Andrzej Wajda, who died yesterday, leaves behind an unrivaled cinematic legacy. But despite his numerous awards and accolades, few cinephiles recognize his name.
Can you name a director who's won the Palme d'Or, a Jury Prize, and a FIPRESCI prize at the Cannes Film Festival, a BAFTA, a Golden Globe, lifetime achievement decorations from the Academy Awards, dozens of National Film Critics prizes, and Best Director at the César Awards—and still has the favor of the country whose sins he made his living recounting? Can you name a filmmaker who's responsible for crucial strands of the aesthetic DNA of Roman Polanski, Martin Scorsese, and Francis Ford Coppola (who, in turn, are responsible for the lion's share of American film style since 1979)? Who watched his father die at the hands of Soviet soldiers, only to turn his pain into a lifetime of vital, angry art that changed the way we think about violence?
There's only one answer to this question—Andrzej Wajda—but before his death yesterday, too many people would have come up empty-handed. It's the result of a sweeping decision across decades to keep the political cinema Wajda specialized in out of film schools and out of ordinary discourse.
We need more directors like Wajda, who not only want to humanize the political, but to encourage his viewers to take up their cameras and join the fray.
Born on March 6, 1926 in Suwałki, Poland, Wajda was only 14 when his father was murdered in the Katyn massacre, a systematic execution of tens of thousands of Polish prisoners of war who'd been deported to Russia. Joseph Stalin sent a clear message through this execution order: he did not want Poland to have a future led by the children and students of its best and brightest citizens.
Wajda joined the Polish underground two years later. He was a member when the first mass graves in the Katyn forest were discovered. The Russians and Germans alternately tried to use the executions for political gain and attempted to cover up the extent of their crime as the war raged on. Wajda's film career was an unspoken rebuke to unforgivable crimes committed by fascists and the brutal communist factions across Europe, who would later seize control of Poland. Every film was like one more identity given back to the Polish men and women discovered with his father in the mass graves in the Katyn forest. In 2007, after having garnered every accolade imaginable, he finally made a film called Katyn, about the massacre, as an homage to those men and women lost. Wajda was the man who told the truth about death in Poland.
After the war, he studied at the National Film School in Łódź and in 1950 made his first short, The Bad Boy, which introduced, in fetal form, the hallmarks of his auteurism: characters swallowed by landscapes, blackmail, and betrayal of the self, and almost dance-like blocking. After graduating, he made a handful of documentaries before throwing his first major statement at audiences like a handful of "Workers Unite!" pamphlets in a crowded square. A Generation, made in 1955, tells the story of young men like Wajda who joined the underground after living too long under the oppressive rule of the occupying German forces. These young kids (including one played by fellow Łódź graduate Roman Polanski, years before he'd started directing himself) band together to do something about their hellish living conditions.
The hallmarks of his auteurism: characters swallowed by landscapes, blackmail, and betrayal of the self, and almost dance-like blocking.
The film fortifies the stylistic skeleton of Wajda's student work. It features the most iconic shot of a stairwell in cinema history (outside of Alfred Hitchcock's Vertigo). The hope that young people would heed the call for revolution still animated Wajda to the very end. He always wanted young viewers to see his movies in the hopes that they would be galvanized to seize control of their political lives. Apathy and collaboration are frequently the same thing in Wajda's world—doing nothing enables your oppressor.
His next film, 1957's Kanal, which won a Special Jury Prize at Cannes (which it shared with Ingmar Bergman's The Seventh Seal), is one of the finest anti-war movies ever made. Wajda introduces a 43-man battalion of beleaguered Polish Resistance Fighters in a beautiful dolly shot that should set off alarm bells for fans of Apocalypse Now. These men enjoy a brief respite from fighting before a German tank crew shells their shelter. They hide in a sewer and are quickly separated, becoming disoriented, exhausted, and scared. The atmosphere is powerfully bleak, and no feat of heroism goes unpunished. War, no matter how nobly joined, is never valorous, and Wajda's arsenal of breathtaking camera movement only serves to underscore the loneliness of the soldier. He pans around rooms filled with bandaged kids who clearly can't remember a time before bombs. The landscape here literally consumes his characters, the sewer like a hungry maw swallowing up those foolhardy enough to imagine an end to conflict. There's no mistaking the hellacious images of Kanal for patriotism or propaganda. His claustrophobic, cluttered frames have the same awe-commanding power of a long-lost Dutch painting, letting us sink into the mire with his sick and dying protagonists.
1958's Ashes and Diamonds cemented Wajda's legacy as the great poetic realist of Poland. Two men lie in wait to ambush and kill a commissar at a hotel playing host to a banquet at the end of the German occupation of Poland. It's Wajda's most concise statement on the politics and inhumanity that would rack Poland from the end of the second world war until the fall of Communism in 1989.
He frames his industrialist monsters with Orson Welles-inspired low-angle close-ups, turning them into expressionistic ghouls.
