Andrzej Wajda: Acclaimed director whose ‘Katyn’ film was nominated for an Oscar

Obituary: His work portrayed wartime resistance and workers’ struggles under Communism


Andrzej Wajda, who mined Polish history to create films that established him as one of the world’s great directors and won him an Academy Award for his life’s work, has died, aged 90.

From his trilogy of Poland’s wartime resistance (A Generation, Kanal and Ashes and Diamonds) to his twin portraits of workers under Communism (Man of Marble and Man of Iron) to his final film, Afterimage, released this year, Wajda unceasingly drew on Polish reality, sensibility and memory, stressing elements that were at times mystifying to foreign viewers.

His absorption in Polish sensibilities, and in quintessentially Polish subjects, like the romantic appeal of lost causes, extended beyond plot and subtext to the iconography with which he filled his movies, a tendency he lamented but could not escape.

But the biggest problems he faced were the practical ones of government disapproval, and sometimes outright censorship, before Poland rid itself of Communist control. That he succeeded in overcoming so much to produce towering works of art earned him the enduring regard of his countrymen.

And as opaque as his allusions may have seemed outside Poland, his international reputation grew steadily. Western film historians eventually mentioned him alongside Ingmar Bergman, Federico Fellini and Akira Kurosawa. He was given the Japanese Imperial Prize for his contribution to film in 1996 and an honorary Academy Award in 2000. Wajda also received lifetime achievement awards from the film festivals in Venice in 1998 and Berlin in 2006.

The images and textures that shaped the imaginative landscape of Wajda’s films were drawn from a life that reflected Poland’s tragic modern history, beginning with the outbreak of the second World War, when the Nazis invaded and obliterated Poland in partnership with the Russians. The agony continued through nearly six years of German occupation, when the Nazis used Polish soil to establish the ghettos and killing fields of the Holocaust. Then, with liberation, came more decades of totalitarian oppression as successive regimes in Moscow sought to impose Soviet-style Communism on a devoutly Roman Catholic country, an effort that even Stalin once conceded was like “putting a saddle on a bull”.

Andrzej Wajda was born in Suwalki, a garrison town near Poland’s border with Lithuania. His father was a cavalry officer, and as young Andrzej moved with his parents from camp to camp. When he was 12, the German army invaded. Two weeks later, the Russians joined in the dismemberment of Poland. The country was quickly overrun by Nazi and Communist forces carrying out the collusion of the Hitler-Stalin pact.

As it did for many Poles, history turned personal for Wajda. His father was taken prisoner, one of the 4,300 Polish officers the Russians killed and secretly buried in the Katyn Forest in Ukraine.

Though most Poles eventually came to understand who was responsible for what was known simply as Katyn, during the years of Communist rule the official version of events insisted that the Polish officers were killed by the Germans. Only in 1991 could Wajda, by then an elected senator in post-Communist Poland, make a documentary called The Katyn Forest in homage to his father and those murdered with him.

His 2007 dramatisation of the same story, called simply Katyn, was an Oscar nominee for best foreign-language film.

Irish Times film critic Donald Clarke, wrote of Katyn: “No thinking viewer will, however, remain unmoved by the properly awful denouement. Detailing the murders in coolly disciplined fashion, the director [Wajda] wisely shows the “how”, but doesn’t dare to explain the “why”. After all, no answer to such a question would be satisfactory.”

After his father disappeared, young Andrzej lived through the war with his mother, a teacher, working at odd jobs in the countryside. He also had what he later called “a posting of no significance” with the home army, a resistance group sponsored by the anti-Communist Polish government in exile in London.

He enrolled in the Fine Arts Academy in Krakow after the war but transferred to the newly opened Film School in Lodz. Soon after graduating, he began making films.

Man of Marble a film critical of communist Poland was seen by three million there in less than three months, and arguments about its content broke out all over the country. The Poles knew that the Communist government had censored the crucial final scene of the film and refused to allow its presentation at the Cannes Film Festival as an official entry. But it was shown there anyway, and it won the International Federation of Film Critics prize.

It was followed three years later by (Man of Iron), focused on the rise of Poland’s anti-communist Solidarity trade union.

Wajda was allowed to insert the censored last scene of Man of Marble into Man of Iron. “That was the best sign,” he later recalled, “that in the years between the two movies the Communists really started losing ground.”

He organised and ran the Solidarity filmmakers’ union and became an active member of the Committee to Help Workers, a major dissident organisation. But the last Polish Communist government struck back and Gen Wojciech Jaruzelski, its leader, banned Solidarity and declared martial law.

As censorship intensified, Wajda encouraged the clandestine distribution of banned films by his younger colleagues through underground cassettes. The government moved against him and for the next four years disapproved his film projects; he was not able to work in his homeland again until 1985.

One of Wajda’s last films was Walesa: Man of Hope, released in 2013 and considered by many to be the final part of a trilogy that began with Man of Marble. Starring the Polish movie and television actor Robert Wieckiewicz, it was the first Polish film to examine Lech Walesa and his work with Solidarity in depth.

Wajda said that he viewed it as his greatest professional challenge to date.

“I don’t want to,” he said of making the film Walesa, quoting Walesa’s own words when he ran for president of Poland, “but I have to.”

Wajda was married four times. Survivors include his wife, the actress and stage designer Krystyna Zachwatowicz, and a daughter, Karolina.

(New York Times syndicate)