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Tuesday , November 29 2022

Polish filmmaker Wajda dies – A great man, a great Pole: Walesa

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This file photo taken on Sept 5, 2013, shows Polish director Andrzej Wajda receiving the 2013 Premio Persol award of the Venice Film Festival, which intends to celebrate a legend of international cinema, before the screening of ‘Walesa — Man of Hope’ presented out of competition at the 70th Venice Film Festival at Venice Lido. (AFP)
This file photo taken on Sept 5, 2013, shows Polish director Andrzej Wajda receiving the 2013 Premio Persol award of the Venice Film Festival, which intends to celebrate a legend of international cinema, before the screening of ‘Walesa — Man of Hope’ presented out of competition at the 70th Venice Film Festival at Venice Lido. (AFP)

WARSAW, Oct 10, (Agencies): Polish freedom icon Lech Walesa Monday hailed legendary film director Andrzej Wajda as “a great man, a great Pole” after he died aged 90, leaving behind a series of acclaimed movies inspired by his country’s turbulent history.

Wajda’s first films were marked by the painful experience of World War II and the Polish resistance against the Nazis, who occupied the country for almost six years.

“A great man, a great Pole, a great patriot has passed,” Nobel Peace Prize laureate Walesa told AFP Monday, hailing his “great wisdom”.

Then leader of Poland’s anti-communist Solidarity trade union, Walesa appeared in Wajda’s anti-regime film “Czlowiek z Zelaza” (“Man of Iron”), which in 1981 won the Palme d’Or, the top prize at the Cannes Film Festival.

“We’ve all been shaped by Wajda. We saw Poland and ourselves through him,” tweeted EU President Donald Tusk, a former Polish prime minister and Solidarity dissident.

“We understood ourselves better. Now it will be more difficult.”

Wajda’s death on Sunday was confirmed to AFP by a family friend, who said Wajda had died in a Warsaw hospital of lung failure after being being in a medically-induced coma for days.

Born on March 6, 1926 in Suwalki, northeast Poland, Wajda tried to follow in his father’s footsteps and become a soldier, but was rejected from a military academy in 1939. He later attended Poland’s renowned Lodz film school.


His first feature-length film, “Pokolenie” (“A Generation”, 1955), a coming-of-age story of young Poles in Nazi-occupied Warsaw, is considered the debut of a “Polish school of cinema” which delves into heroism and romanticism.

In 1957, Wajda won the Jury Special Prize at the Cannes Film Festival for “Kanal” (“Canal”), his masterpiece on the doomed 1944 Warsaw Uprising by Polish partisans against the Nazis.

“That was the beginning of everything,” Wajda told AFP during a 2007 interview.

At the 1977 Cannes festival, he screened “Czlowiek z marmuru” (“Man of Marble”), a film critical of communist Poland.

It was followed three years later by “Man of Iron”, focused on the rise of Poland’s anti-communist Solidarity trade union.

That won the 1981 Cannes Palme d’Or, even as Poland’s then-communist regime cracked down on Solidarity and imposed martial law.

“The day of the Palme was a very important day in my life, of course. But I was aware that this prize wasn’t just for me. It was also a prize for the Solidarity union,” Wajda previously told AFP.

The Palme d’Or saved Wajda from internment by the communist regime during its December 1981 martial law crackdown, an episode which saw many of Wajda’s friends and acquaintances imprisoned — including Solidarity leader Walesa.

Wajda’s opposition to the regime drove him to make films abroad, including “Danton” (1983) in France, starring Gerard Depardieu. “Eine Liebe in Deutschland” (“A Love in Germany”, 1986) followed in Germany.

Wajda’s rendering of Russian writers Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s “The Possessed” (1998) was also filmed in France.


After the collapse of communism in Poland in 1989, Wajda returned to his country’s wartime history, focusing on stories suppressed by the communists. “Korczak” (1990) details the fate of Janusz Korczak, a pre-war Polish-Jewish children’s author and physician who died in the Holocaust.

Another film, “Katyn”, nominated for an Oscar in 2008, tells the tragic story of Wajda’s own father during World War II.

Jakub Wajda was one of 22,500 Polish officers massacred by the Soviets in 1940 in the Katyn forest. A captain of an infantry regiment, he was shot in the back of the head by the Soviets’ dreaded NKVD secret police.

Wajda continued working into his latter years, premiering his most recent film, “Powidoki” (Afterimage), in September at the Toronto Film Festival.

Set in Stalinist-era Poland, it focuses on the struggles of avant-garde artist Wladyslaw Strzeminski and will be Warsaw’s Oscar entry for best foreign film this year.


Though physically frail, Wajda worked until the end of his life. Using a walking aid, he appeared at last month’s Film Festival in Gdynia, for the premiere of his latest film “Afterimage,” based on the life of Polish avant-garde artist Wladyslaw Strzeminski who was persecuted for refusing to follow the communist party line during the Stalinist era,

Poland’s Oscar Commission, which selected the as Poland’s official entry for an Oscar in the best foreign language film category, called the film “a touching universal story about the destruction of an individual by a totalitarian system.”

