Born on the 6th of March 1926 in Suwałki, Poland. Film and theatre director, script writer and set designer, one of the world's most renowned filmmakers and winner of an Academy Award for Lifetime Achievement in 2000.
A student of Kraków's Academy of Fine Arts in 1946-1949, Andrzej Wajda graduated from the Polish National Film, Television and Theatre School in Łódź in 1953 with a major in Directing. He made his debut two years later with the film Pokolenie / Generation. It is a story of youngsters in Nazi-occupied Poland who enter the Gwardia Ludowa, a communist armed organization in Poland organised by the Soviet Union led Polish Workers Party. In response to the protagonist’s change of heart, the film historian Tadeusz Lubelski said, "By making Generation, Wajda took the same path as his friend Andrzej Wróblewski five years earlier – he found a new form to speak in the name of the dead". Andrzej Wróblewski, a painter (1927-1957), one of Poland’s most independent post-war artists is associated with his well-known series Rozstrzelania / Executions, dating from the end of the 1940s, which depicts visually expressive scenes from Nazi occupied Poland, brutally deformed human figures torn into pieces.
Generation was soon followed by Kanał / Canal (1957) and Popiół i diament / Ashes and Diamonds (1958), the latter based on a novel by Jerzy Andrzejewski. With these two films he became one of the most important directors of the new generation in Europe. They initiated a new current called "the Polish Film School", which tells the stories of folk heroes from both during and after the war and challenges the national tradition of martyrdom and romantic heroism in art.
The story of Canal starts in the Warsaw district of Mokotów in mid 1944, on the the fifty-sixth day of the Warsaw Uprising. The Uprising will shortly fall after sixty-three days of fighting. After a decimated resurgent detachment makes a failed attempt to break away from the German troops' encirclement, Zadra, the commander, orders them to get through the waste-water piping to the city centre where the fighting is still going on. The group moves through the dark, winding underground system which is half filled with water and excrement, while the Germans guard at the manholes to throw grenades. The scene in which Stokrotka and the wounded Korab reach the manhole exiting into the Vistula river only to find it is barred is one of the most famous scenes of Polish cinema.
Ashes and Diamonds entered the canons of film history thanks to the famous Polish actor Zbigniew Cybulski. His portrayal of a young home army resistance soldier - Maciek Chełmicki is considered the most important role of his career. He created the cult figure of a rebellious member of the intelligentsia.
Wajda's first colour film, Lotna (1959) was an adaptation of the novel by Wojciech Żukrowski. 1960 saw Niewinni czarodzieje / Innocent Sorcerers, a story of young people of the jazz age, rebellious and alienated from greater society. For the period, it was considered a unique film, full of new wave frivolity and charm. It was being filmed at the same time as Jean-Luc Godard’s À bout de souffle/ Breathless. The script to Innocent Sorcerers was written by the writer Jerzy Andrzejewski and the well-known film director Jerzy Skolimowski in a mere two weeks. Fascinated by jazz and boxing, Skolimowski managed to incorporate his passions into the film. What Godard and Wajda’s films have in common is the relations between the main characters, their fear of love; what distinguished them is the way the stories are told and the way they finish.
The next year brought Samson, a movie based on a novel by Kazimierz Brandys, which told the story of a Jew who had escaped from the ghetto. This was followed by two foreign productions beginning in 1962: Sibirska Ledi Magbet / Powiatowa Lady Makbet / Siberian Lady Macbeth (Yugoslavia) and L'amour à vingt ans / Miłość dwudziestolatków / Love at Twenty (France/Germany).
My first reaction was fear. I felt a shudder at the realisation that I too belonged to the nation whose behaviour was being shown up there on the screen. Would anyone else have had the same cruel courage to present one's own nation in such a way? There is presumably no one else in the world who would be able to depict in such an exhibitionist manner how cruel and stupid yet faithful and loyal and brave we are, what beautiful deaths we can die and how immortal we are, like in the hymn which opens the movie: 'Jeszcze Polska nie zginęła, póki my żyjemy...'/ Poland will not die as long as we live.... A nation without brains and without politicians, thoughtlessly moving towards perdition and death, and equipped only with hearts and heavy fists for hitting (published in Sztandar Młodych on the 25th of October 1965).
