Andrzej Wajda Essay - Critical Essays

Wajda, Andrzej


Andrzej Wajda 1926–

Polish director and scriptwriter.

Wajda is generally acknowledged to be one of Poland's greatest directors. He is not a popular figure with the public in Poland, however, due to his unsettling views of traditional values. His trilogy, as well as establishing Wajda as a major European director, proved to be a milestone in Polish cinema for its moving depiction of war and those it affects.

Wajda fought with the Polish resistance during World War II, then attended the Kraców Academy of Fine Arts before going on to the film school at Lódź. He assisted Aleksander Ford on Five Boys from Barska Street, an experience that prepared him for his first feature film, Pokolenie (A Generation).

This film, along with Kanal and Popiol i Diament (Ashes and Diamonds), formed Wajda's war trilogy, exposing the myths of national heroism and the conflicts Poland's young generation underwent as they watched their elders suffer. Caught up in a war they wanted no part of, these youths were confused and frustrated, and Wajda's films depicted this effectively. These films were stark and simple. In contrast, his films of the sixties were stylized period pieces that relied on elaborate imagery and symbolism and were, for the most part, unsuccessful artistically.

Wszystko na Sprzedaz (Everything for Sale) changed Wajda's style and, more significantly, altered his philosophy of film-making. Aside from being his most personal work, inspired by the death of a close friend and star of many of his films, it is also Wajda's acceptance of the "new cinema," the exchange of his stylized drama for a more personal realistic view of life.

Wajda's earlier films were most successful when they did not stray from the Polish theme he knew best: the analysis of Poland's youth and their attitudes towards their situation. Later films embraced subjects not exclusively Polish, though Polish cinema asks to be judged in terms of its issues as much as its artistic merit. Though Wajda's work is occasionally flawed by a style some find ambiguous and baroque, his intensely personal vision makes him, according to Charles Higham, "the voice of Poland crying in its agony."

Bosley Crowther

[In his "Ashes and Diamonds," Andrzej Wajda] is doing a melancholy recapitulation on the political and social chaos at the end of the war.

As in his previous pictures, M. Wajda is putting forth here something more than a trenchant observation of a highly dramatic episode….

Wajda has shaped the story in strong and striking visual images. His sharply etched black-and-white action has the pictorial snap and quality of some of the old Soviet pictures of Pudovkin and Eisenstein. Facial expressions are high-lighted, bodily movements are swift and intense and the light that comes in from the outside in the shaky morning is as dense as luminous smoke.

Likewise, Wajda has created some vivid ideas through imagery—ideas that carry cynicism, melancholia, wistfulness and shock. There is a beautiful scene of the killers remembering dead comrades at a bar, marking each recollection with a glass of brandy set aflame….

The mood of despair in this picture is as heavy as that in [his earlier work,] "Kanal," but the film itself is much more searching….

Bosley Crowther, "'Ashes and Diamonds'," in The New York Times (© 1961 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), May 30, 1961, p. 8.

Roger Manvell

Innocent Sorcerers is a charming, absorbing essay in the newer Polish sophistication. Sophistication has in any case its gradations of refinement in self-consciousness, and in Andrzej Wajda's film it is a little heavily played….

Innocent Sorcerers has a conventionally happy ending that could have been far better left ambiguous. The sophistication of this night of verbal seduction is nicely, if, as I have said, a little obviously played; but in a way it becomes all the more poignant because of the essential amateurishness of these bourgeois pretensions in the rough surroundings of the war-scarred buildings. Our bourgeois eyes, sated by years of the Italian, French, German, Austrian and American variants of the old sentimental story of how what starts out as seduction can turn into the charms of true love, will find, I think, a certain pathos in this assertion by Polish youth that they, too, have the right to play at love once again now that the big freeze is more or less over and a new generation is claiming the right to create its own values.

Roger Manvell, "'Innocent Sorcerers'" (© copyright Roger Manvell 1962; reprinted with permission), in Films and Filming, Vol. 8, No. 7, April, 1962, p. 31.

