Recipient of an Oscar for lifetime achievement and the Grand Cross of Polonia Restituta, Wajda was one of the creators of the Polish Film School movement and founder of the legendary Zespół Filmowy X filmmaking team. His “Man of Iron” (1981), winner of the Cannes Golden Palm, is but one of several of his productions nominated to the Oscars for best foreign film, along with “The Promised Land” (1974), “The Maids of Wilko” (1979), and “Katyn” (2007). Wajda was an honorary member of the Directors’ Guild of Poland before his death in 2016.
“I will speak in Polish because I think in Polish” – this line from his Oscar acceptance speech became an oft-repeated anecdote. Still, it conveys a profound truth about one of Poland’s most accomplished directors – maybe even the most accomplished. Andrzej Wajda was rooted in Polishness, wrestling with it and trying to understand it all his life. He became the architect of our imagination
Wajda didn’t talk about cinema in the singular. He would say: “We bore witness; we became the voice of those who died; we communicated with the audiences, creating a universal language of gestures and images.” He always perceived cinema as a social experience – it wouldn’t exist without community.
“I will speak in Polish because I think in Polish” – this line from his Oscar acceptance speech became an oft-repeated anecdote. Still, it conveys a profound truth about one of Poland’s most accomplished directors – maybe even the most accomplished. Andrzej Wajda was rooted in Polishness, wrestling with it and trying to understand it all his life. He became the architect of our imagination.
Andrzej Wajda owed this wise patriotism to his military upbringing. Born in 1926 in Suwałki, at 13 he was faced with the cataclysm of war. His father, a second lieutenant, went off to fight; murdered in Kharkiv, he never returned from Russia. Young Wajda survived the wartime turmoil in Radom and Krakow.
His movies fed on the best literary gems. Wajda collaborated with Jerzy Stefan Stawiński and Jerzy Andrzejewski, some of his best films were based on Jarosław Iwaszkiewicz’s prose.
After the war Wajda was admitted to the Academy of Fine Arts, but art studies turned out to be a disappointment – particularly since these years brought the advent of socialist realism. However, his love of painting came across very clearly in each of his movies. Wajda also organized exhibitions of Wyspiański’s stained glass windows and founded the Manggha Museum of Japanese Art in Krakow.
In 1949 Wajda was admitted to the Lodz Film School. It was then that he decided to speak for those who died. “Because they were bolder, braver, nobler,” he explained. The “Polish film school” movement, jointly developed by Wajda, Munk, Kutz, and a number of other filmmakers, boldly bringing the past to account. “When my mother and I were fleeing from Radom to Puławy during the war, a soldier escorting a cart lifted his five-shot rifle and pulled the trigger,” said Wajda in his documentary series Moje notatki z historii. “I still keep asking myself whether that was funny or tragic. The answer to this question will color your perception of heroism.”
Andrzej Munk showed the funny angle and Wajda the tragic. His many acclaimed films depicted the past with tremendous respect for the sacrifice, but also with nuance. He incisively interpreted our history in search of the key aspects of Polishness. Ashes and Diamonds, Kanal, Korczak, and Lotna are just a few of his attempts to bring the war and post-war period to account. But he also delved deeper into the past – to the Napoleonic period in The Ashes and to the 19th century and dawn of Polish capitalism in The Promised Land.
His movies fed on the best literary gems. Wajda collaborated with Jerzy Stefan Stawiński and Jerzy Andrzejewski, some of his best films were based on Jarosław Iwaszkiewicz’s prose, he brought Stanisław Wyspiański’s drama Wesele to the silver screen. He had an ear for phenomenal metaphors and symbols smuggled right over the censors’ heads in movies that tracked the winding roads of Polish history. Wajda could be lyrical too, though, creating a dreamlike, poetic setting in Innocent Sorcerers, The Birch Wood, or The Maids of Wilko. His film about artists, Everything for Sale, still remains fresh, universal, and modern.
Andrzej Wajda kept his finger on the pulse of current events. He used every period of political thaw to make profound statements. He was capable of creating vibrant, relevant movies about the moral trickery of Communist Poland, like his diptych Man of Marble and Man of Iron. Without the former, the “cinema of moral anxiety” movement might have never begun. His Zespół X filmmaking team became a haven for artists like Agnieszka Holland, Ryszard Bugajski, Jerzy Domaradzki, Janusz Zaorski, Janusz Kijowski. Zespół X created many of the most important films of the 70s and 80s, including A Woman Alone, Interrogation, The Big Race, The Mother of Kings, and Kung-fu.
Wajda also worked abroad – the West reached out to the artist who helped it peek behind the Iron Curtain.
Wajda also worked abroad, making films like Danton or Poncjusz Piłat. No wonder the West reached out to the artist who helped it peek behind the Iron Curtain. His films won scores of awards, including an Oscar, Golden Berlin Bears, Palmes d’Or in Cannes, Golden Lions in Venice, BAFTAs, Césars etc. Wajda also received national medals in numerous countries – France, Japan, Russia, Latvia, Hungary, Estonia, and others – but it was in Poland that he felt at home. He was always present to witness important events. Not just the shipyard protests in Communist Poland, but the political transformation as well: he was elected to the Senate in the first open elections. Wajda participated in creating new media and co-founded the Gazeta Wyborcza newspaper, considering it his duty to the country. Later, however, he returned to his greatest love: filmmaking.