Triggered by Zbigniew Cybulski’s tragic death in 1967 and inspired by Federico Fellini’s "film about a film" Eight and a Half, Wajda filmed Everything for Sale in 1968. The plot in which reality mixes with fiction is based on the circumstances of the filming of the movie: the film’s main character doesn’t come to the film set. The director shows the search for the missing actor. Everything for Sale is a bitter reflection about the situation of Polish public life at that time. Reveals the traces of Wajda's artistic inspirations, it’s a reassessment of his artistic output and that of other contemporary Polish filmmakers.
A satirical social drama Polowanie na muchy / Hunting Flies (1970) was followed that same year by an adaptation of Tadeusz Borowski's story Krajobraz po bitwie / Landscape After the Battle which once again took up the topic of war and a return to poetry was pronounced with Brzezina / Birch Wood based on a story by Jarosław Iwaszkiewicz. Two years later, Wajda made his first movie in Germany, Pilatus und andere / Piłat i inni / Pilate and Others (1972) based on Mikhail Bulgakov's Master and Margarita.
1973 saw the production of Wesele / The Wedding after a play by Stanisław Wyspiański. In an interview with the film critic Wanda Wertenstein, Wajda said: "It was Andrzej Kijowski’s idea [scriptwriter for The Wedding] to replace the long never ending monologues […] with images". Krzysztof T. Toeplitz wrote in 1973 in the monthly literary magazine Miesięcznik Literacki,
This film could have expanded the play, added colour to it, fulfilled the dreams of set designers by being made even more wonderfully colourful, yet Wajda went in the other direction, making the fabric of the drama palpable and material. The wedding room in Wajda's film is cramped, stuffy and overcrowded, the hall is narrow, the yard is bleak and muddy, the Host's unfinished canvases lie around discarded in the shed alongside farming equipment. And then this material reality suddenly breaks through the convention of the theatre: theatre cannot happen in such surroundings; life, that is, film can.
Two years later Wajda made the Oscar-nominated Ziemia obiecana / The Promised Land. Based on the novel by Władysław Reymont, it is one of Wajda's top cinematic achievements. The film is set in Łódź at the end of the nineteenth century as the Polish textile industry flourishes and expensive intrigues set three businessmen at odds. Tomasz Burek wrote in 1974 for the magazine Kino,
Fascinated as Wajda may seem by the three young heroes' unbounded vitality, energy and their enterprising, as well as by their lack of inhibitions and appetite for life and sex, he exposes the sheer emptiness of their lives, with its cover of dynamic infantilism and automatic drive to make big money with even more zeal than Reymont.
Wajda created a unique fresco, its protagonists being not only the three heroes but equally the town itself: 19th-century Łódź, filthy yet wonderful and poised for a great civilisational leap. The movie starred Daniel Olbrychski, Wojciech Pszoniak and Andrzej Seweryn, actors who were among Wajda's favourites and who appeared a number of times both in his earlier and later films.
In 1976 Wajda made Smuga cienia / The Shadow Line, a Polish-British co-production based on a story by Joseph Conrad.
A year later came out Człowiek z marmuru / Man of Marble, the story of Mateusz Birkut, an exemplary worker of the Stalinist period of socialist Poland, whose life is traced and recorded by a film school student named Agnieszka (Krystyna Janda) who writes about him in her dissertation. Through the story of the record holder of brick laying, the film is a window into the reality of the 50ties in Poland and the political situation in the 70ties. The critic Waldemar Piątek wrote, "Man of Marble shows the tragedy of the people who believed in the sense of communist changes and ended up being destroyed by the system". Incidentally, the film's script was written by Aleksander Ścibor-Rylski several years before, but censorship halted the making of the film and it was made only in 1977. The story about disappointment with the system and enslaved minds brought Wajda the Critics Award at the Cannes Festival and spelled the artistic breakthrough for actors Jerzy Radziwiłowicz and Krystyna Janda.
Man of Marble had its sequel in Człowiek z żelaza / Man of Iron (1981), a movie vibrant with the contemporary Polish life, with the action taking place in the memorable August of 1980.The 1970s brought two more films by Wajda: Bez znieczulenia / Rough Treatment (1978), a reference to the film-making movement of moral unrest, and Panny z Wilka / The Maids of Wilko (1979), another superb adaptation of Jarosław Iwaszkiewicz's prose and Wajda's second Oscar-nominated movie. 1980 was marked by the production of Dyrygent / The Orchestra Conductor, starring John Gielgud, the distinguished English actor.