His camera is alternately too close—there's an iconic shot of a pair of mirrored sunglasses that has been copied more times than you could count on one hand—and far enough away to capture the balletic movements of men and women who fight with war in their hearts. Scorsese and Coppola both cite this as one of their favorite films; its sweaty, hazy investigation into the intersection of love, lust, and violence is in all their work from the 1970s on. The heart is silenced by gunfire.
For the next decade and change, Wajda would ironically appropriate the decadent form of Russian films, with their broad, scope frames and Chekhov-and-Tolstoy-inspired tales of the woe born of urban and rural societies clashing.
Siberian Lady Macbeth (1962) and The Promised Land (1975) are the most famous examples of his grandiose paintings of grotesque masculine ego swollen to elephantine proportions. Siberian Lady Macbeth's camera sits like a king on a throne watching his subjects scurry about their business, largely infidelity and domestic abuse. The black-and-white footage of the peaceful landscape upon which these players tread harkens back to the work of Russian directors like Sergei Eisenstein, the angry stepfather of modern cinema, whose homeland so abused Wajda's own Poland.
Time hasn't dulled Wajda's poetic humanism.
The Promised Land is shockingly brusque, all the more so because its images are so lavish. Three young men, lousy with the optimism born of riches, join together to open a textile factory in a diseased industry town. Wajda's images of the filthy city—its starving people, men praying to the smoke stacks looming above all, indifferently painting the sky with industry's waste—are nightmare-inducing. He frames his industrialist monsters with Orson Welles-inspired low-angle close-ups, turning them into expressionistic ghouls. The workers at their mercy get more sympathetic, higher angles, and their environs are painted less garishly by the cinematography. The camera remains rooted to dollies and tripods, as always shorthand for the trap in which the worker finds himself. These flamboyant scenes of capitalism run amok—two foremen judging factory workers' bodies as they pass, a worker's blood spraying the sheets he lost his hand folding into a giant machine—are beautifully constructed but almost too oppressive for words. This is the language of decadence turned against its perpetrators.
As the magnate tells the would-be robber baron out to make his fortune: "Drink from this tub of human misery."
Wajda would return to the well (or tub) in 1983's Danton, about the revolutionary of the same name, beheaded by his one-time friend and intellectual sparring partner Maximilien Robespierre. These images are overwhelmingly modern, which makes the sight of Gérard Depardieu as Danton begging for his life and the blood of his comrades flowing on the stony streets all the more horrific. Wajda didn't need to embellish vulgarity as he did in The Promised Land. The sight of blood flowing so freely, so quickly, in front of screaming crowds, says more than gorgeous, expressionistic lighting ever could.
When Wajda took his camera off the tripod and began documenting the real-time struggle of the Polish working class, he rediscovered the optimism of A Generation and secured his place in the pantheon of political filmmakers. 1977's Man of Marble follows a young film student (based on the brilliant filmmaker Agnieszka Holland) who uncovers a plot to turn an ordinary worker into a hero to boost productivity. His camera practically flies down corridors, and he mixes archival footage with his own, creating a vibrant portrait of a working class in crisis.
His final film, Afterimage, is Poland's nominee for Best Foreign Language Film in 2017 and has yet to be released.
When Communism briefly thawed in the early '80s, Wajda followed it up with Man of Iron, about a dock worker and labor organizer based on Lech Wałęsa, with whom the filmmaker was friendly. The film won the Palme D'or and is still spectacularly vital today. Wajda would return to Lech Wałęsa's story in 2013, gifting him his own movie called Man of Hope, which brought his cycle of resistance to a close. The same year, Holland made her own film about the scars of communism in Poland, Burning Bush. She paid tribute to Wajda more directly in her 2011 film In Darkness, about Jewish men and women living in the sewer for years to escape death at the hands of the Nazis.
In his final films, Wajda's grammar maintained the rich, handheld immediacy he coined in Man of Marble, bringing us into the lives of the working class by floating around their living rooms and throwing us into their violent strikes. Its grammatical solidarity with a time, place, and people are proof that time hasn't dulled his poetic humanism. His final film, Afterimage, is Poland's nominee for Best Foreign Language Film in 2017 and has yet to be released.
We need more directors like Wajda, who not only want to humanize the political, but to encourage his viewers to take up their cameras and join the fray. To let no injustice go untold, no cause go unheralded, no life go uncelebrated. Life was abjectly cruel and unbearably tense in Wajda's Poland, and his films don't shy away from that. But he saw something worth living and dying for in his fellow men, women, and children. In Man of Hope, Wałęsa is arrested for distributing pamphlets to workers; they take him and his child to jail. A female cop hears the child's screaming and rushes in to breastfeed the poor baby when the other policemen refuse to release them. In Wajda's cinema, even a cog in the biggest machine is capable of kindness—of seeing human beings for who they are.