Andrzej Wajda’s 1954 film A Generation is based on Bohdan Czeszka’s novel of the same name. It was Wajda’s feature film debut and is recognised as a precursor of the Polish Film School.
Bohdan Czeszka’s 1951 novel titled A Generation is a record of the author’s experience of the occupation, strongly associated with the socialist realism movement in literature. The book, awarded by the communist regime in Poland, was initially going to be adapted by Aleksander Ford. Eventually, he entrusted the film to his assistant Andrzej Wajda – perhaps because the screenplay written by Czeszka himself was coldly received by the verifying commission.
The change of director had great consequences for the history of Polish cinema. Wajda assembled a team of talented young artists and created a realistic, dramatic, and artistically excellent work which significantly surpasses the literary original. A Generation and films like Jerzy Kawalerowicz’s Cellulose (1953) are often considered to be the first films of the Polish Film School, which cut ties with socialist realism and completely changed the face of Polish cinema.
A Generation, 1954, dir. Andrzej Wajda, in the photograph: Tadeusz Janczar, Roman Polański, Tadeusz Łomnicki, Ryszard Kotys, Juliusz Roland, photo: Ryszard Golc/Kadr Film Studio/Filmoteka Narodowa, fototeka.fn.org.pl
The film portrays the process of Stach’s initiation into the war. Stach, played by Tadeusz Łomnicki, starts as a hoodlum stealing charcoal from German transports but grows into a conscious combatant. When a friend dies during one of his excesses, he becomes an apprentice in a carpenter’s workshop. There, the man not only learns the trade but also gains some knowledge of politics. This is thanks to Sekuła (Janusz Paluszkiewicz) – a woodworker who explains to Stach that workers are being exploited and the war offers a chance to fight for a new Poland. Under the influence of his mentor and a young female activist, Dorota (Urszula Modrzyńska), Stach joins Gwardia Ludowa – the People’s Guard. He becomes active in politics and, together with friends from the workshop, Jaś Krona (Tadeusz Janczar), Jacek (Ryszard Kotys), and Mundek (Roman Polański), organises an operation against the Germans. Due to his experience in the war, Stach becomes ideologically-formed, mature, and aware of the tragic side of reality.
A Generation, realised before the October 1956 thaw, is Wajda’s only film in which some influence of socialist realism is visible. In one scene, Sekuła explains to Stach the philosophy of a ‘wise, bearded man’ – who is, of course, Karl Marx – about social inequality and capitalist exploitation. In the film, members of the People’s Guard are portrayed in a clearly positive manner, as opposed to characters connected to the Home Army, who mock the Jewish Ghetto uprising and are unlikeable and hostile towards ‘the Polish People’. Even though it is easy to pinpoint propagandist elements and historical half-truths in Wajda’s work, calling A Generation a socialist realism film would be a deep misunderstanding. One only has to compare the director’s debut with typical Polish films from the early 1950s to recognise what makes this adaptation of Bohdan Cheszka’s novel different.
The uniqueness of A Generation is shown at the very beginning, when Wajda and cameraman Jerzy Lipman show a panorama of Warsaw’s suburban slums in Budy (currently part of the Wola district) in a single long shot. Inspired by Italian neo-realism, the creators made sure that the story is believable – we can see workshops bustling with work, dive bars, and dirty streets. The characters are not statuesque social realist characters but ordinary people from the lower classes. This drew criticism from the authorities who did not like the image of members of the People’s Guard as ‘lumpenproletariat’. The dialogue is also very realistic and full of colloquialisms and slang. However, A Generation’s most important feature is that it shows the tragedies of war. Critics have rightly named Jaś Krone as the film’s most interesting character – a man in doubt as to whether or not he should engage himself in the conspiratorial fight. Krone, who pays the highest price for his choices, is the first of Wajda’s archetypical characters in cinema – a multi-dimensional one who is tragically torn between duty and a desire for peace.
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In Generation, we can find many other elements characteristic of the future director of Ashes and Diamonds. A character who undergoes an initiation and gains a bitter awareness appears in almost all of Wajda’s films, from Kanał to Miss Nobody.
The debut film also shows Wajda’s mastery of form and his taste for suggestive imagery. The poetry of Generation is created through dark, low-key cinematography, expressive camera viewpoints and symbolic compositions (for example, Jaś, who helplessly watches his Jewish friend walking into the distance from behind prison bars). The scene in which one of the main characters is backed into a corner by incoming Germans and jumps down the stairs is a true masterpiece – the spiral shape of the stairs brilliantly corresponds with the battle in which the man found himself.
A Generation, Poland 1954. Director: Andrzej Wajda. Screenplay: Bohdan Czeszko. Cinematography: Jerzy Lipman. Scenography: Roman Mann. Music: Andrzej Markowski. Starring: Tadeusz Łomnicki (Stach), Urszula Modrzyńska (Dorota), Tadeusz Janczar (Jasio Krone), Janusz Paluszkiewicz (Sekuła), Ryszard Kotys (Jacek), Roman Polański (Mundek), Zbigniew Cybulski (Kostek), Zygmunt Zintel (Majster Ziarno), and others. Production: Wytwórnia Filmów Fabularnych (Wrocław), Black and white, 83 minutes.
Originally written in Polish by Robert Birkholc, October 2018, translated to Polish by PG, June 2019.