Andrzej Wajda, the director who brought Polish film to global attention in the 1950s, has died. A seminal figure in the cinema of the former Eastern Bloc, Wajda tackled his country’s past, present, and social turmoil in a career the spanned almost the entire history of modern Polish film, from its years of post-World War II recovery up until the present day; his final film, Afterimage, premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival exactly a month ago. He was 90.
Wajda was born in Suwałki, near the Lithuanian border, the son of a military officer. In 1940, when he was 14, his father was executed along with 22,000 other Polish prisoners-of-war and civilians in the Katyn massacre, a mass killing carried out by Soviet authorities under orders of Joseph Stalin, for which the USSR would deny responsibility for the next 50 years. Wajda would dramatize this event in 2007’s Katyń, which earned him his final Oscar nomination.
At the age of 16, Wajda joined Poland’s chief World War II resistance movement, the Home Army, as a courier and messenger. After the war, he enrolled in the Kraków Academy Of Fine Arts to study painting, and later moved on to the Łódź Film School, where he fell under the influence of Aleksander Ford, a director who remains little-known abroad but who was the most important personality in that period of Polish film.
Ford, who almost singlehandedly rebuilt the Polish film industry in the aftermath of World War II, was interested in defining the scope of a national cinema—a goal that would be taken up by his student with much greater success. A dyed-in-the-wool Stalinist who used his Communist Party connections to maintain his position, Ford would be purged out of the Polish film industry in the ’60s.
In 1955, Wajda made his feature directing debut with A Generation, a project that had originally been developed for Ford. Set in working-class Warsaw in the days of the anti-Nazi resistance, the film introduced the generational and national concerns that would define Wajda’s career, but it also exhibited an exceptional visual fluency. Wajda’s suspenseful use of architectural spaces (dark alleys, empty streets, and, most famously, a tall spiral staircase) remains remarkable for a debut feature, and the tense geometry of his chase scenes could teach most modern thrillers a thing or two about form.
The film became the first part of a trilogy (later dubbed the Three War Films) that explored alienation and disaffection against of backdrop of World War II. It was followed by Kanal (1957) and Ashes And Diamonds (1958), allegorical and impeccably crafted wartime thrillers that catapulted Wajda into international recognition. The latter, which made a star out of lead actor Zbigniew Cybulski, remains one of Wajda’s most celebrated films in the West and an iconic piece of Polish cinema.
Ironically, it was also the first of his films to showcase a fascination and growing familiarity with Hollywood, taking inspiration from James Dean movies, film noir, and Citizen Kane, which would become an important reference point later on. After the oft-overlooked Lotna (1959)—his first film in color (with evocative use of tinted black-and-white), about the mythic charge of Polish cavalry against tanks during the German invasion of Poland—Wajda released Innocent Sorcerers (1960), his greatest “non-political” film.
The first of his movies to have a contemporary setting, this portrait of a young doctor moonlighting as a jazz musician shared many of its concerns with the then-nascent French New Wave, and was made with the help of the next generation of Polish talent, including a script co-written by a 22-year-old Jerzy Skolimowski and a score by Polish jazz great Krzysztof Komeda, best known for his scores for Roman Polanski. (Polanski, another protégé of Wajda, appears in the film, having previously acted in A Generation.)
Having himself apprenticed under Ford, Wajda supported and collaborated with up-and-coming filmmakers throughout his career (including Agnieszka Holland and the late Andrzej Żuławski, both of whom started as assistant directors to Wajda), and sometimes produced their films through Zespół Filmowy “X,” the production company he founded in 1972.
Helped by widespread international acclaim, Wajda was unusually prolific in a part of the world where directors who weren’t in line with the status quo often struggled for years to get projects off the ground. The Ashes (1965), a nearly 4-hour epic set during the Napoleonic Wars, inaugurated a period of sweeping historical films and literary adaptations, marked by the kind of expressionist flourishes that endeared Wajda to such American fans as Martin Scorsese and Francis Ford Coppola. These included Landscape After Battle (1970), about concentration camp survivors; Pilate And Others (1972), an adaptation of the biblical sections of Mikhail Bulgakov’s novel Master And Margarita, made in West Germany; and The Promised Land (1975), an operatic three-hour drama centered on a 19th century factory.
It was in the 1970s, his most productive period, that Wajda made what is arguably his masterpiece: Man Of Marble (1977). An inventive and wide-ranging deconstruction of Communist mythmaking that riffs on Wajda’s beloved Citizen Kane (along with many other films), the film follows a chain-smoking young documentary filmmaker (Krystyna Janda) as she investigates the fate of a forgotten 1950s propaganda hero (Jerzy Radziwilowicz, in a star-making performance), initially seen only in faked newsreels and later in flashback.
Wajda would eventually follow up Man Of Marble in an inferior and more topical sequel, Man Of Iron (1981), focused on his country’s Solidarity movement, which would win him the Palme D’Or at the Cannes Film Festival.
Wajda worked abroad extensively in the tumultuous 1980s and early 1990s, mostly in Germany and France, where he directed the Dostoevsky adaptation The Possessed (1988) and Danton (1983). The latter, a drama about the French revolutionary that starred Gerard Depardieu in the title role, remains his most famous work from the period, and was one of several made in collaboration with the French screenwriter Jean-Claude Carrière, best known for his work with Luis Buñuel.
His return to Polish cinema was capped off by Pan Tadeusz (1999), an extravagant adaptation of Poland’s national epic that became an unprecedented box office success at home, but was little seen abroad. Wajda, whose career in the days of the Iron Curtain was in part sustained by foreign acclaim, would spend the final two decades of his life as an almost exclusively Polish phenomenon, with few of his later films screening in the United States outside of film festivals.
Over the course of his career, Wajda received almost every award imaginable, including an honorary Oscar in 2000. Four of his films were nominated for Academy Awards: The Promised Land, The Maids Of Wilko (1979), Man Of Iron, and Katyn.