The World Reacts to Andrzej Wajda’s Death
Andrzej Wajda, the Oscar and Palme d'Or-winning director, a true icon of Polish contemporary cinema, has died at 90.
His early years were synonymous with Poland’s tragic 20th-century history. His father was executed during the massacre of Polish army officers at Katyń perpetrated by the Soviet Union in 1940. Orphaned, Wajda decided to join the underground resistance movement and went to war against Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union. When World War II ended, he was only 19 and forced to start his adult life in a country ruled by a quasi-totalitarian and Soviet-imposed communist regime, which didn’t fall until he was 63.
From this background, it may seem unsurprising that the majority of Andrzej Wajda’s films relate to the history of Poland. At the same time, they skilfully managed to touch upon universal topics, such as the difficulty of moral choices under a non-democratic regime, or the burden of post-war trauma and chaos. This is why, from the over 40 feature films he directed throughout his 60-year career, his most memorable works are his WWII trilogy – A Generation (1954), Canal (1956) and Ashes and Diamonds (1958) – and two politically-engaged films he only made thanks to a short, temporary thaw in censorship at the turn of 1970s: Man of Marble (1976) and Man of Iron (1981).
For his works, Andrzej Wajda received praise and recognition all over the world. Movies such as The Promised Land (1975), The Maids of Wilko (1979), Man of Iron (1981), and Katyń (2007) earned him Oscar nominations for best foreign language films. Eventually he was awarded the Academy Honorary Award in 2000 to wide acclaim from the Hollywood filmmakers’ society.
He received the 1981 Palme d’Or for Man of Iron, a movie which made him not only an iconic director, but also the de facto artistic leader of the democratic opposition – the film’s popularity turned out to be a subtly clever and most effective contributing factor in the eventual toppling of communism in Poland. Wajda said of receiving the Palme:
The day of the Palme was a very important day in my life, of course. But I was aware that this prize wasn’t just for me. It was also a prize for the Solidarity union.
In 2016, Wajda had just finished his latest movie Afterimage, another that touches on important socio-political issues. This biopic about painter Władysław Strzemiński, an artist who defied the communist regime’s censorship and fought for freedom of artistic expression, is Andrzej Wajda’s warning to politicians that any kind of censorship or dictating what is art and what is not, can do nothing but harm. The movie was chosen as Poland’s official entry for an Oscar in the Best Foreign Language Film category.
Grief and outpourings
Wajda’s death inspired an outpour of emotional reactions, recollections and words of appreciation worldwide.
Daniel Olbrychski, often regarded as Wajda’s favourite actor, reminded that it was the director’s impeccable relationship with actors that were the keys to his successes:
Wajda was the type of director who at the same time falls in love with every actor he works with but is also still capable to very steadily guide him or her on the set. No one could ever better combine this love with the incisiveness of the most demanding critic.
Another renowned Polish actor, Wojciech Pszoniak, put it even move simply:
Andrzej Wajda does not make films. He makes cinema. And it’s not the same thing.
Alan Starski, the Oscar-winning set designer and Wajda’s long-time friend, said:
None of his works ever aimed at being any kind of summary, recapitulation, an end of his career. Each of them was fresh, new. A new one would be no less original. If he were still alive, he would still make wonderful films!
Rossiyskaya Gazeta, a major Russian newspaper, put Wajda’s name alongside some of the greatest directors of all time: Federico Fellini, Andriej Tarkowski, Akira Kurosawa, Luis Bunuel and Ingmar Bergman. Moreover, they wrote:
[…] the 20th century was the great century of cinema. We will miss it one day (…) as in present day cinematography, there’s no place for artists of that calibre.
Wajda’s death didn’t pass unnoticed in France either. Le Monde wrote on its front page:
Throughout his life he was an artist sensitive to socio-political issues, a eulogist of Poland’s difficult history, which he always strived to put in a universal dimension.
The German newspaper Die Welt published an obituary saying that:
He was Polish cinema and Polish history, the most important Polish director after World War II, a true chronicler of his country, a moral institution, a social critic with a movie camera.
Swedish reporter Hynek Palls of Dagens Nyhter wrote:
Wajda excelled at picturing the struggles of a man living in a totalitarian regime.
Finally, the Italian paper La Repubblica ended its article on his life and works with a simple epitaph:
We lost a great European.
Author: Wojciech Oleksiak, 10 Oct 2016