Andrzej Wajda celebrates his 90th birthday
On March 6, director Andrzej Wajda celebrates his 90th birthday.
Andrzej Wajda was born in 1926 in Suwałki, then spent most of his childhood years in Radom. He became fascinated with painting in grammar school, and in 1946 he began his studies at the Fine Arts Academy in Krakow. As he notes in a conversation with professor Tadeusz Lubelski, the school at this time represented “the colourist movement” in art, which, according to Wajda and his colleagues, “could in no way depict the world of war and extermination that we had witnessed. Social realism in art was our form of rebellion against post-impressionism as a belated art that was being taught to us at the Academy. But once we realized that the authorities only wanted us to paint like the Soviet painters, everyone who had taken socialism seriously (as opposed to those simply being opportunistic) either moved away from this movement in art, or suffered a deep internal conflict” (Magazyn SFP, 3/2008).
Andrzej Wajda chose the former. In July 1949, he transferred to the directing department of the Łódź Film School. In the same interview with professor Lubelski, Wajda noted: “after transferring to film school, I felt like a deserter; I thought I had run away from something more challenging, from real art, to something temporary, popular, and second-rate. I still feel that way.”
Wajda made his feature debut Pokolenie (A Generation) in 1956. Today, 61 year later, he is finishing work on his latest film Powidoki (Afterimages), thus being the director with the longest filmmaking career in the history of Polish cinema. In his films, Andrzej Wajda has not only “recounted history”, but also made adaptations of major literary works, discovered new talents among actors and cinematographers, trained generations of film directors, and authored memorable and iconic scenes; drawing inspiration from the latest trends in world cinema (such as Italian neorealism), he often preceded them himself (a good example of this is Niewinni czarodzieje (Innocent Sorcerers) – the film’s original ending, later cut by censors, was identical to the finale of Michelangelo Antonioni’s groundbreaking L’Avventura, which was made a few years later).
Wajda also sought to capture social change as it happened. He would draw inspiration from painting and literature, making films that were coherent and constantly searched for a new language to interact with the audience.
It was Wajda who coined one of the most concise definitions of a film director, stating that it is someone who needs to be part poet and part corporal. He remains Poland’s most acclaimed film director on the domestic and international scale and the only Polish director to have received the Lifetime Achievement Academy Awards, as well as awards in Berlin, Cannes, and Venice.
Wajda’s early feature films
Following his studies at the Łódź Film School, Andrzej Wajda worked on set on Aleksander Ford’s Młodość Chopina (Young Chopin; 1951) and Piątka z ulicy Barskiej (Five from Barska Street; 1953). Pokolenie (A Generation) was originally slated to be directed by Ford, who passed the script on to his former assistant, taking on the role of the film’s artistic supervisor. Wajda has repeatedly stated that with this film, as with every subsequent film, he wanted to subvert the pre-war filmmaking traditions, with its outdated form and over-expressive performances. He cast young actors to play the leads in A Generation, most notably Tadeusz Łomnicki, Tadeusz Janczar, Urszula Modrzyńska, and Zbigniew Cybulski. Andrzej Wajda’s assistant was Krzysztof Kutz, who was promoted to assistant director by Wajda’s next film Kanał (Kanal; 1957). A Generation is the story of young workers who join the communist forces (known as Gwardia Ludowa) during the Second World War. A Generation was often criticized for its political message, though Andrzej Wajda himself notes that during the making of this film, the crew’s enthusiasm for cinema – justly dubbed “the best electric train set for boys” by Orson Welles – resulted in shifting focus from politics to the power of filmmaking, which consumed them entirely at the time.
