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Andrzej Wajda: 1926-2016

In his late masterpiece, the tragically underseen “Tatarak” (2009), Polish master Andrzej Wajda revealed the stylistic adventurousness and verve of a much younger artist with an intoxicating and bracing mixture of ardor and memory. Meanwhile, a great actress (Krystyna Janda) mourned the loss of her husband while preparing for her next film role as a small-town woman jolted out of her malaise by a handsome young stranger.

The film beautifully wove together art, autobiography and moviemaking—a work haunted and shadowed by the specter of death. "Tatarak" was dedicated to Janda’s husband, the great Polish cinematographer Edward Klosinski who did extraordinary work for Krzysztof Kieslowski (“Three Colors: White”), Agnieszka Holland (“Europa”) and Wajda (“Man of Iron”). Klosinski died from complications of cancer during the production. 

“Tatarak” was a ravishing and lucid work that crystallized the director’s great gifts, his sensitive and exquisite handling of actors, his use of space and time and his capacity for possibility, grace and wonder. His great theme was charting the intersection of history and personal fate. 

He retained those gifts until the end of his remarkable life.

The death of Andrzej Wajda, at the age of 90, confirmed on Sunday, is another significant loss for world cinema. 

His final film, “Afterimage,” a portrait of the avant-garde artist Wladyslaw Strzeminski, premiered at Venice last month. 

He was awarded an honorary Academy Award for his tremendous body of work and earned the most important prize in international cinema when “Man of Iron,” captured the Palme d’Or for best film at the 1981 Cannes Film festival. Wajda also made important films in French and German.

“Tatarak” premiered at the Berlin Film festival. The last time I saw Wajda was two years earlier at Berlin at the press conference for his masterly and deeply personal “Katyn.” 

He was engaging and deeply impressive talking about the film and his achievement at finally getting it made. His father, a decorated Polish officer, was among the thousands of soldiers, intellectuals and professionals who was killed by Stalin’s secret police in the Katyn forest in 1940. He spoke with anguish about the emotionally severe consequence on his mother, who never recovered.

Andrzej Wajda was born, on March 6, 1926, in Suwalki, Poland. Like many Poles of his generation, World War II was the pivotal experience of his life and it profoundly shaped his subsequent art. He was 13 years old when Hitler’s armies invaded Poland in September 1939. 

During the occupation, he worked in the Polish underground in the A.K., or home army, directed by the Polish government in exile in London. 

He studied at Krakow’s Fine Arts Academy and the celebrated Lodz school of cinematography. He made several shorts and apprenticed under the director Aleksander Ford. 

He made his international reputation with his trilogy of films about life, survival and the coming of maturity during the war: “A Generation,” “Kanal” and “Ashes and Diamonds.”

Made in 1958, “Ashes and Diamonds” became the most celebrated artistically (and the one that holds up the best today). The film significantly introduced to the West in the lead role of the resistance fighter the magnetic and soulful Zbigniew Cybulski, called the Polish James Dean. His ferocious individuality and the psychological connection between performer and director gave the film a jolting, off-balance intensity. (Cybulski died tragically in 1967.)

Wajda directed his first theater production, “A Hatful of Rain,” in Gdansk, in 1959. His emergence caught the attention of producers in France and West Germany. He contributed the short, “Warsaw,” to the French New Wave anthology, “Love at 20,” and the harsh and often spellbindingly eerie Shakespeare adaptation, “Siberian Lady Macbeth,” in Belgrade.

His greatest film, “Man of Marble,” made in 1976, is his most provocative and audacious, a work that freely and openly draws on the form and structure of “Citizen Kane,” as a young filmmaking student (an extraordinary turn by Janda in her first significant role) reconstructs the life of the noble bricklayer (played by the great Jerzy Radziwilowicz) now disappeared. 

Her investigation becomes a damning and ferocious inquiry of post-war Polish identity as she attempts to elucidate the cultural, political and social significance of his meaning, consecrated by the Stalinist social realist marble status drawn in his image. His use of archival and Soviet propaganda is both electric and disquieting. 

The follow-up, “Man of Iron,” explored the rise of the solidarity movement. Revered abroad, Wajda was increasingly constrained by the totalitarian communist regime at home. 

The imposition of martial law in December 1981 yielded another fascinating turn in his career, with the French production “Danton,” showcasing a marvelously textured and idiosyncratic title performance by Gerard Depardieu as the revolutionary French leader. 

“A Love in Germany,” made the same year in 1983, featured two of the lead figures of the New German Cinema and R.W. Fassbinder’s company, Hanna Schygulla and Armin Mueller-Stahl. It was another work that meditated on history and memory, a deft and often touching work that moves the present and the past.

The Polish government only deepened its political and artistic persecution of the artist. The government later forcibly dissolved his Studio X film production group and made a condition of his continuing to work in Poland that he terminate his position as the head of a filmmakers’ collective.

The collapse of communism and the Soviet bloc freed him up to make a series of historical works and eccentric biographies, such as “Korczak” (from a remarkable script by Holland) to his most popular work, “Pan Tadeusz.”

Wajda continued his steady pace, alternating between features, documentaries, theater and television that culminated in his resurgence on the international stage with his wrenching and deeply personal “Katyn” and “Tatarak.” 

His penultimate film, “Walesa,” about the leader of the Solidarity trade union, is another of his deft and immersive portraits of lives transfixed by history, incident and character. The lead performance by Robert Wieckiewicz demonstrated his ability to work in nuance, shape and subtlety to the largest of emotions and historic tumult. 

In the cinema of Andrzej Wajda, the personal was deeply political. It was also generous, open, inquisitive and alert to the fullest of human expressions.

Patrick Z. McGavin

Patrick Z. McGavin is a Chicago-based writer and critic. His film writing has appeared in the British magazine Empire, Stop Smiling, Time Out Chicago, Cineaste and LA Weekly. He also maintains the film blog,

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