Andre Wajda: The filmmaker laureate of Poland Photograph: (Others)
The heroes of Wajda’s cinema, while standing at the heart of Polish history, refused to take sides in any war of ideologies
There is an element of sadness in Ashes and Diamonds, considered the masterpiece of Polish filmmaker Andrzej Wajda’s 60-year long film career that came to an end at his death on the 9th of October. Andrzej Wajda was part of the great first generation of post-War Polish cinema that had given us the magnificent films of Andrzej Munk, Wojciech Haas and Jerzy Kawalerowicz to name a few. He had announced his arrival on the stage of World Cinema with two films - A Generation (1955) and Kanal (1957) - that were dedicated to documenting the heroism of the Polish Resistance against Nazi occupation. In Ashes and Diamonds, the last film of what has come to be known as Wajda’s War Trilogy, Resistance lies in tatters on the death of the one young person who probably best upheld the spirit of the Resistance.
At the heart of the best of Wajda’s cinema stood a heroic figure of history who marked as much the conflict at the heart of Polish history as it did the travails of the free mind that refused to take sides in a war of ideologies. The Polish people, courtesy a very complicated history fought out over and through them by the bigger imperial powers of Europe for over 150 years, cannot belong to any simple national history. And the free mind in an ideological age does not belong to any camp either. Such a figure, as we know from countless tales, is a figure bound to be betrayed by all: enemies, comrades and society at large. Moreover this figure of betrayal, in Wajda’s films, is more of than not a young person lost in the wilderness of history. Of course, it is the way of youth to belong to no side in its idealism, and the best of Wajda’s cinema has endlessly circled around the fate of youthful idealism in a world torn apart by partisan nationalism and ideological pettifoggery made only worse by modernist anomie and alienation.
When Maciek, played by Zbigniew Cybulski, dies spectacularly in a waste dump in the last sequence of Ashes and Diamonds (1958), Wajda is signaling the fate of youthful idealism in a cynically partisan world; it is to be ruthlessly exploited by power-mongers on all sides, only to be disposed off as trash once interests have been served. Before this, the film has set up the intractable political complexities that post-Liberation Poland faces at the end of the World War II; complexities that will grind Maciek down. The film depicts the Communists in power - after years of Nazi exploitation - playing the nationalist and anarchic elements of the Polish resistance as well as the Home Army against one another.
Cybulski’s Maciek, modeled on the pop culture Rebel figures of James Dean and Marlon Brando in The Wild One (1953), is iconic in the history of cinema. Wajda would make his wonderful Everything for Sale (1969) as a working out of his grief at Cybulski’s death from a freak train accident in 1967; an incident perceived by the filmmaker as a heavenly visitation acting up against the spirit of youthful rebellion.
In 1983, Wajda would make his last masterpiece in international cinema, Danton, a film that too would speak of the betrayal of the best of the revolutionary spirit by partisan forces around him. In between, Wajda would repeat the portrayal of this betrayed youth of history in some of his most memorable films, such as Landscape after Battle (1970) where the Jewish girl Nina was shot dead unnecessarily by a US soldier as the Allied army liberates Europe. The film was as much about Wajda’s refusal to take sides in the bipolarity of the Cold War as it was an indictment of the Vietnam War.
The theme of betrayed youth continues to be portrayed, perhaps more memorably, in the diptych films, Man of Marble (1977) and Man of Iron (1981). The films follow the figures of Mateusz Birkut, the champion bricklayer who becomes a working class folk hero of Communist Poland only to be denounced as a traitor to the Revolution a few years down the line, and his son Maciej, who has by the early 1980s become a leader in the anti-Communist Solidarity movement in the Gdansk dockyards. The diptych marked Wajda’s return to the top flights of international cinema with the Man of Iron winning the Palme D’Or. By this time Wajda had put his lot behind the Solidarity movement developing in Poland. Danton made a couple of years later - featuring the Euro-star of the time-Gerard Depardieu in the title role - was an allegory about Polish political struggles of the times mapped on to the French Revolution.
Wajda became the filmmaker laureate of Poland with the completion in 1999 of Pan Tadeusz, an adaptation of Poland’s national epic. The prestige attached to the project because it involved Adam Mickiewicz’s work was considered worthy of an ultimate national honor. In the figure of the young Count Tadeusz, the hero of the epic, Wajda would declare his cinema’s abiding preoccupation with youthful idealism and heroism as foundational to Poland’s spirit. Only time will tell whether the unprecedented success of the film in Poland was the result of resurgent Polish nationalism or a hurrah for the idealism at the heart of the film. But in the meantime, Andrzej Wajda has spoken…and left the building. Amen.