Wajda’s second film Kanal showed an entirely different perspective. Based on a book of memoirs by Jerzy Stefan Stawiński, it told the story of Warsaw uprising participants, making their way through the sewers of Warsaw, from which there was no escape. Winner of the Silver Palm in Cannes, this film is considered to mark the beginning of the informal Polish Film School, a trend immersed in the recent past of the Second World War and heavily influenced by Italian neorealism. Andrzej Wajda has named Kanal as the first and most important achievement of his whole life. His later film Popiół i diament (Ashes and Diamonds; 1958), an equally bitter account of the war days based on a novel by Jerzy Andrzejewski (who also wrote the script), secured Wajda’s standing as a film director in Poland and abroad. The role of Maciek Chełmicki and its daring portrayal by actor Zbigniew Cybulski, has become one of the most iconic characters in Polish cinema, both in terms of the tragic aspects of his biography and a new style not only in acting, but in fashion, too. Wajda’s assistant director during the making of Ashes and Diamonds was another budding talent, Janusz Morgenstern. The first two films by Andrzej Wajda were lensed by Jerzy Lipman, assisted by Jerzy Wójcik on Kanal, who went on to be the cinematographer on Ashes and Diamonds.
Andrzej Wajda’s next film Lotna (Speed; 1958) was slightly less successful, as the director admits. He recalls that this story of soldiers fighting in the war effort in September 1939, competing for a beautiful horse, had casting issues and fell victim to a few bad decisions on the production side.
Breaking with the past, returning to the past
The year 1960 brought a new type of storytelling in Andrzej Wajda’s works: the contemporary drama. The main protagonist in Niewinni czarodzieje (Innocent Sorcerers) is Bazyli (Tadeusz Łomnicki), a sports doctor and jazzman with an affinity for women and quality cigarettes, who engages in an erotic game with Pelagia (Krystyna Stypułkowska). The film also features performances by young directors Roman Polański (who had previously played a minor part in A Generation) and Jerzy Skolimowski (who co-wrote the dialogues). Andrzej Wajda later called this movie one of the least politically-charged films in his oeuvre, however the film did cause alarm among the authorities who did not take kindly to its portrayal of the young citizen of the People’s Republic.
Wajda’s later works brought a return to the questions of Poland’s tragic history. Based on a novel by Kazimierz Brandys, Samson (1962) told the story of a young Jewish man trying to survive the war in occupied Warsaw. Filmed in Yugoslavia, Siberian Lady Macbeth was an adaptation of a piece by Nikolai Leskov that focused on people in exile in Siberia. In Miłość dwudziestolatków (Love at Twenty), a film that brings together episodes by directors from Poland, France, Italy, Germany, and Japan, Wajda portrayed an encounter between a young woman and a man ten years her senior. But the major difference between these two is not age – it is memory. He remembers the war days, she does not.
Wajda’s assistant on Love at Twenty, as well as on his subsequent movie, the 1965 adaptation of Stefan Żeromski’s novel Popioły (The Ashes), was the ambitious and incredibly talented Andrzej Żuławski, who later would turn Wajda’s attention to Władysław Reymont’s acclaimed novel Ziemia obiecana (The Promised Land).
The Ashes marks another chapter in Wajda’s “recount of Polish history”; it is not only an adaptation of a major literary work, but will also be remembered as the film that discovered a young and talented Daniel Olbrychski, then a drama student. His character Rafał Olbromski is an impoverished Polish nobleman who joins Napoleon’s army. Andrzej Wajda always stressed the contemporary context of the novel, which itself was set in the 19th century: “Our protagonists are young and immature people; people from the equally ‘immature’ country we inherited after the First World War and our independence. This young man is as much a character in Ferdydurke, as he is a participant in the Warsaw uprising. He keeps following us.”
The screenplay, based on Żeromski’s novel, was written by Aleksander Ścibor-Rylski, one of Andrzej Wajda’s key collaborators who would later also pen the scripts for Człowiek z marmuru (Man of Marble; 1976) and Człowiek z żelaza (Man of Iron; 1981).
