Andrzej Wajda, the powerhouse purveyor of Polish cinema with a celebrated knack for devastating depictions of war-torn Europe, passed away on Monday, October 10, 2016 at the age of 90.
Wajda’s fateful rejection from serving in Poland’s military in 1939 pushed him toward a career in moviemaking, and would inform his filmic fascinations throughout his life—especially in (though not limited to) his renowned trilogy of war films that includes A Generation (1954), Kanał (1956) and Ashes and Diamonds (1958). An uncompromisingly harsh worldview pervades his body of work, the explorations of which range from the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising in Nazi-occupied Poland (in A Generation and 1961’s Samson) to personal loss and grief in Everything for Sale (1968) and beyond.
Hailed by some prominent experts on Eastern European cinema as “the greatest film director in Polish history,” Wajda was an early pioneer of meta-narrative storytelling technique, a master of symbolist visuals and, despite the transparent devotion to Poland’s Solidarity labor movement on display in his Palme d’Or-winning Man of Iron (1981), commendably averse to the trappings of ideology in his productions. Ashes and Diamonds, an influential work of realism that shaped the cinematic consciousness of such greats as Francis Ford Coppola and Martin Scorsese, is revelatory in its intimate characterization and stark-but-not-flashy cinematography by Jerzy Wójcik. Wajda was presented with an honorary Oscar in 2000 for his contribution to world cinema, and his last film before his death, Afterimage (2016), recently became the Polish entry for Best Foreign Language Film at the 89th Academy Awards. Four of his films—The Promised Land (1975), The Maids of Wilko (1979), Man of Iron (1981) and Katyń (2007)—have been nominated in this category, and he has also received honors from the Berlin International Film Festival, the Moscow International Film Festival and the French César Awards, as well as other prestigious prizes.
Wajda donated his Palme d’Or to the Kraków museum, a gesture signifying its socio-political implications; it is this award that bestowed upon him the cultural adoration that exempted him from imprisonment by Poland’s anti-Solidarity communist regime. His authorial voice, relatively repressed in his early years by censorial regulations of Poland’s state-funded industry, was emboldened after the dismantling of communism in his native country in 1989.
The forthcoming tribute to Wajda’s legacy at Poland’s Camerimage festival in November 2016 is sure to be memorable. The annals of both national and international film history are continually enriched by Wajda’s personal and professional triumphs. MM
Featured image photograph by Łukasz Ostalsk.