Poland’s history viewed through Wajda’s lens

Welles, Kurosawa among past recipients of honorary Oscar

Few filmmakers have remained as perennially committed to depicting their own nation’s culture and history as this year’s recipient of an honorary Academy Award. Writer-director Andrzej Wajda has been striving to show fidelity to life in his native Poland for 40 years.

It hasn’t been easy. Wajda joined the Resistance at age 16 during World War II after the Nazis killed his father, and he battled Communist censors for much of his career. The regime forced him out of his own studio in 1981, and he moved to France, returning to Warsaw when the Solidarity again was legalized in 1989.

Wajda’s 44-film legacy — including such Oscar-nominated pics as “Land of Promise” and “Man of Iron” — shows that it hasn’t been any less easy for Poland, a nation whose identity remains strong throughout centuries of partitions, invasions, mass murders and co-optings by kings, Turks, czars, Prussians, Nazis and Soviets.

“Basically, I hope my movies show Poland as an important part of Europe,” says Wajda (whose name is pronounced Andre Vy-da). “Because I have directed some movies that the world has seen, I’m very happy to have shown the other nations of the world what Poland is and what life and history have been like here. I would like to continue this work, because I understand that my message in my movies has been received by other people.

“I was very, very happy about the news that I am getting this award,” Wajda says. “To me it is like the entire country of Poland is getting it. I’m looking forward to coming to the United States and meeting everybody. I’m going to say what I think when I pick it up. And I think in Polish and I will speak in Polish.”

Among those who are happy to see Wajda selected for the honor are Steven Spielberg, whose Oscar-winning best picture “Schindler’s List” was aided on location in Poland by Wajda and who urged the Academy’s board of governors to choose the Pole.

Agnieszka Holland, the Polish-born writer of several Wajda pictures, including “Man of Iron,” and “A Love in Germany,” and the director of “Europa, Europa,” “The Secret Garden” and the current “The Third Miracle,” was also elated by the decision.

“I’m extremely happy and proud that Andrzej will get this Oscar,” says Holland, who, like several significant filmmakers who left Poland — Roman Polanski, Jerzy Skolimowski and Janusz Kaminski among them — got her start in collaboration with Wajda.

“It was for me an incredible lesson — how he always did everything to be faithful to his vision, honest with his audience but open toward the truth of the material, truth of the actors and truth of the story. He never sought to find that original or attractive solution, but the strongest one. But his mind is so independent that original solutions — visual and storytelling — just came out,” says Holland, who calls Wajda “my master and great supportive friend.”

Past honorary Oscars have gone to Orson Welles, Akira Kurosawa, Satyajit Ray, Buster Keaton, Kirk Douglas, Cary Grant and Lillian Gish. Wajda has never won an Oscar, but three of his films have been nominated for best foreign-language film: “Land of Promise” (1975), “The Maids of Wilko” (1979) and “Man of Iron” (1981). His latest film is “Pad Tadeusz,” a Polish-French co-production released in Europe.

After the war, Wajda studied at the Krakow Academy of Fine Arts and the Lodz Film School and made his famous anti-war trilogy — “A Generation” (1954), about disillusioned youth in the Resistence; “Kanal” (1957), a harsh depiction of the 1944 uprising in Nazi-occupied Warsaw; and “Ashes and Diamonds” (1959), about a Resistence fighter assigned to an assassination on the first day after armistice.

These three films bitterly underscore Poland’s unwanted martyrdom and the chaotic and unheroic aspects of battle. “Ashes and Diamonds” ends with Wajda’s most emblematic actor, Zbigniew Cybulski, being shot to death on a garbage heap after the assassination.

The general theme threading his films, the director says, is that, “In situations that people have no control over or any chance of physically winning, they still have a chance of morally winning. It’s more about the moral victory.”

Wajda would return to war themes with “Lotna” (1959), in which the Polish cavalry of his father battles German tanks, and “Ashes” (1965) and “Landscape After Battle” (1970). “Everything for Sale” (1968) was a tribute to his great friend, Cybulski, who was killed in an auto accident in 1967 and — in screen intensity and fate — has been occasionally called the European James Dean.

The master generated another multifilm saga with “Man of Marble” (1977) and “Man of Iron,” this time concentrating on Communist oppression and the Solidarity movement.

Released during the upheaval of the Solidarity strikes at the Gdansk shipyards, where the film was made on location, “Man of Iron” featured galvanizing labor leader Lech Walesa as himself. Together in their sweep, storytelling and forcefulness, the “Man” films have been likened to “The Godfather” saga in America.

After the strikes, Wajda was forced out of his Studio X facilities and made to resign his filmmakers’ group presidency, and “Man of Iron” was withdrawn from release. But word of its pro-Solidarity theme and its quality made it an underground event at one small theater in Warsaw and a print of the film made its way to France.

Even though Poland refused to officially enter “Man of Iron” in contention for a foreign-language Oscar nom, the Academy nominated it anyway, and it also was awarded the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival.

Wajda’s films also include “Danton” (1983), “The Posessed” (1987) and “Korczak” (1990), the true story of a pediatrician and educator who wrote under the nom de plume of Jansz Korczak, who waged a losing battle of diplomacy and deception to protect 200 children from the horrors of the Warsaw ghetto during the occupation, then later their deportation to the death camp at Treblinka.

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