Andrzej Wajda, Towering Auteur of Polish Cinema, Dies at 90


He was also aware that the tensions of the Cold War sometimes estranged Western audiences from his subjects and his style. “Films made in Eastern Europe seem of little or no interest to people in the West,” he wrote in “Double Vision: My Life in Film” (1989). Western audiences, he said, “find them as antediluvian as the battle for workers’ rights in England in the time of Marx.”

But the biggest problems he faced were the practical ones of government disapproval, and sometimes outright censorship, before Poland rid itself of Communist control. That he succeeded in overcoming so much to produce towering works of art earned him the enduring regard of his countrymen.

And as opaque as his allusions may have seemed outside Poland, his international reputation grew steadily. Western film historians eventually mentioned him alongside Ingmar Bergman, Federico Fellini and Akira Kurosawa. He was given the Japanese Imperial Prize for his contribution to film in 1996 and an honorary Academy Award in 2000. Mr. Wajda also received lifetime achievement awards from the film festivals in Venice in 1998 and Berlin in 2006.

Photo

Mr. Wajda at a film festival in Gdynia, Poland, last month.

Credit
Agencja Gazeta/Reuters

The images and textures that shaped the imaginative landscape of Mr. Wajda’s films were drawn from a life that reflected Poland’s tragic modern history, beginning with the outbreak of World War II, when the Nazis invaded and obliterated Poland in partnership with the Russians. The agony continued through nearly six years of German occupation, when the Nazis used Polish soil to establish the ghettos and killing fields of the Holocaust. Then, with liberation, came more decades of totalitarian oppression as successive regimes in Moscow sought to impose Soviet-style Communism on a devoutly Roman Catholic country, an effort that even Stalin once conceded was like “putting a saddle on a bull.”

Andrzej Wajda (pronounced ON-jay VIE-dah) was born on March 6, 1926, in Suwalki, a garrison town near Poland’s border with Lithuania. His father was a cavalry officer, and as young Andrzej moved with his parents from camp to camp, he and his brother would playfully choreograph their own battles while all around them real troops carried out training maneuvers.

When he was 12, the German Army invaded. Two weeks later, the Russians joined in the dismemberment of Poland. The country was quickly overrun by Nazi and Communist forces carrying out the collusion of the Hitler-Stalin pact.

As it did for many Poles, history turned personal for Mr. Wajda. His father was taken prisoner, one of the 4,300 Polish officers the Russians killed and secretly buried in the Katyn Forest in Ukraine.

Though most Poles eventually came to understand who was responsible for what was known simply as Katyn, during the years of Communist rule the official version of events insisted that the Polish officers were killed by the Germans. Only in 1991 could Mr. Wajda, by then an elected senator in post-Communist Poland, make a documentary called “The Katyn Forest” in homage to his father and those murdered with him.

His 2007 dramatization of the same story, called simply “Katyn,” was an Oscar nominee for best foreign-language film. A. O. Scott, in The New York Times, praised it as “a powerful corrective to decades of distortion and forgetting.”

After his father disappeared, young Andrzej lived through the war with his mother, a teacher, working at odd jobs in the countryside. He also had what he later called “a posting of no significance” with the Home Army, a resistance group sponsored by the anti-Communist Polish government in exile in London.

He enrolled in the Fine Arts Academy in Krakow after the war but transferred to the newly opened Film School in Lodz. Soon after graduating, he began making films.

A War Trilogy

His first, “A Generation,” finished in 1955, was shot in settings of rubble and ruin, in a Warsaw that had not yet recovered from the house-to-house devastation of the war. It centered on the wartime experiences of a tough Warsaw adolescent who joins a resistance group headed by a young woman with whom he has fallen in love.

Some aspects of the film reflect the Communist Party line of the time; the young Communist fighters are depicted as purer, braver and more committed than the members of the Home Army. But with its nuanced characters, “A Generation” transcends propaganda.

In 1956, in the wake of worker upheavals that preceded the Hungarian uprising against Soviet Communist domination, Mr. Wajda made “Kanal,” the second film of his war trilogy. It deals with another uprising: the 1944 struggle of the citizens of Warsaw to free themselves from Nazi occupation.

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Maja Ostaszewska in the 2007 film “Katyn.”

Credit
Koch Lorber Films

“Kanal” tells the story of a corps of resistance fighters who are cut off from the main insurgent force and try to escape through the city’s sewers. It follows three groups of men and women as they wander in the cold, dark water, fearful of German booby traps and electrical wires. Some break down; some die in the sewers; others sustain hopes and illusions, only to be captured by the Germans.

The last of the trilogy that established Mr. Wajda’s international reputation was “Ashes and Diamonds” (1958), a dramatization of a novel by Jerzy Andrzejewski, set on the day Germany surrendered in 1945. The Communists have taken over the wheels of government, and membership in the non-Communist resistance is suddenly suspect. Maciek, a young former soldier of the Home Army, is instructed to assassinate a Communist official who is arriving to take control of a provincial town.

The Communist official is a compassionate man who has suffered greatly in concentration camps. When Maciek encounters the official on the street, he shoots him dead. He slips away but panics when he sees police officers checking the papers of passers-by; he starts to run and is killed. As dawn rises, marking the end of the first 24 hours of peace, Maciek’s body is sprawled on a rubbish heap.

