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Andrzej Wajda: An Auteur from the East

On October 17, the Film Society of Lincoln Center opened “Truth or Dare,” a month-long Andrzej Wajda retrospective. The 82-year-old director introduced four features over the first three nights: The Promised Land (1975), Everything for Sale (1969), Ashes and Diamonds (1958), and Katyn (2007). Wajda (pronounced VY-da) is among cinema’s great living auteurs, and he spent decades cannily steering script proposals and finished works past Poland’s communist-era censor bureau. His international productions include The Conductor (1980) with John Gielgud and Danton (1983) with Gerard Depardieu. Among his top honors, Wajda’s Polish production Man of Iron took the Palme d’Or at Cannes in 1981, and was nominated for an Academy Award as Best Foreign Film; in 2000, he received an Oscar for lifetime achievement. Lincoln Center’s retro, produced with the Polish Cultural Institute in New York City, could not include the director’s Tatarak, which wrapped about two weeks before “Truth or Dare” got underway.

© Jerzy Koss, 2008
© Jerzy Koss, 2008

Over the course of 50-plus films, Wajda has delved into difficult, painful and politically revealing issues in Poland’s history: the Warsaw Ghetto (Korczak); resistance fighters continuing the struggle as outcasts when Poland became communist (Ashes and Diamonds); Poles and the Holocaust (Holy Week); and the Solidarity movement (Man of Iron, with Lech Walesa playing himself). And his oeuvre is a scintillating showcase for the power of Polish performers, with a depth and range in the casts driving lead roles such as Elzbieta Czyzewska’s alluring isolation in Everything for Sale, Zbigniew Cybulski’s fatal verve in Ashes and Diamonds, and the startling panache of Wojciech Pszoniak’s Jewish factory partner Moritz in The Promised Land.

Both topical and actor-driven aspects of Wajda’s work are at the fore in last year’s Katyn. It is the first feature treatment of the 1940 massacres by the Soviet secret police of some 22,000 prisoners, almost entirely Polish military officers, on Poland’s eastern border in the forest of that name. The atrocity was long blamed in official circles (including those of the West) on the Nazi military that discovered mass graves as they assaulted their former Soviet allies. The film was nominated for this year’s foreign language Oscar, and US distribution has just been announced for February 2009. Leads in Katyn include Danuta Stenka, Magdalena Cielicka and Andrzej Chyra, who New York audiences have seen with the potent theater company TR Warszawa, most recently in the challenging, contemporary Macbeth mounted by St. Ann’s Warehouse, and at BAM in Krum (a 2008 Obie winner).

I sat down with Wajda in the lobby of his Central Park South hotel, with Maciej Karpinski, filmmaker and a director of the Polish Film Institute, acting as interpreter. The director discussed Katyn, as well as the productions he has done for Polish television theater (Teater Telewiji) over the past fifty years. A program at Anthology Film Archives (October 24–28) presents a half-dozen of the television works, ranging from 1962 to 2001. The Rail is honored to present the interview, and New York City is privileged indeed to enjoy these thoroughgoing presentations of Andrzej Wajda’s work.

"Truth or Dare"

Alan Lockwood (Rail): In Krakow in late September, below Wawel Castle’s hill, I saw a tall black cross with wreaths at its base, bearing the inscription KATYN. I presume this is a story you’ve wanted to tell for a long time.

Andrzej Wajda: It is important to know that between 1945 and 1989, when the Communist regime finally fell, the story of Katyn, the notion of Katyn, could not be told, by any means. The Katyn massacre was discovered by the Germans in 1943. Since the Germans captured the territory on which mass graves of Polish officers were found, the Soviets started to claim that the Germans committed the crime. And this Soviet point-of-view was adopted in communist Poland, which was very much founded on the so-called friendship between Poland and the Soviet Union. What made it worse was that the former Soviet Union allies, the United States and Great Britain, did not want to elaborate, and rather preferred to keep silent and not to go deeper into it. It was important for them because the Soviet interests were the biggest interests. After the war, this point of view was taken into consideration in the division of Europe, and this completed the case. This did not mean that Poles, in the country, did not know the truth. It was considered illegal, but slowly, slowly, it began to rise to the surface.

Maciej Karpinski: What we’re talking about being illegal was to talk about the Katyn crime as committed by the Soviets. This was completely forbidden, and in fact in Communist Poland you could be severely punished for claiming this was a Soviet crime. However, in unofficial circles this truth was emerging, and as Mr. Wajda was saying, mostly due to the existence of the Polish immigrants to the West, who could speak up openly and preserve the truth about the massacres.

