ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846

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The Film-maker as Chronicler

The passing of Polish film-maker Andrzej Wajda on 9 October 2016 is an occasion to salute one of the longest careers of any film artist in the modern era, and acknowledge a truly remarkable life in the 20th century. 

Andrzej Wajda was anointed from his arrival as the poet laureate of Poland, with his films reflective of the memories and grudges of its unique history, surrounded by Germany and Russia, partitioned several times by its neighbours, with the final time being World War II. Wajda, born in 1926 to an army officer and a schoolteacher, had his life shattered by that conflict. He joined the anti-Nazi resistance of the Home Army, while his father would be murdered in the famous Katyn massacre by Stalin’s NKVD (Narodnyi komissariat vnutrennikh del, the Soviet security and secret police apparatus). The USSR, after defeating the Nazis, would eventually occupy Poland, with the official memory of the regime denying responsibility for the massacre until 1989 and Wajda himself would return to this painful moment in history with one of his final films, 2007’s Katyn.

Being marked and divided by the violence of war and bitterness of post-war politics, Wajda engaged in artistic activities. He studied painting at the Kraków School of Fine Arts and later joined the National Film School at Łódź, headed by Aleksander Ford. Wajda’s early films would draw global attention to Poland, through works such as A Generation, Kanal and, above all, Ashes and Diamonds. Kanal won the Silver Bear at the Berlin Film Festival, while Ashes and Diamonds was a true sensation, skirting the communist censorship by featuring an anti-communist hero of the 1940s with an anachronistic James Dean swagger, symbolically reflective of the audience’s experiences chafing under Soviet repression. In addition, it introduced Zbigniew Cybulski, Poland’s great movie star whose desperate frustrations captured the thwarted dreams and immense frustration of the Poland of his time.

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