After 1989 Wajda tried to understand the changes occurring in Poland and keep up with the present. He proudly showed off his Alfred Bauer award for the innovativeness of Sweet Rush, quipping: “I guess this makes me a young creator, doesn’t it?” But mostly he kept adding on to his cinematic book of Polishness. He was the only person capable of filming the Polish national poem Pan Tadeusz. Wajda kept filling in the blanks of history, for example in Katyn – a picture both personally significant and internationally acclaimed. He stood up for national symbols: Walesa. Man of Hope portrays the worker whose leap over the shipyard fence contributed to the fall of Communism.
A venerable mentor, Wajda also played a significant role in the film community. He opened the Wajda Master School of Film Directing; together with Marcel Łoziński and Wojciech Marczewski he taught young people to think and talk about cinema in our hectic times.
Afterimage is his farewell. With this film Wajda returned to the guru of his art school years, the painter Władysław Strzemiński. Wajda showed the persecution Strzemiński faced in Stalinist times, spoke about artistic freedom and authoritarian systems that want to control the shape of art and the lives of their citizens. This movie gained greater relevance with the rise to power of right-wing nationalism.
Andrzej Wajda died suddenly, on the go, between meetings and planning his next movie. It came as a shock – yes, he was 90, but he seemed indestructible! After he died, I talked to his young protegees; he’d always loved them. Cinematographer Michał Sobociński, grandson of one of Wajda’s cinematographers, Witold Sobociński, told me: “The news of his death reached me in Krakow, on the set of a film produced by Akson, a company he’d worked with for decades. I went back to look at his photos with my grandpa – I found a making-of doc for Everything For Sale online – and thought that they never really changed. They went a little greyer, but their faces always held the same smiles, grimaces, passion, energy, willingness to work. An indestructible generation and a beautiful, creative life.”
Wajda left us his movies. We’ll also remember the words he always repeated to his students and colleagues: “Make the movies that no one would make for you.” And another piece of advice for difficult times: “Together we’re strong.”
2016 Edward Hopper. Wykład Andrzeja Wajdy (documentary)
2016 Afterimage (feature film)
2015 Wróblewski według Wajdy (documentary)
2015 Zwięzła kronika czasu (documentary)
2013 „Biesy” po latach (documentary)
2013 Walesa: Man of Hope (feature film)
2010 Aktorzy przyjechali (documentary)
2010 Kręć! Jak kochasz, to kręć! (documentary)
2010 Makbet (teleplay)
2009 Sweet Rush (feature film)
2007 Katyń (feature film)
2005 Solidarity, Solidarity (feature film)
2004 Jan Nowak Jeziorański. Kurier z Warszawy. 60 lat później 1944 — 2004 (documentary)
2002 The Lesson of Polish Cinema (documentary)
2002 The Revenge (feature film)
2001 Noc czerwcowa (teleplay)
2000 Wyrok na Franciszka Kłosa (TV feature film)
1999 Bigda idzie! (teleplay)
1999 Kredyt i debet. Andrzej Wajda o sobie (documentary)
1999 Pan Tadeusz: The Last Foray in Lithuania (feature film)
1996 Adamaszkowy bębenek (teleplay)
1996 Andrzej Wajda. Moje notatki z historii (serial dokumentalny)
1996 Improwizacje wrocławskie (teleplay)
1996 Mishima (teleplay)
1996 Miss Nobody (feature film)
1995 Holy Week (feature film)
1994 Nastasya (feature film)
1992 The Ring with a Crowned Eagle (feature film)
1991 Hamlet IV (teleplay)
1991 Silniejsza (teleplay)
1990 Korczak (feature film)
1990 Wieczernik (teleplay)
1988 The French as Seen by… (documentary)
1988 The Possessed (feature film)
1987 Crime and Punishment (teleplay)
1985 Chronicle of Amorous Accidents (feature film)
1983 A Love in Germany (feature film)
1982 Danton (feature film)
1981 Man of Iron (feature film)
1980 As the Days Come and the Days Go (series)
1979 The Conductor (feature film)
1979 The Maids of Wilko (feature film)
1979 Pogoda domu niechaj będzie z Tobą… Jarosław Iwaszkiewicz (documentary)
1978 Rough Treatment (feature film)
1978 Noc listopadowa (teleplay)
1978 Zaproszenie do wnętrza (documentary)
1976 Man of Marble (feature film)
1976 The Shadow Line (feature film)
1976 Dead Class (documentary)
1975 The Promised Land (series)
1974 The Promised Land (feature film)
1972 The Wedding (feature film)
1971 Pilate and Others (TV feature film)
1970 The Birch Wood (feature film)
1970 Landscape After the Battle (feature film)
1969 Makbet (teleplay)
1969 Hunting Flies (feature film)
1968 Layer Cake (TV feature film)
1968 Everything for Sale (feature film)
1967 Gates to Paradise (feature film)
1965 The Ashes (feature film)
1962 Cudza żona i mąż pod łóżkiem (teleplay)
1962 Love at TwentyMiłość dwudziestolatków (feature film)
1962 Siberian Lady Macbeth (feature film)
1962 Wywiad z Ballmeyerem (teleplay)
1961 Samson (feature film)
1960 Innocent Sorcerers (feature film)
1959 Lotna (feature film)
1958 Ashes and Diamonds (feature film)
1956 Kanal (feature film)
1955 I Walk in the Sun (documentary)
1954 A Generation (feature film)
1953 While You’re Asleep (school etude)
1951 Ceramics from Ilza (school etude)
1951 The Bad Boy (school etude)