Wajda told the Polish news agency PAP that he wanted to “warn against the state intervention into art.” The film was seen as yet another veiled political statement from the director, coming at a time when Poland’s current conservative government has been accused of interfering with the arts and media.

Wajda received an honorary Oscar for lifetime achievement in 2000. He was cited as “a man whose films have given audiences around the world an artist’s view of history, democracy and freedom, and who in so doing has himself become a symbol of courage and hope for millions of people in postwar Europe.”

The director trod on ground controlled by communist-era censors with “Man of Marble” (1977), which looked at the roots of worker discontent in communist Poland in the 1950s; and “Man of Iron” (1981) on the rise of the Solidarity labor union movement, which eventually led to the demise of communism in Poland. That movie featured Solidarity leader Lech Walesa, who later became Poland’s president. It won the Cannes Film Festival’s top Palme d’Or prize in 1981 and was one of four Wajda movies to be nominated for the best foreign-language Oscar, although Poland’s communist leaders unsuccessfully tried to withdraw it from Oscar consideration.

Under martial law in Poland in the early 1980s, “Man of Iron” was banned and shown only at private and church screenings.

Wajda once said that “my Polish films were always images of a fate in which I myself had also participated.”

“We have lost someone who was larger than life,” actor and theater director Jan Englert told TVN24. “He was not only a great artist, but at the same a true authority.”

Actor Daniel Olbrychski, who played in 13 of Wajda’s movies, including “The Promised Land” and “The Maids of Wilko,” said he had never met another director who knew so well how to work with actors.

“We could feel the love of our audience through him. But when he frowned just a little, I knew I had to try and do it better,” Olbrychski told TVN24.

Wajda made more than 40 films in all. Also nominated for Academy Awards were “The Promised Land” (1975) — a tale of ideals lost in the rush to get rich — and “The Maids of Wilko” (1979) about the demise of love, as well as “Katyn” in 2007.

Wajda said “Katyn,” in which he turned his spotlight on the 1940 massacre in the Katyn forest and elsewhere of some 22,000 Polish officers by the Soviet secret police, was his most personal movie. The director’s father, Lt. Jakub Wajda, was among the victims.

Wajda also noted that he could never have tackled that painful moment in Polish history before the collapse of communist rule in 1989, given that Moscow refused to acknowledge Soviet responsibility and the topic was taboo.

“I never thought I would live to see the moment when Poland would be a free country,” Wajda said in a 2007 interview with The Associated Press. “I thought I would die in that system. It was so surprising and so extraordinary that I lived to see freedom.”

Wajda was born March 6, 1926, in the northeastern Polish town of Suwalki.

In 1946, he joined the Fine Arts Academy in Krakow, but quit after three years and moved to the newly opened film school in Lodz — which also trained directors Roman Polanski and the late Krzysztof Kieslowski. Wajda also worked in Germany and France.

His 1955 debut “Generation”; the 1957 “Kanal,” a winner in Cannes; and “Ashes and Diamonds” the following year, drew on his generation’s experience of surviving the brutal Nazi occupation during World War II and then falling under Soviet domination.

Wajda never joined the communist party, but his standing abroad protected him from repression. “All my life I was determined to have a kind of independence,” he said.

As the conflict between the democratic opposition and the communist regime intensified toward the end of the 1970s, the director wrote in defense of dissidents and later in support of Solidarity. In the 1980s, he signed petitions urging free elections and talks between the communist authorities and Solidarity.

In Poland’s first free elections in 1989, Wajda was elected to the Senate and served for two years.

His film career, however, went into a lull in the early 1990s as he was seeking the right perspective to reflect the radical changes in Poland after the fall of communism, while Hollywood imports became popular and state subsidies dried up.

Two films looking at the World War II past — “Korczak” (1990), about a Polish Jewish teacher who tried to protect Jewish orphans in the Warsaw Ghetto and died in the Nazi gas chambers, and “Holy Week” about Polish attitudes toward the 1943 Warsaw Ghetto uprising — received relatively little attention.

Wajda considered quitting, but came back in 1998 with the hit “Pan Tadeusz,” based on a 19th-century Polish epic poem of love and intrigue among the nobility. Nine years later, “Katyn” was a national catharsis, breaking silence over a tragedy that affected thousands of families in Poland.

National history remained his theme and his 2013 biopic, “Walesa: Man of Hope,” depicted the life of the Nobel Peace Prize winner who founded the free trade union that was pivotal in ending communist rule in Poland.

Wajda also received lifetime achievement awards from the film festivals in Venice in 1998 and Berlin in 2006.

As well as directing movies, he also worked as a theater director, saying that he was deeply drawn to the “transitory and ephemeral character of the theater.”

Wajda is survived by his fourth wife, actress and stage designer Krystyna Zachwatowicz, and his daughter, Karolina.