Charles Higham

Andrzej Wajda has only made a handful of films, not all of them good; yet already he is safely among the modern masters. The one director in the Polish cinema whose work one can study as a whole, he is, so far as one can see, its only romantic poet; his style—sombre, stark, elaborately symbolic, often laden with baroque decoration—exists to expose the dark passions of his heroes and their hopeless courage. (pp. 408-09)

The emphasis on courage, youth, physical strength and aspiration blazing like solitary beacons in the night of the world—this is at the centre of the lyrical-romantic Polish literary tradition. Mickiewicz, Stowacki—these poets with their powerfully evocative imagery, their hymns or elegies to the proud youth of Poland dead in war or revolution, are the spiritual godfathers of Wajda and of the late Andrzej Munk. And it is not too much to say that, like Mickiewicz, Wajda has been the voice of Poland crying in its agony, as well as a worthy singer of its eternal songs of freedom. (p. 409)

Disciplined and stark, A Generation has the fierce lyrical intensity of a Mickiewicz poem…. [It] stands in the mainstream of the Polish artistic tradition: it celebrates youth and beauty and courage, the struggle of the emergent warrior to conquer his fears, the final bursting into flower of manhood and strength. And in a sense, Wajda's personality is undergoing a similar purifying process in the development of the film; one can sense a determined attempt to spare himself nothing of his memories of 1942, of his thoughts of people and things seen, loved and lost. The austerity of the images [never falters]….

A Generation remains Wajda's purest, most stripped and disciplined film. And its few moments of emotion—notably when Dorota is arrested, and Stach breaks into a sudden agony of grief—are all the more disturbing because of the tight-lipped sternness of the rest. In Kanal (1957),...

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Tom Milne

Bearing witness to the destruction of an ideal, Lotna is a deeply pessimistic film, built on an image of decay and obsessed by death….

Almost all of Wajda's imagery here is bizarre—too bizarre, perhaps, for some tastes…. But Lotna, after all, is in itself something of a romantic gesture; its baroque excesses are also its strength, and one either likes them or one doesn't….

With vivid strangeness, underlined by Wajda's extraordinary use of colour, Lotna records the passing of a civilisation. The night sequences are shot in sepia, with most of the day scenes dominated by the pale browns and greens of autumn exteriors (echoed in the cavalry uniforms), so that the more delicate tints—the blue of a Wedgwood vase, the red of an apple—seem to be gradually enveloped in a wash of drabness. (p. 42)

Tom Milne, "'Lotna'," in Sight and Sound (copyright © 1965 by The British Film Institute), Vol. 35, No. 1, Winter, 1965–66, pp. 41-2.

John Simon

Kanal seems to me, except for one minor flaw, as perfect an antiwar film as was ever made. (p. 21)

The wretched troop [of the Warsaw Uprising] sloshes about [in the sewers] waist-deep in muck, in abysmal darkness, and totally unsure of their way and of what will await them above, if they ever make it. Their sufferings, loyalties, weaknesses, quarrels, heroism, and hopes begotten on despair would suggest little fluctuation from the prevailing note of catastrophe. Yet Wajda is able to evoke such a range of human reactions to this overarching doom, he can show such various shadings of courage, such nuances of discouragement and grief, that we can all locate ourselves on this scale of human...

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[Everything for Sale] is both public and private, a memorial to the dead actor [Zbigniew Cybulski], a personal testament of the director and, crucially, a work which shatters the artistic fetters which have bound Wajda throughout his career. Feeding both on reality and on film, Everything for Sale is Wajda's meditation on a theme, illusion and reality…. At one blow he has matured from an extremely interesting, visually exciting artist whose work was fully comprehensible only in the Polish context to an international artist who happens to be Polish. (p. 139)

[The very general question of illusion and reality appears in different terms throughout the film.] However, the most central...

