I Don’t Make Films for Myself: An Interview with Andrzej Wajda
‘In order to put our films across, we need to look for a European language of cinema, not the language the cinema uses to indirectly communicate with the domestic audience,’ said Andrzej Wajda, the legendary Polish director who passed away a year ago on 9th October 2016. Below we present one of his last interviews, where Wajda discussed the release of his long-awaited film about the fascinating artist Władysław Strzemiński, his thoughts on why the audience is so important in filmmaking, and how six decades in cinema didn’t quench his thirst for freedom.
Joanna Poros: Your new film is scheduled to be released in late 2016. Filming ended in autumn. The plot is set in Łódź between 1948 and 1952. Afterimage is the record of the painter Władysław Strzemiński’s last years of life. Strzemiński was a pioneer of the Polish Avant-garde in the 1920s and 1930s. It’s a story of a charismatic and rebellious artist being destroyed by the communist regime; an artist who didn’t give in to socialist realism and experienced a dramatic aftermath for his decision.
Andrzej Wajda: I’ve just finished the editing. Now the film goes to the lab. It will spend a lot of time there, so I think the audience will see it in autumn. I did everything I could to put Strzemiński on the screen. It’s good to remember the conditions of that time and the challenges an artist had to face in the 1950s.
JP: You always stress the importance of the Polish school of filmmaking in the creation of our cinematography. You made films in tough post-war conditions. Where did the success of the Polish school come from?
AW: We were young, and our cinema was young. We had a story to tell, our war experiences. We wanted not only the Poles, who had experienced it all themselves, but also the world to see it in our films. And to put them across, one needs to look for the proper film language. A European language of cinema, not the language cinema uses to communicate with a domestic audience.
At that time, the new post-war European cinema started to come into being: Italian neorealism. That was the direction we identified the most with. We – Polish filmmakers – wanted to present ourselves to the world. But the Polish language is unknown abroad and the dialogues uttered by the actors couldn’t fulfil this expectation, especially because the words were the main focus of the censorship. So we thought that films with strong images would gain more interest abroad and appeal more to foreign audiences.
When I was in Japan, I found out how much Kanał and Ashes and Diamonds resonated with the Japanese youth. I’ve also had similar experiences with audiences in other countries. But it wasn’t just me, also Andrzej Munk, Jerzy Kawalerowicz, Tadeusz Konwicki – the whole group who created the Polish Film School at that time.
JP: You directed Kanał at the age of 30, Ashes and Diamonds at the age of 32. These films don’t seem directed by a young person, but someone very mature, who had gone through a lot. Was this maturity a consequence of growing up during the war?
AW: After the war and the German occupation came the change. But not the one we had been waiting for. We had been expecting to find ourselves on the side of the Western countries. That was what we had fought for. This tragic confrontation with reality made us much more mature – for our age. When I reached 30, I felt that I had already found out everything about life.
Simultaneously, what made us mature made our films mature. Those films emerged from our consciousness, our experiences, things we had seen, everything that had happened in our lives.
JP: Kanał, Ashes and Diamonds, but also Innocent Sorcerers, Everything for Sale, The Birch Wood, The Wedding, The Promised Land, Man of Marble... You’ve made more or less fifty films.
AW: Recently the Film Museum in Łódź along with the film experts from the University of Łódź organised a survey called 12 Films for the 120th Anniversary of Cinema. The Promised Land was proclaimed the best Polish film of all time. It was filmmakers who voted in the survey. I would have never assumed that the film might win the first prize.
JP: You referred to one of your films, Man of Iron, as the only ‘commissioned’ one. It premiered on 27th July 1981, a couple of months before martial law was introduced. Years later you reminisced about the moment you decided to make it: ‘In the Lenin Shipyard in Gdańsk, the workers and the government had been negotiating for some time, but in Warsaw, we were initially getting only scraps of information. The Polish Filmmakers Association, of which I was the president at that time, had won the right to record important historic events for archival purposes and a group of filmmakers was already at the shipyard. The guards at the gate recognised me straight away, and on my way to the meeting room one of the workers said to me: “You should make a film about us.” “What film?” I asked. “Man of Iron,” he said without hesitation. I couldn’t ignore this appeal.’
AW: That worker asked me to make Man of Iron because he had previously seen Man of Marble. What happened at the shipyard was our creation as well as our cinematography’s creation. We had been preparing for this kind of confrontation. Let’s not forget how difficult Man of Marble had been to make five years earlier. It wasn’t sent to any festivals. Its distribution was limited to a minimum even in Poland as it had ‘no right to be made’. Because it shows a worker who addresses the authorities in the name of other workers. And it was the worker-peasant authority which spoke in the name of the whole nation. There was no need for one single man to do it.
When I decided to make Man of Iron, I understood that there are moments in the nation’s life when you need to participate actively in current events. Events with unknown consequences, an unknown finale. Of course I couldn’t start making the film until the strike at the shipyard successfully ended. Earlier there had been no chance for me to make that kind of film.
At the time, I felt something beautiful for the first time: that the multi-million Trade Union Solidarność is supporting me. I thought: I’m making a film, they will protect it.
They’ll do everything possible – under one condition: that I make it as fast as possible and that in the meantime there are no events similar to those that happened shortly after opening night, namely the introduction of martial law. Then there would have been no chance to finish the film. I was aware that we didn’t have much time, because I was expecting what was about to happen.
