), the Oscar-nominated film that became a cultural phenomenon in Poland. After the war, Wajda studied painting at the Cracow Academy of Fine Arts, a discipline that is evidenced in the profusion of memorable single-shot images in his films. However, the solitary act of painting failed to satisfy his artistic temperament, and he subsequently trained at the famous Lodz Film School, making an immediate impact in 1955 with his feature debut A Generation, a portrait of a teenage anti-German resistance group, that provided the foundations for the nascent “Polish School” of cinema. “With this film Polish cinema began,” commented Roman Polanski, who acted in the film.
Wajda’s following film Kanal, a vivid, intense depiction of the last days of the 1944 Warsaw uprising, won the Cannes Special Jury Prize, catapulting Wajda to international fame. The director’s position was consolidated by the release of Ashes and Diamonds, which starred the iconic Zbigniew Cybulski (dubbed Poland’s James Dean) as a resistance fighter assigned to kill a Polish Worker’s Party official. The film is still regarded as Wajda’s masterpiece.
As Janina Falkowska has argued, “in his films Wajda presents human dilemmas within a complex historical and social reality … An individual is shown as either trying to oppose the historical reality or as annihilated by it.” Consistently concerned with the excavation of the past to uncover long-buried truths, Wajda has explored Polish experience in numerous films, including the classic, Citizen Kane-inspired Man of Marble and its sequel, Man of Iron (1981), which explore political activism in the country from the Stalinist era to the Gdansk shipyard strike. In addition, he has turned his hand to lavish literary adaptations, including The Promised Land, based on Stanislaw Reymont’s novel about industrial development in Lodz, and the less successful Pan Tadeusz (1999), an adaptation of Adam Mickiewicz’s epic poem.
Wajda has seldom worked outside Poland, although in the martial law era he directed the French-produced Danton (1983), a film interpreted by many as an allegory of the Lech Walesa/Wojeiech Jaruzelski conflict of the time. These epic films, however, have been balanced by other, smaller-scaled, more idiosyncratic and self-reflexive projects, including Everything for Sale, The Conductor (1980), featuring John Gielgud, and the recent Sweet Rush, an intimate collaboration with his iconic actress, Krystyna Janda. Ultimately, though, it is the political commitment of Wajda’s cinema - its ability to turn the complexities of Polish history into compelling human drama - that will be the director’s enduring legacy.