Renowned Polish director Andrzej Wajda died Sunday in Warsaw after a short illness. He was 90. His death was confirmed by the Associated Press and Polish media outlets.
Though best known in the U.S. for his realistic WWII trilogy “A Generation,” “Kanal,” and “Ashes and Diamonds” from the late 1950s, the always controversial and politically vital filmmaker continued working into the 21st century and was considered Poland’s preeminent filmmaker. His latest film, the biopic “Afterimage,” had recently been selected as Poland’s foreign language Oscar submission. In 2000 the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences honored Wajda with an honorary Oscar in recognition of a lifetime of work.
Through his bold use of imagery, Wajda was able to circumvent state censors during the Cold War years and create stinging indictments of war and political oppression in the postwar years.
Poland’s history under the Soviet Union was the basis for two of his most acclaimed works, 1977’s “Man of Marble” and 1981’s Cannes Palme d’Or winner “Man of Iron,” which details the country’s famous Solidarity labor movement and featured Poland’s real-life hero Lech Walesa. (He returned to the subject of Walesa for the 2013 biopic “Walesa: Man of Hope.”) For a time, however, the Polish government became too restrictive and Wajda was forced to emigrate to France, where he lived until the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. When he returned he was elected to the Polish parliament and appointed head of Warsaw’s leading theater, where Wajda was also a leading light, much like Ingmar Bergman in Sweden.
In his book “Double Vision,” written in the mid-’80s, Wajda lamented the lack of interest in Polish movies in the West. But in his native country he was regarded as one of its most important artists. Several of Wajda’s films were never released in the U.S., where he never enjoyed the popularity of countrymen Roman Polanski or Krzysztof Kieslowski.
Wajda, who served in the Polish resistance movement in WWII, while still a teenager, broke through with 1955 feature film “A Generation,” about the resistance movement during the war, and received his first serious acclaim for 1957’s “Kanal,” about a group of resistance fighters attempting their escape after the 1944 Warsaw uprising through an underground sewer. Harsh and realistic, both films prefigured one of his great works, 1958’s “Ashes and Diamonds,” starring Zbigniew Cybulski as an anti-Communist assassin. Cybulski’s untimely death in 1967 inspired one of Wajda’s most poignant films, 1968’s “Everything for Sale.”
While many of his works dealt with political subjects, like “Lotna,” “Man of Marble” and “Man of Iron,” Polanski told the New York Times that Wajda also possessed a 19th century Romantic spirit, which surfaces in several films like “Siberian Lady Macbeth,” the British-made “Gates to Paradise” and the sweepingly historical “Pan Tadeusz,” made in the late ’90s.
His ties to the theater are most evident in another of his more celebrated films, 1972’s “The Wedding,” based on a famous Polish play.
During his exile in Paris, he directed another historical epic, “Danton,” starring Gerard Depardieu, and the tragic romance “A Love in Germany,” dealing with the affair between a German woman and a Polish prisoner of war. Time and again he returned to WWII themes in films like 1990’s “Dr. Korczak,” the tale of a Jewish teacher who dies in a concentration camp, and 2007’s “Katyn,” about a WWII Russian massacre of Polish troops that was, for many years, blamed on the Germans. Wajda’s father died in that massacre. Even films dealing with other wars, like “Ashes” and “After the Battle,” echo the tragedy of WWII and its long-term impact on Poland.
Other films he made after returning included two additional WWII tales, “Holy Week” and “The Ring With a Crowned Eagle,” and a small emotional film set in a girl’s school, 1997’s “Panna Nikt.”
In 2009 he made the film “Sweet Rush,” which was reconceived in the midst of lensing as a film about filmmaking.
Wajda was born in the town of Suwalki in the north of Poland. After the war he attended the Cracow Academy of Fine Arts to study painting. However, in 1949, he transferred to the new state-run film academy in Lodz, which would spawn other important filmmakers including Polanski, Krzysztof Zanussi and Kieslowski. He began his career assisting director Aleksander Ford on the film “Five Boys From Barska Street” and, in his early years, he turned out short films such as “Ceramika Ilzecka” and “Kiedy ty Spisz” in 1953.
Wajda is survived by his fourth wife, theatre costume designer and actress Krystyna Zachwatowicz, and by a daughter from his third marriage to popular actress Beata Tyszkiewicz.