[My colleague Rob Edelman pays tribute to one of the world’s foremost directors, who died on October 9. Like all of Rob’s pieces, this was first broadcast on public radio station WAMC to a broad-based audience, and serves as both a primer and a summary of one man’s remarkable career.]
[by Rob Edelman] Andrzej Wajda is the best-known and most revered Polish filmmaker of his generation. His films are daring, provocative, and personal. Plus, many are decidedly political in that they focus on individuals who valiantly resist repression or ponder the realities of war and heroism.
Wajda’s most recent film, titled Afterimage, is about Wladyslaw Strzeminski, an avant-garde artist who was active in the early 20th century. Strzeminski is depicted as a champion of individual freedom who clashes with and is victimized by Stalinist conventions. Afterimage, which had its world premiere in September at the Toronto International Film Festival, also is Wajda’s final film. He passed away last month at the age of 90.
Afterimage is, appropriately, a solemn tale of injustice and the stifling of artistic creativity. But one also might label it a heartfelt missive from one nonconformist artist to another nonconformist artist.
With this in mind, Wajda’s career is well-worth exploring, starting with his first three features, which date from the 1950s. A Generation, Ashes and Diamonds, and Kanal examine his country’s resistance against the Nazis during World War II as well as Poland’s post-war reconstruction. They question the glorified, idealized heroics of people in battle as well as the paths that individuals choose when they are trapped by events they cannot control.
Another Wajda film that deals with similar themes was made a half-century later. Katyn was released in 2007. It is an intense, fact-based account of Poland during and immediately after the war, when the country was swallowed up by Germany and Russia. The story opens in September 1939, when the Nazis and Soviets have just invaded Poland and the Polish citizenry are pressed between the Germans and Russians. The following year, 14,000 Polish officers and civilians are massacred by the Russians in the Katyn forest. While they occupy the country, the Germans use this bloodbath to propagandize the Poles. Once the war ends, however, the Soviets– who are building their post-war power base– attribute the atrocity to the Nazis, and heaven help anyone who disagrees.
Even though the characters in Katyn are fictional, it is impossible to forget that their stories are based on a real-life atrocity. And two facts cannot be ignored—facts that inform not just this film but all of Wajda’s work. First, when he was a teenager, Wajda served in the Resistance while the Nazis occupied his homeland. What’s more, his father– Jakub Wajda, a captain in the Polish infantry– was one of the 14,000 who was butchered in the Katyn forest.
Let me also cite one final Wajda film, and note that Afterimage is not his lone biopic. In 1990 he made Korczak, the story of a gentle, remarkable man: Janusz Korczak, an esteemed doctor, writer, and children’s rights advocate who operates a home for Jewish orphans in Warsaw during the 1930s. His concerns are people and not politics. “I love children,” he states, matter-of-factly. “I fight for years for the dignity of children.” In his school, he offers his charges a “humanist education.” Then the Nazis invade his homeland.
Given his station in life, Korczak easily could escape to freedom. But he chooses to remain with his children and do whatever he must to keep his orphanage running and his charges alive, even after they all are imprisoned in the Warsaw Ghetto.
All of Andrzej Wajda’s films, from A Generation, Ashes and Diamonds, and Kanal all the way through Korczak, Katyn, and Afterimage are monuments as much to the memory of generations past as to the survival of generations to come. And they are testaments to the life, career, and passion of their creator.