Wajda: In other words, whoever would want to make a film about Katyn, from the end of the war until ’89, would have to make a movie presenting the opposite standpoint and the official historical version, which was that the Germans committed it. It’s interesting that no Polish writer or director ever attempted to make it, even though some of them did belong to the same political orientation as the government. So even though the majority of people kept silent, they did know what was the truth and what was a lie.

Since ’89, books have been published that present the actual version of facts and, since that time, it has been possible to present the truth by other means, like film. So it was possible to make a film, but I think no film was made before mine because certain problems still remained. For instance, there was a tradition that most Polish films made from such serious historical subjects were usually made after the literary works, and in this case we didn’t have any major novel or story on hand. You could say, OK, it was normal, because conditions in Poland would never allow such a novel to be written or published. But even among Polish writers living abroad, writers with significant names, no one ever [wrote that book]. I cannot explain why this was so, but I think it meant that no one found a means of expression to present this story and this subject.

So what was necessary was to create a screenplay. A number were written; I commissioned some of them myself. But for some reason it was very difficult to find out what should be the actual subject of the story. Not just the historical subject, but the context. My father, who was a Polish army officer [cavalry captain], was among this 22,000 murdered Poles. My mother, until she died in 1950, was still waiting for his return. And the major question was, if I’m going to make a film about my own family, was it to make a film about father, or about mother? If I was to make a film about father, I would have to follow the documentary materials, the historical documentation found from the crime. It was very clear from this documentation that the officers were not in one but in three different camps at the time when they were captured. Though they spent significant amounts of time in those camps, it’s hard to say that anything really dramatic happened before the very end, which could be the subject of a story about those officers.

Karpinski: When the Soviets entered Poland on the seventeenth of September 1939, the Polish army, which was not very numerous because the majority were fighting the Germans on the other side [of Poland], were caught by complete surprise. Nobody expected this and they didn’t know what to do, how to react. Maybe the Soviets are coming to their rescue? Or are they enemies? So most of the Polish army in the east surrendered without a single shot. They were thinking, as they came into the camps, that they were just waiting to learn what was going to happen. They did not even consider themselves prisoners of war because; for them, this was not war. And that’s why, as Mr. Wajda is saying, that during this period before they were shot, not much was happening in the camps. They did not rebel, they did not try to escape.

Wajda: The Soviets were lying to them that they were just interns, they were not real prisoners of war, that they will be sent to Romania or some sent to France or released. They didn’t know what was in store for them. Then all was resolved by a simple fact. The interior minister of the Soviet Union, [Lavrentiy] Beria, wrote a letter to Stalin, advising him that the best and simplest solution was to liquidate all these people. This letter still exists in the Soviet archives. And the Politburo, the Soviet party leadership, simply responded positively to this request. And this letter also exists. From these existing documents, we know that once this decision was taken, the rest was just a question of the technical implementation. There was no way out, and what was to happen had to happen. And the Soviet secret police, the NKVD, knew how to deal with such things; they had vast experience in liquidating great numbers of people before, in the 1930s, so they know exactly how make it efficient.

I came to the decision that the options were of making the film about my father that did not provide enough documented material about the end, or of making a foolish love story. I decided that the film cannot be only about the Katyn crime, it had to also be about the Katyn lie, about how the official version is one thing, and the common knowledge about it is something completely else.

When my mother was alive, she was completely powerless, she was not informed about what happened to my father; she was waiting for him for five years. And there were thousands of women, thousands of families, in similar situations. When the Germans found the bodies in the Katyn forest, they published a list of names of these officers, because they were easy to identify: They all had documents. But that was only one camp; there were two others, and no one knew what happened to those who found themselves in the other camps. My father was not in Katyn, but in Harkov, not far away. When the Germans advanced towards Russia, they never came as far as Harkov [now in Ukraine]. So part of the crime was covered in detail, but at that time, it was never completed.

I decided it was better to make a connection and put the two together, the crime and the lie surrounding it. This led to new problems [laughs], but was better way to tell the story. I read a great number of memoirs and background accounts. They contained a great number of small stories, of anecdotes from the lives of these people, of those waiting. Slowly I was coming to the conclusion that the best way for me was to weave a story from those little pieces, from different people, and create a panorama of human facts. This was the point of departure in creating the screenplay [by Wajda, Wladyslaw Pasikowski and Przemyslaw Nowakowski].

The next problem was that my cast had to be young. The vast majority of people in these events were very young people. I auditioned actors, some of whom were twenty-five and dealing with problems of the past, [who were] never confronted with the situations and problems more than sixty years ago, which was like the Middle Ages. I must say that what happened was very interesting, very important and very informative for me. I realized that these young actors must go back and inherit the part, the tradition of Polish society, of Polish intelligentsia. They, who are educated in this society and the same age as people who were in the camps in Katyn, these young people now represent the same mentality as those from that time. It was not difficult for them to identify, to pick up. And my feeling is that what we see on the screen, we see people like they really could be, what could have been. The actors considered it a responsibility, a possibility in their personal relations to follow, to depict this for the film.

