Cinema’s relationship with politics has always been fraught with complexity. Most (in)famously perhaps, in the 1930s, the medium’s truth-telling ability was effectively and innovatively manipulated by Leni Riefenstahl, Hitler’s unofficial filmmaker. In a series of controversial propaganda documentaries on the 1934 Nuremberg Rally and the 1936 Berlin Olympics, Riefenstahl promoted ideas of racial superiority. But cinema has also been used to faithfully represent historical events and more importantly as a powerful voice of dispute against oppressive official forces. Polish filmmaker Andrzej Wajda’s prolific filmic career stands as the greatest example of this cinema of protest.
The idea of a director committed to presenting his nation’s troubled history, no matter how ugly and brutal, has always been central to any examination of Wajda’s cinema. In a career spanning nearly 60 years and marked by a frequent defiance of censorship, Wajda repeatedly returned to the subject of Poland’s past. But rather than presenting an epic vision, it is the individual’s struggle with the weight of history that has been one of his key preoccupations. A Generation (1955), the Polish filmmaker’s first feature, was an important film that broke away drastically from the dominant propagandist cinema of socialist realism sanctioned by the communist state. The film initiated the movement known as the ‘Polish Film School’, which came to include other influential filmmakers like Andrzej Munk and Kazimierz Kutz. Eventually, this film about young people who join the underground resistance movement, along with Kanal (1957) and Ashes and Diamonds (1958), formed Wajda’s celebrated ‘war trilogy’. The three films explored the effects of war, the disaffection and disillusionment among the youth, ideas of heroism and exile, and the sense of a collective fate.
Apart from his relentless engagement with the past, an important feature of Wajda’s work has been his penchant for the adaptation of narratives from different literary sources. It’s a fact that points to his own understanding of his form and his belief in cinema’s ability to translate other artistic experiences. Films like Landscape After Battle (1970), The Promised Land (1975) and even his popular television series As the Years Pass, As the Days Pass… (1980) were all acclaimed adaptations of important literary works.
Wajda gained international recognition in the late ’70s and early ’80s with two films, Man of Marble (1977) and Man of Iron (1981), which centred round the lives of a worker-hero and his son. Heavily critical of the communist state, these films also traced the rise of the Solidarity movement. The problems of Polish-Jewish relations and the Holocaust experience have also featured in his cinema. The issue of Polish complicity in the genocide has been an immensely problematic one in Poland’s history. Moreover, for years, artistes have struggled with the ethical complexities involved in representing the enormity of the Holocaust and have even questioned if it is possible at all to do so. In Korczak (1990), based on the last days of the eponymous Warsaw-born Jewish teacher, physician and author, Wajda confronts this most thorny and disturbing of subjects. Katyn (2007), an angry and hard-hitting film about the 1940 Katyn forest massacre of thousands of Polish prisoners of war by the Soviets, was also the product of a deeply felt personal tragedy; his own father had been one of its victims.
Wajda’s final film, about abstract artist Wladyslaw Strzeminski who fought repressive Stalinist forces for the desperate preservation of his own artistic practices, beliefs and freedom, seems to curiously parallel the filmmaker’s own creative journey. Afterimage (2016) — Poland’s official entry to the 89th Academy Awards and the opening film at the 47th International Film Festival in Goa this month — in a way sums up a rather formidable filmmaking career, which itself is the result of a fervent and lifelong defiance of censorship in art.
The Polanski connection
The Pianist (2002), the harrowing story of a Jewish-Polish musician’s persecution during World War II, may well be controversial director Roman Polanski’s most acclaimed film on war, but it certainly was not his first. It is a lesser-known fact that Polanski began his career in films as an actor in Wajda’s A Generation and went on to feature in his other films like Lotna (1959), Innocent Sorcerers (1960) and Samson (1961). Influenced by and learning from Wajda in his early years as a filmmaker, Polanski, while still in Poland, directed a couple of shorts. Of these, the poignant When Angels Fall (1959) deserves special mention. The weight of history, the power of personal and collective memory, the effect of popular mythology are all explored in this evocative film about a day in the life of an old woman who works as an attendant at a public men’s room, and whose wrinkled face and hollow eyes are a testament to the ravages of her past.
The author is a freelance writer