By the end of that decade, Andrzej Wajda wold make another four extremely different films, including Wrota do raju (Gates to Paradise), an adaptation of a novel by Jerzy Andrzejewski, Przekładaniec (Layer Cake), a futuristic adaptation of the works of Stanisław Lem, who also wrote the script, and Wszystko na sprzedaż (Everything for Sale; 1968), a self-reflective, painful work filmed “on the fly”. The event that sparked the making of this film was the unexpected death of Zbigniew Cybulski, who – as Wajda has said himself – was still awaiting another great part in a Wajda film. Wajda wrote Everything for Sale himself (a script of merely 30 pages). Originally he also intended to play the lead, but eventually cast Andrzej Łapicki in the part. The main themes of this film, which remains one of the most interesting works in the history of Polish cinema, include mourning following the death of a beloved actor and a critical look at the film industry.
The following year brought the making of another film that could be seen as settling old scores. The psychological drama Polowanie na muchy (Hunting Flies) is the story of a man drawn into a dangerous game of egos and dreams by an attractive young student (a stellar performance by Małgorzata Braunek). As Andrzej Wajda recalls: “I didn’t think twice before grabbing Janusz Głowacki’s script and, disappointed by temporary setbacks, I decided to settle the scores with women who try to shape our male lives.” The film screened at the Cannes film festival, and the enormous sunglasses worn by Małgorzata Braunek, not unlike the jacket worn by Maciek Chełmicki or the trousers worn by Agnieszka in Man of Marble, have become one of the most recognized fashion items in the history of Polish cinema. As costume designer Katarzyna Lewińska said in an interview for Magazyn SFP: “The costumes in Wajda’s films don’t always fit the period, such as the traditional outfits in Wesele (The Wedding) or the standing collars in Ziemia obiecana (Land of Promise), but they are always daring and speak volumes about the protagonist, perfectly fitting in with the rest of the film. They are a combination of art and psychology, which – in my opinion – is the ideal of costume design in film.” Wajda has often emphasized the importance of finding the right crew; he often worked with the same writers, screenwriters, cinematographers, actors, and editors.
Literature and history kept alive
The next decade of Andrzej Wajda’s work opened with a stylish and poetic adaptation of Jarosłąw Iwaszkiewicz’s Brzezina (The Birch Wood; 1970). This marked the beginning of Wajda’s collaboration with cinematographers Zbigniew Samosiuk and Edward Kłosiński. The film once again starred Daniel Olbrychski, as well as Olgierd Łukaszewicz (whom Wajda spotted in the films of his former assistant Kazimierz Kutz) and Emilia Krakowska. Andrzej Wajda has said: “I am always moved when remembering this film, possibly because I made it more for my own enjoyment than for success. I knew that there are a few items on my bucket list – one of these was certainly making a film set in a birch forest.” He also noted that the power of The Birch Wood lies in the relationship between human destiny and images of nature, so beautifully captured in Iwaszkiewicz’s prose. “Nothing here is written with cinema in mind. When filming Iwaszkiewicz, I wasn’t making a movie; I was merely struggling with life itself.”
In his next work, Andrzej Wajda once again addressed tragic events in Poland’s recent history. Together with Andrzej Brzozowski, he wrote a script based on short stories by Tadeusz Borowski. Krajobraz po bitwie (Landscape After Battle; 1970) shows life in a concentration camp, which has been liberated by US troops but remains closed. The film’s protagonist Tadeusz is a recluse who steers clear of other inmates, but befriends a Jewish woman named Nina, who convinces him to attempt escape. The film received critical acclaim, most notably for the great performances of its lead actors Daniel Olbrychski and Stanisława Celińska.
But the 1970s in Andrzej Wajda’s filmography were most notably about adaptations of Wesele (The Wedding) by Stanisław Wyspiański and Ziemia obiecana (Land of Promise) by Władysław Reymont, as well as a bitter account of the early years of communism in Poland in Man of Marble. In the meantime, Wajda also directed Pilatus und Andere (Pilatus and Others; 1972) in Germany, based on Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita.