Another important feature for me in making Katyn was, what was really behind this crime? Why did it have to happen? What was the purpose in the minds of the murderers when they decided to commit it? Stalin, from the very beginning, had the way to Europe on his mind, and the way to Europe went through Poland. The intelligentsia was the most dangerous part of Polish society, the biggest obstacle on his way.

Rail: I visited Auschwitz when I was in Krakow, and learned for the first time that when Auschwitz was established, the first prisoners were the Polish intelligentsia.

Wajda: It’s important to know that among the 22,000 murdered officers, only a few were professional military. Most of them were drafted, or reserve officers. Intellectuals, academicians, lecturers…

Rail: What did your father do?

Wajda: My father was a professional, an officer. An exception, as it was something like a ratio of ten to ninety percent: ten percent were professional officers, ninety percent were reserve officers who constituted the intellectual elite of the society. To liquidate them meant to liquidate that full echelon of society. It was very difficult for Poland to reconstruct this elite. One of my points in Katyn is that actually both sides which attacked Poland at that moment, the Germans and the Soviets, had the same purpose. They wanted to liquidate first those who could be potentially most dangerous to them and their future plans. So you have the Katyn crime on one side, and the murder of Krakow University professors on the other, committed by Germans. It is practically the same in terms of the purpose.

Rail: Can you tell us about your work for Teatr Telewizji [Polish national television theater]?

Wajda: When I finished one of my best known films, Ashes and Diamonds, in the second half of the 1950s, I received the opportunity to work in theater. I was thirty or so, and for the first time I faced actors on the live stage. And for the first few plays I directed in the theater, I chose American plays: Hatful of Rain, Two on a Seesaw. I was one of the first to produce American plays for the Polish stage; before they were completely unknown. The American veteran, coming back from Korea with war traumas… It was all considered critical towards the American establishment, therefore allowed in Poland.

It was exactly the time when in Poland television began to operate, the late 1950s. In the beginning, Polish television preferred to work with film directors because they didn’t have any people who had worked in television. They had the film academy in Lodz, where new film directors were produced every year, who then got the opportunity to work in television as well. We worked out a kind of medium that had the features of “poor” film. There was a certain reduction of means, but a much bigger selection had been added of scripts and possibilities. Put in professional actors, and we knew how to shoot it because it’s not that far from making films.

But censorship was very tough on emerging television, as not all plays which otherwise could be staged in theaters would be allowed to be on television because it was directed to much more of a mass audience.

Rail: For example?

Wajda: I can give you an example. The stage production I value most from my work is The Possessed, from Dostoevsky, which I made at the Stary Theatre in Krakow. The production ran for fifteen seasons. And during these fifteen years, not even once, there was no way of transferring it to television, even when the political situation in Poland was changing in different directions. There was no chance that any government and its leadership in state television would put this on. It was running in the theater, the official theater, but those were small audiences coming and going, and on television it goes to the mass community. During martial law in Poland [in the early 1980s], I directed Sophocles’ Antigone in the theater. But my chorus of ancient Greeks were dressed like shipyard workers in…

Rail: Gdansk.

Wajda: Yes. In theaters, that was possible to do. But no chance to put it on television. The television experience, nevertheless, was very important and useful both for Polish cinema and for Polish theater. It was very exceptional, because the television theater in Poland has run for years [it was founded in 1953]. Every Monday, there was a new production: eight o’clock, prime time. This created a vast opportunity for the audiences to learn new plays, classical and modern, and to deal with the best actors in the country. For the television productions you could take any actor you wanted.

Rail: What was your relationship with Gustaw Holoubek [Polish theater and film star, a political representative who quit in support of Solidarity during martial law]?

Wajda: He was one of the most famous Polish actors. I worked with him on one television theater production, in the times when those productions were not yet recorded: They were broadcast live. We are doing it direct, on line, and the television producer said, “This scene, we should not do.” But why? “Ah; because he doesn’t like it.” I asked, “But who?” He mentions the name of the party secretary who was responsible for the cultural affairs. It’s important to realize that the number of TV sets in Poland at that time was so limited that you could almost know who else would be watching. So [this producer] knew that this person had a TV at home, and if he’s watching, it’s not good. This may sound funny now, but this was the birth of television in Poland under communist rule. The communist establishment were the first to have their TV sets at home. If they saw something they don’t like, they would pick up the phone and call the TV producer directly!

This was the first time I worked with Holoubek. Then I wanted very much for him to play Hamlet, but he declined. But I always could say I gave him the best role in the world, and he refused [laughs].


Alan Lockwood


The Brooklyn Rail

OCT 2008

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