I am proud and very happy that Man of Iron was screened in Cannes and received the Golden Palm. The award wasn’t for me, it was for the Solidarity movement. For those people. Such moments in life are rare. When the workers demand from the authorities that a film shouldn’t be censored and should be shown in Cannes.
JP: You had the idea for your most recent film Afterimage for twenty years.
AW: Yes. I studied not only direction in Łódź but also painting at the Academy of Fine Arts in Kraków for three years.
Strzemiński, an uncompromising artist, seemed to be good film material for a long time. I thought it would be a good idea to remind people of his life. It’s good to see what happens when art is supervised, controlled, influenced by authority and censorship. That’s what Strzemiński’s life was like. I decided to make a film about him twenty years ago but for many reasons it kept getting postponed. Finally I decided that I wanted to speak about it.
JP: What do you think about the big production concerning Polish history that the new government has announced. A film of Hollywood proportions is being talked about.
AW: Polish cinema has proven that it exists and can speak to other nations while speaking about Polish history. The best proof are the awards, the prizes won at festivals, an Oscar for Paweł Pawlikowski’s Ida for instance. We are Polish cinematography. This is the right path for us, not infamous onscreen disasters such as The Day of the Siege: September Eleven 1683 (Polish title: Bitwa pod Wiedniem).
But I think that films that warn us about certain mistakes from the past are also important. It’s also a role of cinema.
JP: Are there any figures or events from our history that you would like to make a film about, but haven’t yet?
AW: I’ve been alive for a long time, I’ve made many films, some of them synchronised with the expectations of the audience. I want to work as long as I am physically capable. To work with a film crew, a large group of people, to answer their questions, to project my energy onto them.
I’ve made more or less fifty films. For each of them, there were three or four unexecuted projects. It wasn’t always the censorship, sometimes my script just wasn’t good enough, or sometimes I wanted to film abroad but didn’t get a passport. This way probably 200-300 unfinished film projects have gathered in my archive. Sometimes I reach into my past. I look around the archive to see if there is something that might be of interest to the audience.
I need to stress that my reflecting over particular projects has always been connected with the reality in which the project was developing, the times in which we lived, in which we protested, when we showed our reality as critically as was possible.
I met with Lech Wałęsa at the beginning of the strike in 1980. Soon a camera arrived and the documentary Robotnicy ’80 (editor’s translation: The Workers of 1980) started to be made [editor’s note: a report from the strike and August negotiations between the Inter-Enterprise Strike Committee and the representatives of the Communist Party, dir. A. Chodakowski, A. Zajączkowski]. Why Robotnicy ’80? Because earlier we had Workers 1971: Nothing About Us Without Us by Krzysztof Kieślowski and Tomasz Zygadło.
At that time, cinematography went hand in hand with events. This is what I’m proud of. The child of that time is the Cinema of Moral Anxiety. It’s a slogan that was created in a film crew I led. I’m very happy that together with the ‘film youth,’ I managed to create the bases for the further development of Polish cinema.
JP: You mentioned being 30 and feeling as if there was no new knowledge ahead of you. Now 60 years later, if you were to assess yourself and the changes that you’ve undergone, how have you changed over those six decades in terms of your worldview?
AW: I’ve become a bit bitter. I thought that the victory I witnessed and in some sense took part in – I’m taking about the victory of the Solidarity movement and Poland becoming a free country – would take a slightly different course. I thought that the process would go more smoothly. That it wouldn’t be so difficult. That we all wanted the same thing. After all, why was it all going on?
JP: Do you consider the 26 years of Polish freedom well-spent?
AW: Under the communist regime, we blamed our dependence on the Soviets for our weaknesses, all our mistakes. We said, ‘they don’t allow us to’. We also weren’t aware that our shipbuilding industry, mining, steel plants, agriculture, weaving mills were all producing for the Soviet market, which disappeared overnight. While making The Promised Land, I had to wait until the Łódź machinery had finished making the next batch of military jackets for the Soviet army.
Today, this excuse doesn’t work anymore. I still have the enthusiasm of Solidarity in my heart, when the movement was developing and operating, when a new hope for freedom was arising… Then we felt much more mature. And that we were still on our way to Europe.
JP: What is your first association with the word Solidarity?
AW: Lech Wałęsa. Regardless of all the mistakes and political weaknesses he is not free of. Without Wałęsa, one cannot imagine the creation of Solidarity or this whole situation which happened at the Gdańsk Shipyard.
Wałęsa could talk with people better than Professor Geremek for one simple reason: everything he was talking about he had ‘carved on his back’.
Right now I’m remembering the shooting of The Promised Land in the Łódź production halls, where I saw the mill girls and their unimaginable ordeal. How could those women work in such conditions for years? When we entered those halls to shoot there for half an hour or fifteen minutes, it was too loud to tell the cast what to do. First, we had to leave, slam the door shut and talk outside.
JP: On 6th March you will be celebrating your 90th birthday. Do you have any specific plans for the jubilee?
AW: I’m going to meet with my friends with whom I made films, which is the initiative of Jacek Bromski, the chairman of the Polish Filmmakers Association. Jacek Majchrowski, the President of Kraków, is preparing a surprise for me and the President of Gdańsk is going to make me an honorary citizen of the city.
Source: interview by Joanna Poros, PAP; originally written in Polish and compiled by MŚ, March 2016, translated by KF, 6 Oct 2017