In an interview, Wajda has said the following of The Wedding: “This piece is our heritage; we have all come from it – the entire legend of the Polish Film School, myself, and Ashes and Diamonds.” In another interview, Wajda stated that Wyspiański’s work is the most original stage play ever written in the Polish language. This story of feelings of inferiority, longing, and the shortcomings of the Polish nation that come to light during a wedding ceremony was recognized by audiences in Poland and abroad alike; the film was awarded at the prestigious San Sebastian film festival. Wajda’s next film Land of Promise, a poignant portrait of 19th century Łódź undergoing modernization coinciding with the gradual diminishment of Poland’s nobility, was an even bigger success, bringing Wajda the first of four Oscar nominations. In interviews about the production of Land of Promise, Andrzej Wajda notes that Łódź in the 1970s was still home to well-preserved 19th century factories, so there was no need to construct them as sets for the production — something that caused both admiration and disbelief among American filmmakers. Wajda also pointed out a new theme in his work: “This was the first time that I made a film about money and about people who will stop at nothing to get it. I always wanted to make this type of ‘American’ film.”
1977 brought the making of another masterpiece by Andrzej Wajda. Man of Marble is a parallel account of the stories of two protagonists: a young and ambitious director and the protagonist of her news piece, a worker who has been cheated by the communist system. The film took ten years before receiving the green light for production, and was treated harshly by the censors once released. The jury of the national film festival (then in Gdańsk) was forbidden from giving any awards to Man of Marble. But the film was recognized by film critics, who presented Andrzej Wajda with a brick as the critics’ award, outside the official awards ceremony. The censorship ban did not apply to FIPRESCI critics in Cannes, who went on to award Man of Marble as well.
It was during this period that Wajda also made an adaptation of Joseph Conrad’s The Shadow Line (1975), as well as Bez znieczulenia (Rough Treatment; 1978), the story of an ambitious journalist made within the cinema of moral anxiety movement, and Dyrygent (The Conductor; 1980) about a love triangle, starring Andrzej Seweryn, Krystyna Janda and John Gielgud. In 1979, Wajda made the nostalgic, melancholy and sensual Panny z Wilka (The Maids of Wilko), based on a novel by Jarosław Iwaszkiewicz. This film was nominated for an Oscar and received wide acclaim not only from audiences, but also from the author of the original novel.
Working in Poland and abroad
In 1981, Andrzej Wajda made the only film he was ever commissioned to make, as he says himself. He was asked by the shipyard workers to make Man of Iron. The script was written on the fly by Aleksander Ścibor-Rylski, and filming was just as rushed. The film continues the story of Man of Marble’s Agnieszka and the son of the protagonist of her film, who is at risk of being discredited by a radio journalist. Man of Iron captured the heated atmosphere of August 1980 and the early days of the Solidarity movement, while also portraying the moral conundrums and paradoxes of Polish history.
The film screened at the Cannes film festival, winning the first Golden Palm in the history of Polish cinema, and went on to become the third of Andrzej Wajda’s works to be nominated for an Academy Award.
In later years, Andrzej Wajda steered away from stories about Polish history and began working mostly abroad. He made Danton (1982) and Les possédés (The Possessed; 1988) in France, and A Love in Germany (1983) in Germany. In 1985, Wajda directed Kronika wypadków miłosnych (Chronicle of Amorous Accidents), a lyrical story about the days immediately before the Second World War in the Polish part of Lithuania. Tadeusz Konwicki penned the script, as well as the novel on which it was based.