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Krzysztof-Teodor Toeplitz

Cybulski's sudden accidental death was the starting point for Everything for Sale, whose story concerns the disappearance of a famous actor during the shooting of a film…. The situation gives Wajda the occasion for confronting legend with reality, but he is aware of the danger of facile, shallow "debunking"; the film is far more complex than that. Instead, Wajda is interested in collecting the gestures, impressions, and various incidental fragments of personality or image which the dead actor scattered among the living, and showing how these "crumbs" constitute an awkward gift, like some heirloom one is dearly attached to and yet can do nothing with. The dead actor's legend persists among the living...

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Philip Strick

While audiences outside Poland are unlikely to be aware of the historical echoes that resound through Andrzej Wajda's film of The Wedding…, and will certainly miss a fair number of its jokes and references, Wajda's achievement is to make the original event, extraordinary and uneasy as it must have seemed at the time, not only accessible but also hauntingly significant to the present. His film shudders with menace and regret, a lament for the Polish predicament both as it was in 1900 after yet another century of being used as Europe's doormat, and as it is now, its independence as elusive as ever. And setting aside nationalism entirely, The Wedding turns out to have its global metaphors as well, defined...

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BolesłAw MichałEk


On the face of it, the story [of A Generation] appears to be fairly stereotyped. At the centre there is a character with the required hallmarks of the "positive hero": high-minded, uncompromising, dogged, with all the mandatory virtues and not a trace of doubts, complications or crises. (p. 19)

It is not enough to say that A Generation was made with such skill, feeling and power that it took these pitfalls in its stride. It deserves closer scrutiny to show where and how the shifting of its emphasis was brought about. Let me touch only on the most salient point: the characterisation of the two protagonists. It is a fair guess that the inner world...

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Jan Dawson

The most succinct way to describe Man of Marble … is as an East European Citizen Kane. Thematically, Andrzej Wajda's film is concerned with the mechanics of mythology: it explores the apparatus whereby a public image is created, modified and demolished, while simultaneously pursuing its own investigation into the reality behind the official myths. Like Kane, it is concerned with the power of the media to manipulate and even to manufacture truth; but where Welles was conducting a many-levelled enquiry into the power of the press, the medium with which Wajda is centrally concerned is that of the motion picture. His film, even more than Kane, becomes a technical demonstration of his subject...

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Stanley Kauffmann

[My] present opinion of Wajda grows, but does not differ, from what I thought 18 years ago. Wajda has now, quite evidently, the confidence that comes from extensive experience (he also directs in the theater) and from praise. To me, he is still honorably ambitious, still concerned with art that flourishes out of social tensions; also, he is still maladroit in method and selection, imitative, "unrecognizable" except in his excesses and faults….

Without Anesthesia (1978) is a metaphoric, perhaps binary, film…. Politically Without Anesthesia doesn't say much more than that one can be in favor or disfavor, arbitrarily: the politics of the protagonist, a journalist-teacher, is not clear....

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Elliott Stein

[The Young Girls of Wilko] is ironically elegiac, one of Andrzej Wajda's least vehement and most beautiful films….

It is a film about lost opportunities and missed chances, of delicate undercurrents of the sort generally best left to literature. The shadowy, distant, and possibly affectless Wiktor never completely reveals himself to anyone; it is likely that his attraction is his emptiness—it can contain whatever those who love him wish to project.

Elliott Stein, "Reports from the New York Film Festival: 'The Young Girls of Wilko'" (copyright © 1979 by Elliott Stein; reprinted by permission of the author), in Film Comment, Vol. 15, No. 6,...

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Ryszard Koniczek

[Rough Treatment] is the continuation of the line Wajda had adopted in the Man of Marble. A directly contemporary subject and a reporting style, quick, banal with no sophisticated symbols and in-frame compositions emphasise the shift in approach of the "romantic-baroque" plastic artist of the screen…. But in principle, Wajda is still deeply himself, a dramatic artist, violent, imposing his own philosophical point of view. The usual, the everyday, the trite—which are the essence of life—head toward tragedy in Rough Treatment. Wajda has never fitted into standard categories, Aristotle's logic, Cartesian motivation. His most epic subjects, such as Ashes or Land of Promise, as...

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