Throughout the 1970s Wajda was mostly involved with foreign productions. It was in France that he made Danton (1983) after Sprawa Dantona / The Danton Case by Stanisława Przybyszewska, starring Gerard Depardieu and Wojciech Pszoniak, and Les Possédes / Biesy / The Possessed (1988) based on Fyodor Dostoyevsky's novel, with Isabelle Huppert, Omar Shariff and Jerzy Radziwiłowicz. Later Wajda went to Germany to direct Eine Liebe in Deutschland / Miłość w Niemczech / Love in Germany in 1983. His only 1980s film made in Poland was Kronika wypadków miłosnych / A Chronicle of Amorous Incidents based on a book by Tadeusz Konwicki. Jerzy Niecikowski commented in the magazine Film in 1987,
Despite an outward similarity, it takes us quite far from Wajda films based on books by Iwaszkiewicz. Unlike Birch Wood, this movie does not deal with death and its questioning of human existence, nor does it talk about time destroying feelings and dreams like is the case in The Maids of Wilko. The true essence of the protagonists - the essence which entirely determines their fates - is history with a capital H. Here it is looked at from a singular perspective.
Wajda's later films were unsuccessful attempts at sparking a dialogue with the audience. Indeed, the viewers and the critics both reacted rather dispassionately to his films throughout the 1990s, even though the director extended his reach to a number of themes. In 1990 he made Korczak, a biographical film, and in 1994 directed Nastazja / Nastassya, based on Dostoyevsky's Idiot and starring the Japanese actors Tamasaburo Bando and Toshiyuki Nagashima. 1994 and 1995 marked Wajda's return to the battleground topics, with Wielki Tydzień / Holy Week (based on Jerzy Andrzejewski’s book). The earlier Pierścionek z orłem w koronie / The Crowned-Eagle Ring touted by the cinema historian Jerzy Płażewski as the end of the Polish School of Film. Finally, in 1996, came Wajda's screening of Tomek Tryzna's popular modern novel, Panna Nikt / Miss Nothing.
Wajda managed to recapture a genuine rapport with his audience in 1999 following his production of Pan Tadeusz, based on the acclaimed novel by Adam Mickiewicz. This grand-scale project was taken up while Polish cinemas were overflowing with super-productions of national prose works on compulsory reading lists, and in retrospective Wajda's Pan Tadeusz turned out to be the only masterpiece among them. Paradoxically, Wajda, who had more than once depicted the national tradition and its myths through a skewed looking glass, made a warm, gentle film which perfectly conveyed the climate of Mickiewicz's epic work. This beautiful picture, in which all the good and bad things alike are wrapped in a delicate mist of nostalgia, was what won audiences back.
In 2002 he brought out the film Zemsta / Revenge based on Aleksander Fredro's classic comedy. The plot revolves around aristocratic intrigues, marriages for money and a love story. Two enemies reside in two halves of the same castle.
After many years of communist censorship which restricted film-makers from dealing with sensitive topics such as the wartime massacres in the Katyń Forest of eastern Russia of 1940. After 1989, Wajda started working on the script to the movie Katyń, but didn't manage to finish it until 2007. Wajda's Katyń was the first Polish movie on the heated topic. The film is the real-life story of the massacres which took place in April and May of 1940, when, on government orders, some 22,000 Polish citizens, of whom 10,000 were military officers, were murdered by the the Soviet secret police - the NKVD, as part of a deliberate plan to wipe out the country’s intelligentsia. Until President Yeltsin admitted that is was the NKVD that committed the murders, Soviet propaganda had been putting the blame on the Germans. The events are of personal significance to Wajda, whose family suffered from the tragedy. In a 2009 interview with the film historian Tadeusz Lubelski for the magazine Kino, the director said,
It was a story about my mother. My mother was a victim of the Katyń mystification and my father was a victim of the Katyń war crime. The first movie on the topic had to show both of these aspects. [...]
Wajda's film is set after the war as an officer’s mother, wife and daughter await his return from the prisoner-of-war camps of the USSR. "The fate of the men is told through the longing, the suffering, desperation and loyalty of the women", film critic Piotr Wojciechowski wrote in Kino magazine in 2007, "one of the director's most important tasks was to harmonise the male and the female roles, the latter show the history while the former embody the myth". Wojciechowski also pointed to the difficulties linked with unveiling a topic which had been taboo for so many years,
The first film about Katyń had to be made with awareness about the limitations set on it which were bigger than for any other movie. It had to be nested in between myth and history. It therefore had to accept the limitations of history everywhere where that was possible, the reconstruction of facts had priority over the director’s free vision. [...] Thanks to its opulence, the symbolism and an original style of transmiting a message, Katyń co-creates, accentuates and crowns what the director himself called 'a panorama of Polish fate'.
