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A Pole apart

Wajda has ridden every artistic, social and political wave in Poland's history

LONDON — The father of postwar Polish cinema, Andrzej Wajda has seen more artistic and political turmoil come and go in his country’s history than most elder statesmen.

It’s a career that, in national esteem, longevity and criss-crossing between theater and movies, compares closely with that of Ingmar Bergman. But where Bergman examines the dark recesses of the Swedish soul to draw universal truths about human relationships, Wajda peers into the Slavic soul to draw specifically Polish lessons about his people’s ongoing troubled history.

When Wajda, 71, accepts a Golden Lion for career achievement at the Venice fest this month (with a tribute screening of his 1974 “Land of Promise” Sept. 3), he can look back on a life that so far has outlasted the communist system, the industry’s chaotic transition during the ’80s and ’90s to a point where Polish auds again embraced their own movies, the rise and fall of various New Waves and even the glittering careers of such masters as Krzysztof Kieslowski.


Born in Suwalki, northeast Poland, in 1927, he was brought up in an army barracks, the son of a professional officer and a schoolteacher. He experienced World War II — an event that was to shape his life and his movies — as a teenager, and after the war studied fine arts for four years at Krakow, developing an interest in painting that can clearly be seen in his earlier movies. After studying at the newly opened Lodz Film School from 1950-52, and working as an assistant to veteran leftist director Aleksander Ford (“Five Boys From Barska Street”), Wajda embarked on a career that, in his first three features, clearly established him as the leading figure of his generation.

With the trilogy “A Generation” (1955), “Kanal” (1957) and “Ashes and Diamonds” (1958), Wajda reflected the hopes and frustrations of ’50s youth in stories set during and just after the German Occupation a decade or more earlier. The first pic was quietly received, but “Kanal” won a Special Jury Prize at Cannes in 1957 and polarized opinion back home — the first of many storms to engulf his career. By the time of “Ashes and Diamonds,” Wajda had moved away from the neo-realist look of his first film and forged the lyrical-realist style, deeply imprinted with literary and historical resonances, that was to become his trademark.


The trilogy was quite an act to follow so early in his career, but Wajda ducked and weaved throughout the ’60s with a variety of pics that not only hooked a ride on the youthful energy of the New Wave (“Innocent Sorcerers,” “Love at Twenty,” “Hunting Flies”) but also continued his interest in Polish history (“Samson,” “Ashes”). In a film that draws a line under a whole decade, Wajda made “Everything for Sale” (1968), a meditation on the filmmaking process, artistic friendship and ’60s dolce vita that is one of his most personal (though now little-seen) movies.

Wajda’s ability to ride every artistic, social and political change in his country’s volatile history — and maintain the respect of each generation — was evidenced by “Man of Marble” (1978), a rough-edged, massively controversial examination (for its time) of the worker-myths of communist ideology, which reinvigorated his career and was followed by “Man of Iron,” which copped the Palme d’Or at Cannes in 1981. (When asked eight years later, while stand-ing as a Solidarity-backed candidate for the Senate, whether he would make a third film in the series, he replied, “I don’t know. Perhaps ‘Man of Rubber’?”)


As the ’80s ensued, he spread his net wider, to France with “Danton” (1982), and Germany with “A Love in Germany” (1983). Though he has recently idled in second gear, his subject matter remains as catholic as ever, from the wartime drama “Holy Week” (1996) to an adaptation of one of the most notable literary debuts of the ’90s, Tomek Trzyna’s examination of contemporary anomie, “Miss Nobody” (1997).

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