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Andrzej Wajda, acclaimed Polish director whose films explored his country's troubled past – obituary 

Andrzej Wajda, who has died aged 90, spearheaded the renaissance in Polish cinema in the 1950s with a trilogy celebrating the work of the Resistance during the war. Although, in a long career, he tackled genres ranging from comedy to period dramas, his abiding concern was the national character and in particular how it was reflected during the Nazi occupation. It was a theme to which he constantly returned, from the three films comprising the trilogy – A Generation (1954), Kanal (1957) and Ashes and Diamonds (1958) – through to such late works as Ring of Crowned Eagles (1993), about the Polish uprising of 1944, and Holy Week (1996), set over Easter, 1943 at the time of the Warsaw ghetto.

He showed considerable courage, in a communist country, in making films that often ran counter to the party line. Ashes and Diamonds, for example, caused a sensation in 1958 by focusing on a patriot ordered to assassinate a party functionary. He was played by the actor Zbigniew Cybulski with a personal magnetism comparable to that of the Hollywood icon James Dean – and was therefore likely to form an unwelcome role model for Polish youth. In 1977 Wajda created an even bigger stir with Man of Marble, an investigative work patterned on Citizen Kane that probed the fate of a model worker of the 1950s murdered by government troops during the bloody riots in Gdansk in 1970.

Andrzej Wajda

Censors insisted that this death scene was removed before the film was released. Polish audiences knew, however, what it should have contained and at the premiere in Silesia rose spontaneously at the end to sing the national anthem. It became a “hot ticket” on the black market. Four years later, after a shift in the political climate, Wajda made a sequel, Man of Iron, picking up the story where Man of Marble left off and including, as a flashback, the scene that he had been forced to omit from that film.

The story of the politicisation of the murdered man’s son, it became in effect an account of modern Polish history from the student unrest of 1968 to the series of strikes that led to the formation of Solidarity, the independent trade union.

Part dramatisation, part documentary, with Lech Walesa playing himself, it was rushed to the 1981 Cannes Film Festival as a late entry. Much to the Polish government’s displeasure, it won the Golden Palm. The emergence of Solidarity, of which he was himself a member, was a turning point in Wajda’s life. Until then he had been largely apolitical in his private life, but he now began to feel that “maybe making films isn’t the most important thing in the world”. In January 1982, when the government cracked down on Solidarity, he was one of 100 artists and intellectuals who submitted a petition calling for an end to martial law, which had been in force for a month.

Eventually he was allowed to go to Paris, where he made Danton (1982), with Gérard Depardieu in the title role. Set during the Reign of Terror, it dramatised the conflict between the bloodthirsty Robespierre and the more moderate Danton, who favoured relaxing the state of emergency to allow the populace to enjoy the fruits of victory. Parallels with contemporary Poland were widely drawn. The strong political content of Wajda’s films lent him the aura of an elder statesman of Polish cinema. It was no surprise, therefore, after the collapse of the old-style communist state in 1989, that he was elected to political office as a senator. His role as a founder figure of modern Polish cinema and a champion of the truth in the dark days of communism cannot be overestimated. About his artistic stature there is more debate. His baroque camerawork and addiction to symbolism can seem heavy-handed. The last shot of Kanal, in which the only survivor of a pocket of Resistance fighters descends once more into the sewers pointing his automatic at the heavens, is a case in point, while Ashes and Diamonds ends in an equally grandiose way as the hero, riddled with bullets, staggers through lines of washing to die twitching on a rubbish tip.

Wajda himself recognised that his style could be alienating to viewers outside Poland, observing in 1989 that “films made in Eastern Europe seem of little or no interest to people in the West”. Gradually, however, Western critics came alive to his talents – and as Poland grew in national self-confidence throughout the 1990s, Polish audiences regained their taste for home-grown cinema. Pan Tadeusz (1998), based on a 19th century epic of love for country, was seen by almost 10 per cent of the entire population – more than three million people – within the first few months. Historians of world cinema began to speak of Wajda in the same breath as Federico Fellini and Ingmar Bergman. He received two lifetime achievement awards at film festivals in Venice in 1998 and Berlin in 2006, and in 2000 was presented with an honorary Academy Award for “five decades of extraordinary film direction”. Wajda’s final project, Afterimage, telling the life story of the avant-garde artist Wladyslaw Strzeminski, has been chosen as Poland’s entry for Best Foreign Film at next year’s Academy Awards. 

Andrzej Wajda was born on March 6 1926 in Suwalki, north-east Poland. His father, Jakub, was a cavalry officer who was killed by Soviet forces in the Katyn massacre of 1940, which claimed the lives of some 22,000 Polish nationals. Andrzej grew up in garrison towns and, with his brother, played mock soldiers in the barracks while the real troops carried out drills, dressage and artillery practice. The rituals made an indelible impression on him and, years later, Wajda reflected this life in his film Lotna (1959) – the heroic story of the Polish cavalry’s last, foolhardy charge against the advancing German tanks in 1939. When the Germans invaded, Wajda joined the Resistance but was never in harm’s way. “I imagine”, he said, “that my war films are a kind of compensation for the stirring and exciting lives others led, whereas I had the good fortune to escape these grim and shattering experiences.” Following his father’s disappearance he lived with his mother in the provinces, working in a variety of jobs as a cooper’s apprentice, a joiner and, for a time, a restorer of old paintings in a church at Radom. After the war, he enrolled at the Academy of Fine Arts in Krakow to study painting but did not finish the course, switching to the new School of Theatre and Cinematography in Lodz, which he attended from 1950 to 1952, completing a number of short films.