The film's Polish critics on the other hand commented on the price Wajda had to pay when attempting to accurately reconstruct the massacre and its mystification - oversimplified protagonists and relations between them. Nominated for an Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film and distributed in different European countries and in the United States, The Telegraph pointed to the film's signifance for the Poles and The Independent wrote about it's role in the relationship between Russia and Poland. Commenting on the film as a means of transmition, Alastair McKay wrote for Uncut.co.uk, "Those who are unfamiliar with Polish history may find it slightly bewildering at first. The film cuts between events with little explanation, and Wajda makes only minimal efforts to sugar the pill", Nevertheless, further he adds, "[...] It’s not a feelgood movie. But is technically-brilliant filmmaking of a style that is rarely seen anymore – dense in allusion and symbol, light on character. Wajda’s great achievement is to bring history alive without cheapening it". Much like Man Of Marble and Man Of Iron, which documented the rise of the Solidarity trade union, Katyń makes no apologies for its national bias.
The films opens with the following words,
The Tatar herb has two smells. If you gently rub the green, slightly cressed ribbon with your fingers, you can smell the delicate odour of the 'water sitting in the shadow of the birches' [editor's translation] as Juliusz Słowacki wrote [...]. But when you crush that same herb, when you stick your nose in the cottony crease you can feel the odour of muddy silt, rotting fish scales, mudd basically. When I as a child I assocaited this smell with the image of sudden death.
Wajda's admiration for the prose of Jarosław Iwaszkiewicz creates a counterbalance for his treatment of political and historical topics. Tatarak / Sweet Rush follows the director's adaptations of Iwaszkiewicz's Birch Wood and The Maids of Wilko which brought him a Gold Medal at the Moscow International Film Festival for the latter and an Academy award nomination for the former.
The story of a meeting between a mature woman grieving after the recent - war-time - loss of her sons and a young man who could almost be the boys' peer and the unexpected surge of feelings, Sweet Rush is a discourse between the writer and death. Mrs Marta is fascinated by the young Boguś. The motif is reminescent of John Irving's 1998 bestselling novel A Widow for One Year, made into the movie The Door in the Floor by Tod Williams (2004), where after the death of her grown up sons a woman enters a sexually tainted relation with boys of the same age as her sons.
The making of the film is closely linked to Wajda's work with the actress Krystyna Janda who played in Man of Marble, Rough Treatment, The Orchestra Conductor and Man of Iron. As the actress had recently lost her husband - the great cinematographer and Wajda's collaborator, Edward Kłosiński, the film was hanging by a thread. But as Wajda said in 2009 for Kino magazine,
The widowed Krystyna decided to accept the part. Her new situation didn't mean, however, that the film was to be different than we had planned a year earlier. But once our adaptation of Iwaszkiewicz's story had come together, Krystyna brought me a few pages; I read them, feeling amazed and shaken at how poignantly she described Edward's last moments and his death on those pages. I believed she had poured out her feelings to me as a friend. But I asked her if she would agree to speak the text to the camera.
That's how the film gained an extra layer. The film is more than a collection of reflections of an aged master of cinema on the relations between people and their inevitable fate, it is also a moving reflection on the presence of death in every person's life and - to quote a piece of the dialogue - "the ease with which life passes into death", supported by the actress playing the leading role. "A film about a film", Sweet Rush incorporates scenes when the camera turns away from the set to focus on the crew working on the film - from read-through rehearsals, arranging the set, to bad shots. Next to the actual story drawn from Iwaszkiewicz's prose, additionally inspired by a story by Hungarian writer Sándor Márai and shown in a sophisticated visual form (cinematography performed by Paweł Edelman), the film shows artists' personal experience being processed into the language of cinema. Sweet Rush brought Wajda the Alfred Bauer Prize at the Berlin festival which he dedicated to Krystyna Janda, and the whole film to Edward Kłosiński.
A culmination of Wajda's trilogy: Man of Marble and Man of Iron and Poland’s most anticiapted film in 2013, Wajda’s Wałęsa. Man of Hope captures the personal evolution of the legendary labour champion Lech Wałęsa. From electrician to charismatic leader, co-founder of Solidarity, Poland's first democratically elected president in the post-communist era and Nobel Peace Prize laureate, the film portrays the strengths and weaknesses of the Solidarity leader. The script for Wałęsa was written by part-time New Yorker Janusz Głowacki, providing rich context for Polish idiosyncrasies and intricacies that will attract particular appreciation among international audiences. In an interview for culture.pl, the scritpwriter explains his interest in writing the script,
For me Wałęsa's greatness began when he was detained, in the moment when he was alone and the authorities tried to threaten and blackmail him, there were elements of grotesque in all of this, constant despair, fear and pathos that were sometimes almost ridiculous. And that is something that really attracts me in art.
