history Eastern_Europe  POLAND  


Andrzej Wajda

by Igor Gierymski

"... a global cinema director,
along with Visconti and Fellini."
- Alain Delon



Andrzej Wajda is without doubt among Poland's most celebrated citizens. "... hailed as the essential Pole, a filmmaker who not only put his nation on the international map of cinema, securing a place for himself in the first rank of European directors, but also devoted his life's work to illuminating the Polish character on screen. His work is a fusion of artistical, historical and philosophical strengths; his images display a forceful sense of composition and powerful interplay of light and shadow; and his scripts often achieve a well-nigh literary depth and complexity."


Andrzej Wajda was born on March 6, 1927 in Suwalki, in the northeastern corner Poland. By far the best-known film director working in Poland, Andrzej Wajda has achieved the status, both in his life and his work, of a symbol for his beleaguered country. The son of a cavalry officer killed in WWII, Wajda joined the Resistance as a teenager. Later, he studied painting at the Fine Arts Academy in Krakow for three years before transferring in 1950 to the newly opened Lódz State Film School.Wajda's first feature film, A Generation (1954), traced the fate of several young people living under the Nazi Occupation. It was followed in 1957 by Kanal, a grim tribute to the Warsaw Uprising of 1944, when Red Army units were unable or unwilling to come to the aid of the city.



Wajda completed this trilogy on the effects of WWII with his best-known early film, the controversial Ashes and Diamonds (1958), which dealt with the undeclared civil war of 1945-46 between elements of the anticommunist Home Army and the security forces established by the Communist Party-dominated government. Based on a Jerzy Andrzejewski novel, the film incisively depicted the corruption and idealism coloring both sides of the struggle. In keeping with Wajda's tragic sense of Polish history, the idealistic representative of each faction is killed, and both sides remain controlled by greedy politicians and arrogant aristocrats.


In addition to adapting literary works to the screen (The Birch-Wood, 1970, The Wedding, 1972, The Young Girls of Wilko, 1979), Wajda has consistently drawn on Polish history for material suited to his tragic sensibility-from the fate of lancers serving under Napoleon in Ashes (1965) to the harsh industrialization of Lodz in Land of Promise (1975). It was in the late 1970s, however, that his films became a virtual barometer of social unrest and rebellion.


Man of Marble (1977) and Without Anesthesia (1979) depict the oppression, respectively, of the worker and the intellectual in contemporary Poland. In the later film, a journalist discovers that he has taken the wrong side in a literary prize discussion and subsequently loses his university Lectureship, as well as such special privileges as the opportunity to read foreign news magazines. Unable to cope with the simultaneous collapse of his marriage, he is driven to suicide.


Man of Marble, with a plot which echoes Citizen Kane, traces a student filmmaker's attempt to reconstruct the story of Birkut, a Stakhanovite bricklayer and former propaganda hero who mysteriously fell from favor and went to an unmarked grave after the 1967 unrest.


That film's sequel, Man of Iron (1980), charted the beginnings of the Solidarity movement, using newsreel footage and featuring Solidarity leader Lech Walesa in both its documentary and directed segments. The events of August 1980 are seen through the eyes of Winkiel, an alcoholic reporter whom the secret police try to use in order to defame the movement. Although essentially a tribute to Solidarity's success, the film ends with a Party official laughingly dismissing the accord between union and government as a mere piece of paper.


Following the military crackdown of the winter of 1981, Wajda moved to France to make Danton (1982), a consideration of the dual nature of revolution. The grim tone of the film is hardly surprising given the fate of Solidarity, and of his own "Unit X" film production unit, which was to be dismantled in 1983.


In 1989, with the astounding liberalization in Poland, Andrzej Wajda was not only elected as Solidarity candidate to the Sejm (the Polish parliament), but was able to realize a long-cherished project about Jewish-Polish pedagogue Janusz Korczak, who died, along with his wards, in a Nazi death camp.


Wajda's most recent films include The Ring With Crowned Eagle (1993) and Anastazja(1994).

His latest undertaking, a film adaptation of Adam Mickiewicz's literary epic Pan Tadeusz, was just completed in October 1999 and is already being hailed as a masterpiece.


Throughout his career, Wajda has embraced thorny issues such as Poland's relations with the Jews. "As the futility of heroism and the bitter aftermath of war have periodically returned to his work, Polish director Andrzej Wajda has for years come back to Jerzy Andrzejewski's short story, Wielki tydzien (Holy Week), about the uprising of the Warsaw ghetto during Easter Week 1943. From different reasons he was prevented from filming it, or he simply decided against it. An early obstacle was Andrzejewski's difficult relationship with the Communist regime; later, he gave up because of the cold reaction to his 1990 feature, Korczak. 'But since these reservations are no longer valid, and I am living in a free country, I think I have the right to speak out about this painful subject - the relationship between the Polish and the Jews - in a voice which is true and sincere, not withholding the cruelty against either party,' said Wajda. 'We hear words spoken from the screen never heard before Poles' opinions on Jews.' Andrzejewski lived next to the ghetto, when the uprising took the Germans by surprise. Wielki tydzien follows Irena, a young Jewish girl fleeing from the Nazis, after her parents have been killed. She is saved by her close friend, Jan, whom she has not seen for a long time. He asks her to stay with his family at their suburban apartment house, but not all of the inmates are happy about having a Jew under their roof. 'The more death you see, the more you want to live,' she says. But the conflict is closing in on all of them."


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