Like John Ford and Roberto Rossellini, Andrzej Wajda was anointed from his arrival on the world stage as the official film-maker of his country; the artist whose works best interpreted the dynamic changes of his nation’s history. Born in 1926 to an army officer and a school teacher, Wajda’s family was progressive in matters of culture and education. As it would for many young men of his generation, Wajda’s life was permanently altered by the Nazi Invasion of Poland in 1939; the event which marked the official start of the Second World War. Wajda went into hiding with his mother while his father was drafted into active duty. It was only in 1989 that Wajda received confirmation that his father was murdered in the Katyn Forest Massacre; an event which informed his 2007 film Katyn.
After the war, Wajda studied painting at the Kraków School of Fine Arts. However, Wajda became restless with his chosen medium and became inspired by reports of the formation of the National Film School at Lódz. Studying alongside him was the likes of Jerzy Skolimowski, Roman Polanski and Andrzej Munk. This generation of film school educated students would permanently transform Polish cinema in the coming years. Wajda’s first films, A Generation (which featured Roman Polanski in a supporting role) and Kanal documented the Polish resistance to Nazism. These films created a sensation as they were among the first Polish films to detail their war trauma. They also earned a measure of international success with Kanal winning the Silver Bear at the Berlin Film Festival.
Ashes and Diamonds concluded this early trilogy, yet it differed significantly from its previous entries. Although a chronicle of the Resistance during the final days of the war, the film evinced a contemporary focus through the casting of Zbigniew Cybulski. Cybulski, who would become one of Poland’s major stars, evoked the teenage angst of the late-50s such as that of James Dean in Rebel Without A Cause. The film appealed directly to the post-war generation rather than the generation that had experienced the war; the tragic destiny of the character appealed to the frustration people experienced during Communist rule. The film remains his most well-known and influential work; winning an award at the Venice Film Festival. Simultaneously, Wajda made his mark on the Polish stage, his productions of Hamlet, A Hatful of Rain and works by Witold Gombrowicz and other dramatists. His films continued to depict the Polish experience of the Second World War. Lotna documented the Nazi invasion of Poland in 1939. Samson was his first exploration of the Holocaust, focusing on a Jewish man’s struggle to survive during the creation of the Warsaw ghetto.
Innocent Sorcerers, made in 1961, featured Roman Polanski, Jerzy Skolimowksi and composer Krzysztof Komeda in its cast, a portrait of contemporary youth which channeled the spirit of the French New Wave. The Ashes was an epic production that documented the class inequities of 19th Century Poland during the Napoleonic wars. His most fertile period was the 70s. The Promised Land portrayed 19th Century Poland with great attention to detail, receiving Wajda’s first of four nominations for Best Foreign Film at the Academy Awards.
Man of Marble was an ambitious and controversial depiction of the Soviet hegemony of Poland by portraying the political use made by Stalinist bureaucrats of a worker who had been murdered by the Communist army during a protest. Praised by Jean-Luc Godard, the film won awards at the Cannes Film Festival. It also marked his first collaboration with actors Jerzy Radziwilowicz and Krystyna Janda. Both would return in the loose sequel Man of Iron, which received the Palme d’Or at the 1981 Cannes Film Festival. Man of Iron is the most directly political of Wajda’s films, reflecting his commitment to the Solidarity Movement. The 80s also included international productions such as The Orchestra Conductor (starring John Gielgud) and Danton. Since the fall of the USSR, Wajda has admitted a difficulty to re-connect with the democratic Poland’s audience. Of his most recent films, Pan Tadeusz, his 1999 adaptation of an epic poem by Adam Mickiewicz, was one of the greatest box-office hits in Poland, selling six million tickets. He received an Oscar for lifetime achievement in 2000 and remains an active film-maker as of the present moment.