Polish Film Legend Andrzej Wajda Dies at 90
December 30, 2016
Andrzej Wajda, a veteran Polish filmmaker who won over global audiences to become one of the most revered directors in international cinema, died Oct. 9. He was 90.
The maker of some of Poland’s most celebrated movies of all time, Wajda received an Academy Award for lifetime achievement in 2000.
Wajda was born on March 6, 1926 in the northeastern Polish town of Suwałki. At the age of 20, he started studying painting at the Cracow Academy of Fine Arts, but quit in July 1949 and enrolled at the Łódź Film School instead. He graduated in 1960 with a major in directing. While studying to become a painter, he was among a group of young visual artists inspired by primitivism, surrealism and abstractionism.
Wajda made his feature-length debut as a film director with A Generation, based on a novel by Bohdan Czeszko and telling the story of young Polish freedom fighters against the Nazis during World War II. International recognition came in 1956 with his second film entitled Kanal and based on a short story by Jerzy Stefan Stawiński. Considered one of Wajda’s masterpieces, Kanal was set on the last days of the Warsaw Uprising of 1944 and depicted the desperate struggle of Home Army soldiers in the devastated capital city. Kanal won the Silver Palm at the Cannes Film Festival and marked the beginning of what became known as the Polish film school.
Wajda’s next movie, Ashes and Diamonds, was based on a novel by Jerzy Andrzejewski and also dealt with World War II. Wajda focused on the tragic lives of Home Army soldiers who found themselves in a Soviet-controlled Poland after spending six years in underground resistance. The country’s communist authorities prevented Ashes and Diamonds from entering the official selection at the International Venice Film Festival, but the movie nonetheless won the festival’s FIPRESCI prize awarded by critics.
The 1970s were prime years for Wajda, with spectacular successes such as The Promised Land, an epic story based on a novel of the same title by Władysław Reymont, a Nobel Prize-winning Polish writer. This saga of budding Polish capitalism in 19th-century Łódź earned Wajda his first Academy Award nomination for best foreign language film.
Then in 1976 came Man of Marble, the first political statement in Wajda’s career. With a script written by Aleksander Ścibor-Rylski, the drama followed Mateusz Birkut, a simple bricklayer and a hero of socialist labor who lost faith in the communist ideals and paid a high price for it. Man of Marble won the FIPRESCI prize at Cannes and is regarded as one of the first films of the “cinema of moral anxiety.” The term is used in reference to Polish movies made during the last two decades of communism and depicting the moral dilemmas of people at odds with communist-era Poland.
In 1980, Wajda garnered his second Academy Award nomination with The Maids of Wilko, based on a short story by another Polish literary classic Jarosław Iwaszkiewicz. A year later, Wajda revisited politics with Man of Iron, a movie revolving around the “Polish August” of 1980 when the Solidarity movement was born. The script by Aleksander Ścibor-Rylski followed up on events from Man of Marble and closed with scenes of workers on strike signing an agreement with the country’s communist authorities. It was Wajda’s third Academy Award-nominated movie and it brought him the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival.
At the end of 1981, Wajda started shooting Danton, a historical film based on a play by Stanisława Przybyszewska and centering on two key figures of the French Revolution: Georges Danton (played by Gerard Depardieu) and Maximilian Robespierre (played by Wojciech Pszoniak). Due to martial law imposed in Poland in December 1981, most of the film was produced in France.
After communism fell in 1989, Wajda made several movies that failed to win over audiences and critics, but things changed with Pan Tadeusz in 1998. This big-screen adaptation of an epic poem by Poland’s greatest Romantic poet Adam Mickiewicz became a huge box-office success. Wajda went on to adapt another Polish literary masterpiece, The Revenge, a hugely popular 19th-century comedy play by Aleksander Fredro.
In 2007, Wajda directed Katyn, a drama recounting the massacre of thousands of Polish officers by Soviet security forces in 1940. After the Soviet Union invaded Poland in September 1939, the officers were taken captive by the Red Army and a few months later they were shot in secrecy at the personal order of Joseph Stalin. The Katyn massacre was a taboo subject in communist Poland and the official propaganda blamed the Germans for the mass murder. While the movie was in the making, Wajda described it as his most personal work to date. This is because his father Jakub was among the officers killed by the Soviets in 1940. Katyn was nominated for an Academy Award as best foreign-language film in 2008.
In 2013, Wajda revisited the events of 1980 with Wałęsa: Man of Hope, a biopic of Solidarity founder and leader Lech Wałęsa. The movie opened to some criticism in Poland for an overly simplistic account of historical events and for skipping some inconvenient facts from Wałęsa’s life. These included Wałęsa’s alleged collaboration with communist security services in the 1970s, as claimed by Poland’s Institute of National Remembrance, a state institution tasked with investigating and prosecuting communist-era crimes.
Wajda’s last movie, Afterimage, is inspired by the life of Polish avant-garde painter Władysław Strzemiński. It has been chosen as this year’s Polish contender for an Oscar nomination.
Wajda received a lifetime achievement Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival in 1998 and two years later, the American Film Academy honored him with a Lifetime Achievement Oscar. His third lifetime achievement award came in 2004 with a Golden Bear at the Berlin Film Festival.
Most critics see Wajda as an insightful researcher into Polish national traits, such as romanticism, martyrdom and determination in the struggle for freedom. The country’s history and heritage continued to inspire him in his later years, when he turned to adapting Polish literary classics. His involvement extended beyond cinema and Wajda served one term as a senator after the country shook off communism in 1989.