On graduating in 1952, he was hired by the veteran director Aleksander Ford, who ran the state-controlled organisation Film Polski. After serving as assistant director on Ford’s film Five Boys from Barska Street (1953), he made his own feature debut with A Generation in 1954, for which Ford acted as his “artistic supervisor”. A story of the impact of the war on the generation of Poles who grew up in it, A Generation was strongly influenced by Italian neo-realism and shot almost entirely on location in the streets of Warsaw. The cast of then unknown actors included Zbigniew Cybulski, and Roman Polanski in the days before he graduated to direction. Wajda’s trilogy of war films, of which this was the first, was possible thanks to the relatively greater freedom that accompanied de-Stalinisation and “the thaw”. When repression and restrictions returned in the 1960s, directors had to cast around for less controversial themes. Wajda turned to historical subjects. Shot in Yugoslavia, A Siberian Lady Macbeth (1962) was based on a 19th-century novel by Nikolai Leskov that also served for Shostakovich’s opera Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk.

The Ashes (1965) was a four-hour historical romance set during the Napoleonic wars and the British-made Gates to Paradise (1967), with Jenny Agutter and Lionel Stander, focused on the ill-fated Children’s Crusade of 1213. The film foundered on language problems and was little seen. None of these works matched the spontaneity of the trilogy. More successful though comparatively lightweight were Innocent Sorcerers (1960), a comedy about the growing materialism of Polish youth, and Wajda’s contribution to a French portmanteau film, L’Amour à vingt ans (1962), in which war veteran Zbigniew Cybulski saves a child from being mauled by a bear at the zoo and proceeds to bore the younger generation with tales of his heroic past. It was an amusing satire on Wajda’s own films but could not dispel the impression of marking time. A personal tragedy marked a turning point in his career. In January, 1967, Cybulski, by then a close friend, fell to his death between the wheels of a train. Wajda was greatly affected but turned the loss into the subject of Everything for Sale (1968). A film about film-making itself, it was cast in the form of an inquiry. Given the close links between Wajda’s work and the contribution of his best known actor, could another fill the void? The answer was yes: Daniel Olbrychski comes in the course of the film to assume Cybulski’s mantle and for many years was the focus of Wajda’s subsequent films, including Hunting Flies (1969), Landscape after Battle (1970), The Wedding (1972), Land of Promise (1974) and The Girls from Wilko (1979).

Everything for Sale had marked a stylistic departure for Wajda, incorporating improvisational elements that he had previously eschewed. He was not able to capitalise on this, however, until Man of Marble in 1977, which had a loose, off-the-cuff approach rich in hand-held camerawork.

"His role as a founder figure of modern Polish cinema and a champion of the truth in the dark days of communism cannot be overestimated"

In the early 1970s Wajda turned increasingly to the theatre, mounting an acclaimed production of The Possessed for the Stary Theatre in Krakow that was successfully transferred to London as part of the 1972 World Theatre season. In 1973, Wajda joined the staff of the Stary Theatre, for which he directed several plays a year. Much of Wajda’s film work in that period was based on classic Polish literary texts. They were polished productions but lacked a personal touch. Man of Marble heralded a new phase in his career. Without Anaesthesia (1979), shot in the same frenetic, hand-held style, was particularly successful in charting the sudden collapse of a self-satisfied journalist who loses his wife, job and self-confidence at the peak of his powers. Many interpreted it as a metaphor for the disintegration of the communist state. Wajda followed it in 1980 with The Conductor, with John Gielgud in the title role as a world-famous expatriate musician returning to his homeland to conduct a provincial orchestra in a farewell concert. It, too, was read as an allegory – of the pursuit of freedom through art and the artist’s responsibility to society.

After Man of Iron and Danton, Wajda’s film career became subordinate to his new political aspirations. Though he continued to make films intermittently – such as A Love in Germany (1983) and a film version of his stage production of The Possessed (1987) – they were not well received. Even Korczak (1990), the true story of a doctor who ran an orphanage for abandoned children during the war and, when the Jews were rounded up, led them singing to the concentration camp, was worthy rather than inspired. It turned out, however, that Wajda had been waiting for a moment to tell the story that was most personal of all to him: that of the Katyn massacre that had claimed his father’s life when the director was just 13. The Soviets had long sought to blame the Nazis for the deaths, withholding records in classified archives until the collapse of the communist regime.

As a newly elected senator in 1990, Wajda had initiated a documentary project – completed by Marcel Łoziński – which had focused on family members of the victims, as they retraced their steps to the Kozelsk prison camp that had held several thousand Polish officers prior to their mass execution and burial in Katyn Forest. His subsequent feature film Katyn (2007), with its climactic re-enactment of the massacre, premiered on the anniversary of the Soviet invasion of Poland, representing a catharsis for the nation and for Wajda personally. It was nominated for an Oscar for Best Foreign film. Andrzej Wajda was married four times. He is survived by his fourth wife, the actress and stage designer Krystyna Zachwatowicz, and by a daughter.

Andrzej Wajda, born March 6 1926, died October 9 2016

Source - The Daily Telegraph

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