Andrzej Wajda returned to the most traumatic period of the 20th century on three other occasions: in Korczak (1990), Pierścionek z orłem w koronie (The Ring with a Crowned Eagle; 1994), of which film critic Jerzy Płażewski has said that it marked the true end of the Polish Film School, and in Wielki tydzień (Holy Week; 1995), another film based on the works of Jerzy Andrzejewski. But in this period Wajda did not forget the two other trends in his oeuvre: literary adaptations and contemporary psychological drama. Pan Tadeusz (1998) and Zemsta (The Revenge; 2002) represent the former, based on the works of Adam Mickiewicz and Aleksander Fredro respectively, as does Wyrok na Franciszka Kłosa (2000), based on the works of Stanislaw Rembek, while Panna Nikt (Miss Nobody; 1996), based on a book by Tomek Tryzna, represents both trends, being a coming-of-age story about a young girl who moves from the countryside to the city with her parents and tries to find her place in the new capitalist reality. This was also a period that introduced Wajda’s fascination with Japanese culture to his works, when he cast Japanese actors Tamasaburo Bando and Toshiyuki Nagashima in his Nastazja (Nastasya), based on Fyodor Dostoevsky’s “The Idiot.” This fascination continued off-screen, when Wajda opened the ‘Manggha’ Japanese Art Museum in Krakow.
The year 2007 brought the making of a film that holds a unique place in Andrzej Wajda’s filmography. In Katyń, the director addressed the mass murder of Polish intelligentsia and army officials by the Soviets. Jakub Wajda, Andrzej Wajda’s own father, was among the victims of this massacre. Katyń marked the fourth Academy Award nomination in Andrzej Wajda’s career.
In his later works, the director once again addressed his favourite themes — the Solidarity movement in Wałęsa. Człowiek z nadziei (Wałęsa. Man of Hope; 2013), and the prose of Jarosław Iwaszkiewicz. His 2009 film Tatarak (Sweet Rush) brought an unexpected twist by becoming intertwined with the personal lives of its cast and crew; the story features a touching monologue by Krystyna Janda as she discusses the passing of her husband Edward Kłosiński, Andrzej Wajda’s long-time friend and collaborator. Sweet Rush received a special prize at the Berlin film festival.
In 2015, Andrzej Wajda began work on his latest film Powidoki (Afterimages), which focuses on Władysław Strzemiński, painter and co-founder of the Academy of Fine Arts in Łódź who for years was persecuted by the communist regime. The film is scheduled to be released in the second half of 2016. “I made Afterimages to remind us of the price of standing by one’s views even in the darkest and most servile period of Stalinism. These circumstances were never to be repeated,” said Wajda in an interview for Polityka magazine (10/2016).
Theatre, television, educational activities, awards
Andrzej Wajda’s career as a stage director marks a separate chapter in his career. He made his debut Kapelusz pełen deszczu in Gdynia’s Teatr Dramatyczny in 1959. He began working with Teatr Stary in Krakow in 1963, and was the head of Warsaw’s Teatr Powszechny from 1989 to 1990. His most renowned stage plays include Wesele, Biesy, Sprawa Dantona, Noc listopadowa, and Nastazja Filipowna (based on Dostoevsky’s “The Idiot”).
Wajda has also made television films, documentary films, and a television series (Z biegiem lat, z biegiem dni…). He has also been the subject of multiple documentary films, including Marta Węgiel’s Sceny z Wajdy (2014) and Andrzej Wajda: róbmy zdjęcie, a documentary shot on the set of Katyń by students of the Wajda School, a film school founded by Andrzej Wajda together with director Wojciech Marczewski.
Andrzej Wajda has received a number of awards for lifetime achievement, including the Academy Award, the Golden Lion, the Eagle Award, and the César award. He has also received the European Film Award, as well as multiple awards of merit, including the Order of Polonia Restituta Commander’s Cross, the Order of Polonia Restituta Officer’s Cross, the Grand Cross of the Order of Polonia Restituta, and the Order of the Whit Eagle. He spent years as the head of the legendary Zespół Filmowy X and remains the honorary president of the Polish Filmmakers Association. He remains active as a film director and continues to plan the making of future films. His 90th birthday wish, as stated in an interview for Polityka magazine, is health. “I only need one thing: my health. I need to be physically present to be able to impose my will on my crew and my actors.”
Translated by Karolina Kołtun