Andrzej Wajda’s efforts to represent the changes undergone by Wałesa - from shipyard labourer to trade-union activist, charismatic leader, co-founder of Solidarity and Nobel prize-winner, are intertwined with actual footage from the past. Opening with a scene from December 1970, the film finishes with Lech Wałęsa’s speech in the American Congress in November 1989. The film had its world premiere at the 70th Venice International Film Festival and screened at the Toronto International Film Festival days later.
Wajda's debut in the theatre took place in 1959 with the staging of Kapelusz pełen deszczu / A Hat Full of Rain by Michael Vincente Gazzo at the Gdynia Drama Theatre. In 1963 Wajda began directing at the Kraków's Stary Teatr, an aliance that started with Stanisław Wyspiański's Wesele / The Wedding and was to continue for many years to come. The 1960s also saw Wajda direct at Warsaw's Ateneum Theatre and at a number of theatres abroad.
In 1971 Wajda staged Biesy / The Possessed, a play by Fyodor Dostoyevsky. Starring Jan Nowicki and Wojciech Pszoniak, it was "a great performance with a pulsating, dynamic, somewhat hysterical tempo", wrote Joanna Godlewska in Najnowsza historia teatru polskiego, Wrocław 1999. Next followed the 1974 staging of Stanisław Wyspiański's Noc listopadowa / November Night.
Wajda had employed ascetic film-making means to show the tragedy of Maciek Chełmicki's generation and used a wealth of theatrical resources, as well as a musical score that verged on the operatic to present the tragedy of Maciek's peers in 1831. Yet the tragedy was the same.
- Maciej Karpiński in Andrzej Wajda - teatr, Warszawa, 1980
Another major stage production directed by Wajda was that of The Danton Case after a play by Stanisława Przybyszewska. This 1976 performance at the Warsaw's Powszechny Theatre was scant in theatrical effects; instead, the attention of the audience seated on two sides of the acting space was focused on the protagonists, played by Wojciech Pszoniak and Bronisław Pawlik. Indeed, the audience took part, playing the parts of the deputies to the Convention and members of the Tribunal.
As in his films, Wajda not afraid to enter the very core of political conflicts in the theatre , as evidenced by Sophocles' Antigone, which he staged at Kraków's Stary Theatre in 1984 in the midst of the realities of the martial law. Likewise, he was not afraid of experimenting and cast Teresa Budzisz-Krzyżanowska as Hamlet in the 1989 performance at the Stary Theatre, and Tamasaburo Bando, the Japanese Kabuki star playing female roles, as the leading protagonist in the staging of Nastassya at Tokyo's Benisan Theatre the same year.
Other theatre plays directed by Wajda in the 1980s and 1990s included: August Strindberg's Panna Julia / Miss Julia (1988, Powszechny Theatre in Warsaw); Szymon An-ski's Dybbuk (1988, Stary Theatre in Kraków); Mishima Yuko's Mishima (1994, Stary Theatre in Kraków); Tadeusz Różewicz's Improwizacja wrocławska / Wrocław Improvisation (1996, Teatr Polski in Wrocław); and Stanisław Wyspiański's Klątwa / The Curse (1997, Stary Teatr in Kraków).
Wajda adapted some of his theatre productions for television, including The November Night in 1978 and As Years Go by, as Days Go by... was made into a TV series in 1980. In 1977 Wajda adapted Tadeusz Kantor's famous performance of Umarła klasa / Dead Class by Teatr Cricot 2 to the screen. More recently, he televised Juliusz Kaden-Bandrowski's Bigda idzie! / Bigda is coming! in 1999, based on a historic text from the inter-war period, which still managed to carry sentiments about contemporary Poland.
Forty years since it irreversibly altered the Polish theatre scene, Wajda's adaptation of Dostoyevsky's The Possessed resurfaced on the small screen. The Possessed Years Later is a documentary film recalling the theatrical performance and the drama and joy surrounding its staging.
Short films and TV productions:
Author: Monika Mokrzycka-Pokora, August 2003. Updated by Marta Jazowska April 2013.