Andrzej Wajda: Poland and the Screens of History

On October 17, the Film Society of Lincoln Center opened Truth or Dare, a month-long Andrzej Wajda retrospective. Wajda (pronounced VY-da) is among cinema’s great living auteurs, and spent decades cannily steering script proposals and finished works past Poland’s communist-era censor bureau. Wajda’s 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. Both Roman Polanski and Jerzy Skolimowski did early stints with Wajda, and his international productions include The Conductor (1980) with John Gielgud, Danton (1983) with Gerard Depardieu, and The Possessed with Isabelle Huppert (1988). 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.

Andrzej Wajda, 1974

Over the course of 50 plus films, Wajda has delved into difficult, painful, and politically revealing issues in Poland’s history: the Warsaw Ghetto (Samson, 1961; Korczak, 1990); resistance fighters continuing the struggle when Poland became Communist (Ashes and Diamonds, 1958); Poles and the Holocaust (Holy Week, 1995); 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 (1969), Zbigniew Cybulski’s fatal verve in Ashes and Diamonds, and the startling panache of Wojciech Pszoniak’s Jewish factory partner in The Promised Land (1975).

Both topical and actor-driven aspects of Wajda’s work are at the fore in last year’s Katyn, the first feature treatment of the 1940 massacres by 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 army 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 been announced for February 2009. Leads in Katyn include Danuta Stenka, Magdalena Cielicka and Andrzej Chyra, who New York audiences have seen in productions by the potent theater company TR Warszawa at BAM and St. Ann’s Warehouse.

Wajda fielded questions after several Truth or Dare screenings, with Maciej Karpinski of the Polish Film Institute serving as translator. Of The Promised Land, critics had complained—rightly, he said—that capitalist bosses couldn’t order troops to fire on strikers; that was the prerogative of Russian authorities who controlled much of Poland at the dawn of the 20th century. Censors, though, would have neither that nor the alternate ending Wajda envisioned, in which he wanted to skewer 1970s newscasts of Soviet leaders kissing on the lips. Protagonist Karol Borowiecki would have arrived in Moscow in his plush private train carriage (having visited the grave of his father, dead in an uprising), where similar embraces awaited. Wajda recalled insisting to his actors that anything was possible, contradicting communist ideals of conformity; upon that film’s success, he chanced on his three leads on the Champs-Élysées, where one had joined the venerable Comèdie-Française.

The director and Elzbieta Czyzewska discussed Everything for Sale, one of filmmaking’s marvelous self-portraits. Czyzewska spoke of the “strange time warp in which we were playing both ourselves and fictional characters,” and recalled a deleted scene where the director in Everything quoted Lear dividing his kingdom, while portioning a roast duck and asking who loves him most. After Ashes and Diamonds screened, Wajda spoke of the anti-hero Maciej dying on a landscape of rubbish in the final frames (Zbigniew Cybulski’s histrionics are worthy of Toshiro Mifune). “The censors were monitoring words,” he said; “we utilized a language of images.” To the former, the character deserved the dump for assassinating a Party leader; to the audience, the hopeless vista read differently. By 1945, Wajda said, former freedom fighters “were completely at a loss. They’d fought for years for a completely different outcome” than the People’s Republic of Poland.

The day before Truth or Dare opened, I sat down with Wajda and Maciej Karpinski in the lobby of their Central Park South hotel. In addition to Katyn, the director discussed productions done for Polish television theater, of which Anthology Film Archives presented a half-dozen, ranging from 1962 to 2001, during October.

Alan Lockwood (Rail): In Krakow in late September, 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: Between 1945 and 1989, the story of the Katyn massacre could not be told. Since the Germans captured the territory on which mass graves were found, the Soviets claimed that the Germans committed the crime. This point of view was adopted in communist Poland, and in the United States and Great Britain—the Soviet interests were the biggest interests. This did not mean that Poles did not know the truth. It was illegal, but began to rise to the surface. Whoever made a film about Katyn would have had to present the official version, that the Germans committed it. No Polish writer or director attempted to make it, though some had the same political orientation as the government. People knew what was the truth and what was a lie.

Most Polish films made from historical subjects were made after the literary works, but until 1989, conditions would never allow such a novel to be written or published. A number of screenplays were subsequently written; I commissioned some of them. It was very difficult to find not just the historical subject but the context. My father [a cavalry captain] was among the 22,000 murdered Poles. My mother, until she died in 1950, was still waiting for his return. Though the officers spent significant time in the camps, it’s hard to say that anything dramatic happened before the very end.

Maciej Karpinski: When the Soviets entered Poland in September 1939, the Polish army was not very numerous—the majority were fighting the Germans on the other side [of Poland]—and were caught by surprise. Maybe the Soviets are coming to their rescue? They did not rebel, they did not try to escape.

Wajda: The Soviets were lying to them that they were just interns, to be sent to Romania or France or released. Then the Soviet interior minister, [Lavrentiy] Beria, wrote a letter to Stalin, advising him that the simplest solution was to liquidate all these people. This letter still exists in the Soviet archives. And the Politburo responded positively to this request. This letter also exists. The rest was a question of technical implementation, and the secret police, the NKVD, had vast experience in liquidating people in the 1930s.

My mother was not informed about what happened to my father. And there were thousands of families in similar situations. I decided to put the two together, the crime and the lie surrounding it. I read memoirs and background accounts, coming to the conclusion to weave a story from different people and create a panorama of human facts. Another important feature in making Katyn was, what was in the minds of the murderers? Stalin had the way to Europe on his mind, which went through Poland. The intelligentsia was the most dangerous part of Polish society.

Rail: I learned at Auschwitz that the first prisoners, in 1939, were the Polish intelligentsia.

Wajda: Among the 22,000 officers killed at Katyn, few were professional military. Ninety percent were reservists who constituted the intellectual elite. To liquidate them meant to liquidate that full echelon of society. It was very difficult for Poland to reconstruct this elite.

Rail: Can you tell us about your work for Polish national television theater?

Wajda: When I finished Ashes and Diamonds, I was 30 or so, and for the first time I faced actors on the live stage. For the first plays, I chose American plays: Hatful of Rain, Two on a Seesaw. The American veteran, coming back from Korea with war traumas. It was all considered critical towards the American establishment, therefore allowed in Poland. We worked out a kind of “poor” film. There was a certain reduction of means, but a much bigger selection of scripts and possibilities. But not all plays which could be staged in theaters would be allowed to be on television.

Rail: For example?

Wajda: 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, yet not one government allowed state television to put this on. During martial law [in the early 1980s], I directed Sophocles’ Antigone in the theater. My chorus of ancient Greeks were dressed like shipyard workers.

Rail: Gdansk.

Wajda: Yes. In theaters, that was possible, but no chance to put it on television. The experience, nevertheless, was important. Every Monday, there was a new production: eight o’clock, prime time. This created a vast opportunity for audiences to learn new plays, classical and modern, and to deal with the best actors in the country.

The full interview is at brooklynrail.org, and next month’s issue will include a piece on Alan Lockwood’s recent trip to Poland.

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Alan Lockwood

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