Tallying up the lifework of Polish demiurge Andrzej Wajda can be like taking on history itself — a national history made up of movies. Having at last given up the ghost this past October, at 90, Wajda, who made his first short when he was 24, left behind a career that ran for a ridiculous 66 years, from 1950 to right now: His last film, Afterimage (2016), follows this Lincoln Center salute with a proper release in May. The New Wave generation is almost gone, and with it a direct line to the idea that movies could and should matter, that they can change lives. Wajda never made a movie for the hell of it — every film on his huge shelf burns with necessity.
Still, he is hardly the model for auteurist neatness. Wajda never hewed closely to a particular theme or tonal sensibility; we may share notions of what’s Godardian or Antonioniesque, but Wajda’s name never became a metonym. Sure, he unavoidably took on the psychosocial whiplash of living under Communism, but what kind of filmmaker was he? You could say Wajda had wide-ranging interests and catholic tastes, but he also held on to a staunch ambivalence: His political films were always more ethically muddy than didactic, and his characters were more zesty existentialist strugglers than victims of oppression. Style-wise, Wajda had little patience for neorealism; fish-eye lenses, voguing performance energy, and emphatic emotional crescendos were the norm, a little more Sam Fuller than Roberto Rossellini. His brute style was, however, always harnessed to a savvy literateness and faith in intelligentsia; Wajda’s was a universe in which artists, students, writers, and cognoscenti forever battled the insidious drift of power and history.
The Film Society’s retro is necessarily selective (though choosing 1980’s The Conductor, a roundly sniffed-over drama starring John Gielgud as a grumpy maestro, over two dozen other humdingers seems eccentric). Quite naturally we start with the WWII trilogy — A Generation (1955), Kanal (1957), and Ashes and Diamonds (1958), a freshman launch that always overshadowed the rest of his output, as happens for some beleaguered visionaries, running from Welles to Rossellini to Coppola.
Had Wajda vanished in 1959, we’d still be talking about him. The three films chart a coming to terms with the war, in reverse: Ashes and Diamonds, a despairing portrait of earnest but doomed Resistance soldiers hunting down traitors and collaborators after the war has officially ended, mourns the tragic gravitational grip of the past, while Kanal, a brutally evocative saga of freedom fighters fleeing from the Nazis and getting lost in the excremental hell of the Warsaw sewers, focuses on a never-ending nightmare present, Dantean and Kafkaesque both. A Generation, the first, is an elegy for a lost future, gazing at the war’s embittered teenagers faced with the unscarred adult lives they’ll never have. The trilogy is densely imagined, angry at life, and filthy with doubt, and remains essential viewing.
Historical or not, Wajda has always made films like a battlefield doctor takes pulses, and his final effort, Afterimage, is typically acerbic, a biopic of the famed modern artist Wladyslaw Strzeminski (Polish diehard Boguslaw Linda), a one-legged Proteus and beloved teacher whose individualistic attitude toward art led to his being whittled down to literally nothing by the Communist state after the war. It’s a vicious and neglected story, emblematic of life in the Red era, though less ambiguous than Without Anesthesia (1978), in which a famous war-zone journalist (Zbigniew Zapasiewicz) suddenly finds his life mysteriously crumbling: His wife leaves him, his classes are canceled, and his profession comes under fire. Late, we realize it’s a divorce story, which as it affects this troubled public figure is a walking metaphor for living under Communism, where secret decisions could alter your world forever.
An epic and unsubtle tale of Industrial Age skulduggery and capitalist indulgence, The Promised Land (1975) hums but pales before the bold insurrectionary diptych of Man of Marble (1977) and Man of Iron (1981), which together interrogated Red propaganda, reaped fest awards, suffered censorship, and gave Solidarnosc a meta-pop-culture leg up. Two of Wajda’s best and relatively undersung films are seemingly distant from politics yet reek of social lostness: Innocent Sorcerers (1960) is an archetypal New Generation ballade in which a young sports medic (Tadeusz Lomnicki) and a fearsomely petulant nightclub pickup (Krystyna Stypulkowska) meet and spar and search for meaning over a single long night. Shot with Wajda’s early Wellesian depth, it’s Poland’s melancholy Sixties-anthem movie, ending as it must in a state of irresolution.
The Maids of Wilko (1979) is all but forgotten, but it’s a tender, strange, and deeply mournful Woolfian drama, set in the 1920s, with Daniel Olbrychski’s veteran of the Polish-Soviet War returning to his aunt’s village and flirting with a family of six sisters he’d dallied with fifteen years earlier. Now one is dead, several are unhappily married, and all are haunted by days gone by and the empty disappointments of the years ahead, a nest of wounds and anxiety the vaguely discontented hero cannot hope to heal. Less psychological than existential, the movie aches with the sorrow of lost opportunities and the bruising march of time.
‘A Tribute to Andrzej Wajda’
Film Society of Lincoln Center