Mr. Wajda went on to direct more than 40 theatrical and television films, among them narrowly focused psychological portraits like “Innocent Sorcerers” (1960) and expansive adaptations of historical novels and stories by celebrated Polish writers, like Stefan Zeromski’s “The Ashes” (1965) and Stanislaw Wyspianski’s “The Wedding” (1973). His largely improvised “Everything for Sale” (1968) was a tribute to Zbigniew Cybulski, the charismatic star of “Ashes and Diamonds,” who was killed while trying to leap aboard a train in 1967. He returned several times to films set against the backdrop of World War II and focused on the tragedy of Poland’s Jews with films like “Samson” (1961), “Landscape After the Battle” (1970), “Korczak” (1991) and “Holy Week” (1995).

‘Man of Marble’

Most of these films were shown in the West, although it was not until the late 1970s that Mr. Wajda’s work again received the worldwide critical attention that had welcomed his earliest work. This phase started with “Man of Marble,” which he completed in 1976 but which was kept from audiences abroad until a political thaw in Warsaw emboldened bureaucrats to issue it an export license in 1978.

In that film, a student filmmaker, memorably played by Krystyna Janda, is trying to find out what became of a bricklayer who in the Stalinist ’50s had won national fame for his enthusiastic productivity. After tracing the worker’s rise as a state-sanctioned hero, she uncovers his decline at the hands of the same government that once extolled him.

Mr. Wajda tells his story like a thriller: The truth emerges through the shifting Communist propaganda of two decades as depicted in interview after interview, newsreel after newsreel.

When “Man of Marble” was released in Poland, some three million people saw it in less than three months, and arguments about its content broke out all over the country. The Poles knew that the Communist government had censored the crucial final scene of the film and refused to allow its presentation at the Cannes Film Festival as an official entry. But it was shown there anyway, and it won the International Federation of Film Critics prize.

Reviewing the movie in The New York Times, Vincent Canby called it “a political epic, compassionate and as bitterly funny as a cartoon.”

‘Man of Iron’

As the disintegration of Communist rule accelerated in Poland, more quickly than in the other Soviet satellite states, Mr. Wajda played an active role as both an artist and a patriot. In 1981, when the Solidarity labor-union movement was mushrooming, Mr. Wajda released “Man of Iron,” his sequel to “Man of Marble.”

In this film, the Communist government sends a reporter to Gdansk, ostensibly to cover the strike of shipyard workers there but really to smear one of its leaders. The leader turns out to be the son of the bricklayer of “Man of Marble,” who is married to the young documentary filmmaker who uncovered the truth about his father. Soon the reporter gets caught up in the passion of the event he has been assigned to discredit.

Photo

Krystyna Janda and Jerzy Radziwilowicz in the movie “Man of Marble” (1977).

Credit
Via the Film Society of Lincoln Center

“Man of Iron” was made as Solidarity was gaining momentum. Real members of Solidarity, including the movement’s leader, Lech Walesa, appear in the film alongside fictional characters. A late entry at Cannes, it was awarded the Golden Palm.

Mr. Wajda was allowed to insert the censored last scene of “Man of Marble” into “Man of Iron.” “That was the best sign,” he later recalled, “that in the years between the two movies the Communists really started losing ground.”

He organized and ran the Solidarity filmmakers’ union and became an active member of the Committee to Help Workers, a major dissident organization. But the last Polish Communist government struck back and Gen. Wojciech Jaruzelski, its leader, banned Solidarity and declared martial law.

As censorship intensified, Mr. Wajda encouraged the clandestine distribution of banned films by his younger colleagues through underground cassettes. The government moved against him and for the next four years disapproved his film projects; he was not able to work in his homeland again until 1985.

Leaving Poland, he directed two films that drew critical praise. In “Danton,” made in France in 1982, he drew parallels to the political situation in Poland with his portrayal of the conflict between the moderate, democratic Danton (played by Gérard Depardieu) and the Stalin-like Robespierre (played by the Polish actor Wojciech Pszoniak) during the Reign of Terror that followed the French Revolution. In “A Love in Germany” (1983), a French-German co-production, he focused on a passionate and unconcealed love affair during World War II between a German woman (Hanna Schygulla) and a Polish prisoner of war working as a slave laborer (Piotr Lysak).

After Communism finally collapsed in 1989, Mr. Wajda was one of the national luminaries asked to run for the Polish Senate by Mr. Walesa, who was about to become president. Mr. Wajda served a single term and then returned to films. But in a situation repeated in other former Eastern bloc countries, Hollywood blockbusters became more readily available on Polish screens and the subsidies that had spawned and sustained a great national cinema dwindled.

Many Polish directors who followed in Mr. Wajda’s footsteps and who had worked with him began making movies abroad. In contrast, Mr. Wajda stayed home, where he devoted much of his energy to theater — he was for many years the director of the Stary Theater in Krakow, where he often staged works adapted from Russian literature — but also continued to make the occasional film.

Among his notable later works, in addition to “Katyn,” were “The Revenge” (2002), a period comedy with a cast that included Roman Polanski, and “Tatarak” (2009), the story of a middle-aged woman obsessed with a much younger man.

Mr. Wajda was married four times. Survivors include his wife, the actress and stage designer Krystyna Zachwatowicz, and a daughter, Karolina.

A Final Tribute

One of Mr. Wajda’s last films was “Walesa: Man of Hope,” released in 2013 and considered by many to be the final part of a trilogy that began with “Man of Marble.” Starring the Polish movie and television actor Robert Wieckiewicz — who spoke in an interview with The New York Times about the pressure of “playing a legend, directed by a legend” — it was the first Polish film to examine Lech Walesa and his work with Solidarity in depth.

At a news conference announcing his plans to make “Walesa,” Mr. Wajda said that he viewed it as his greatest professional challenge to date.

“I don’t want to,” he said of making the film, quoting Mr. Walesa’s own words when he ran for president of Poland, “but I have to.”

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