Over the past three decades, Andrzej Wajda has left his imprint not only on the collective consciousness of his fellow Poles, but on the nation’s current history as well. His best-known film, Man of Iron (81), was a fevered tribute to the emergent Solidarity movement. Rarely has a film carried such a double impact, as a document of Solidarity’s past and a rallying cry for its brief, desperate future.
But if history will remember that picture as his most important, film lovers may well prefer his 1958 masterpiece, Ashes and Diamonds, which starred Poland’s answer to James Dean, Zbigniew Cybulski, as a confused young man who fights against the nascent Communist regime after the war. The same dazzling balance between subject and style is evident in at least two later Wajda films: Everything for Sale (1968), an exploration of the Warsaw film scene in which a Cybulski-like character (played by his heir to the angst-and-fire throne, Daniel Olbrychski) disappears, causing the opening of a celluloid Pandora’s box; and the 1977 Man of Marble, about film and politics in post-Stalinist Poland. Of his more recent films, Danton (82) and the current A Love in Germany, from the Rolf Hochhuth novel about a forbidden love affair between a German shopkeeper (Hanna Schygulla) and a Polish POW (Pyotr Lysak) in Nazi Germany, certainly have the literary weight they mean to convey.
Not only does Wajda continue to uphold poetic realism—the term he uses for his cinematic style even today, when the baroque landscapes of his early films have been replaced by flatter, more epic terrain—but, unlike his fellow Poles Roman Polanski, Jerzy Skolimowski, Krzysztof Zanussi, and Andrzej Zulawski, he still prefers to work in Poland. He is not at all embarrassed to declare that his duty is political and that sometimes visual considerations come second. His upcoming project, about Janusz Korczak, the Polish educator who gave a home to a group of orphan children, many of them Jews, in the Nazi era, continues his preoccupation with the war—another subject he doesn’t try to whitewash. The man has a conscience.
If current events rather than film critics have made Wajda, at 58, a cinéaste celebrity, so much the better. Even as the works abroad he remains the hope—perhaps the sole hope—of Polish cinema. (—D. Y.)
Man of Iron
In A Love in Germany, unlike your other films, you depict the other side of fascism—its emergence in the lives of average people, as opposed to its systemic manifestations.
Yes. In order to exist, a totalitarian system has to be totally unified and uniform—every element, every individual must submit to it. The system has to be able to look into the kitchen and bedroom of the individual in order to be effective. Without an enemy to mobilize the people against, the system can’t create unity. So it creates the enemy. Here, it’s the Polish POW, who obviously can’t threaten the system. All he does is sleep with a German woman—who serves the purpose.
Before, I could only examine the impact of totalitarianism on the victims. Now I wanted to show it from the German side, which I find interesting. I wanted to show evil, so it doesn’t happen again. I think it’s as important and as relevant as ever, because totalitarianism keeps being reborn in different forms.
Including, perhaps, in Poland itself, as you showed in Man of Iron?
Yes, mostly during the Stalinist period. I believe one has to fight against any constraints, anywhere—everywhere the state tries to reign over the individual.
Do you see any hope for personal and artistic freedom in Eastern Europe—especially Poland—given the existing situation there?
It’s my country and I try to earn the possibility to work there with the freedom that I absolutely have to have.
Doesn’t it entail constant struggle against the system, which isn’t necessarily sympathetic, given the critical nature of many of your films?
Of course, but this is also my duty. After all, freedom, no less than constraint, depends on the people—on how much they are willing to live with.
From your own experience, has any of your films affected the people in a real political way, and maybe expanded freedom a little bit?
I have to say yes, because if I didn’t believe that this was true, I wouldn’t have the strength and the courage to make such films. I think the most obvious impact was achieved by Man of Iron. The essence of a political film is in speaking about what is unspoken; in exposing what is concealed; in unveiling the realities behind the events.
In a country like Poland, a filmmaker has to find ways to express these things subtly and indirectly—even though Man of Iron was remarkably straightforward. Do you consider this a challenge?
Yes, but it also complicates the life of the artist and makes art hermetic. We communicate with each other in a language that is understandable only to ourselves. Art is a universal language, so this is obviously unhealthy. But then, we don’t exactly find ourselves in a healthy situation. We, Polish filmmakers, feel that it’s our vocation to make films that nobody else could make for us. To have them shown elsewhere is secondary.
In this case, perhaps then Danton and A Love in Germany, in spite of their non-Polish identity, were meant for Polish audiences, who were expected to find in them specific references to their country?
Danton more so than A Love in Germany, and it was received in this way in Poland. It was shown everywhere and the people understood what it wanted to say. People ask me if Danton represents Walesa and Robespierre the regime. It’s more complicated than that. The public saw a machine that destroyed its people out of fear of the future. They saw a situation where the struggle for power became a goal in itself.
How do you see the prospects of Solidarity these days?
The situation in Poland now is very hard to define. We’re in a state of flux. We’re waiting to see what will happen. The key to the Polish question lies outside of us; only external changes could bring about changes in Poland.
What response do your films get in the Soviet Union?
The last few weren’t shown there, but I know I have many admirers there, and I think my pictures also spoke to the people there.
What do you work with? What inspires you?
A director has only two options: to make films about what he sees around him or to focus on his own creativity and deal incessantly with himself. I make films for a reason, about something that people are preoccupied with, something of import. When I have something to say, I try to say it using different kinds of material—be it The Birch Wood or Landscape After Battle or Man of Marble or Danton. It doesn’t start with me, but with what goes on out there.
Still, your sensibility is highly personal. When do you feel you came closest to expressing yourself through the material?
I’d say in Everything for Sale and Without Anesthesia, even if they don’t seem my most important films. I find myself at my most personal when there’s a situation I want to escape from. That’s when I start afresh, from scratch.
What were you trying to escape from in these cases?
I made Everything for Sale because I was in a very difficult situation at the time. After the success of my first three pictures, which made me well known, I made several films that were setbacks for me. Innocent Sorcerers, Samson, Siberian Lady Macbeth, The Gates of Paradise… They didn’t do well, and I decided that in seeking to start afresh, I needed to draw upon myself. It was natural for me to make a film about filmmaking—about my own problems, about who I am, what I speak about, and to whom.
Without Anesthesia was a different matter. I made it at a time when the regime realized that other authorities—such as the authority of art—were threatening it, so it had to undermine them all in order to assert its own. Suddenly, there was no longer a social life in the department of the university where I taught. I had to react against it.
But sometimes I like to start from scratch simply to keep up with the audience. I’ve been making films for 30 years, and a lot has changed in the world since then, especially the moviegoing public. A director making films in little-known languages in small countries, who needs recognition from abroad in order to survive, is especially vulnerable in this respect.
How do you keep up to date with the audience?
I think about the audience as I think about myself. It is neither more nor less intelligent than I am, neither better nor worse. This is how I can see myself as a delegate of the public.
Of course, there are a lot of coincidences—both lucky and unlucky. I was preparing Danton for several years, but had I made it, as I wanted to, five or six years ago, the French public wouldn’t have accepted it at all. Fortunately, it was released when France became socialist and French society became divided over the infiltration of socialism into daily life—so a film about the French Revolution proved provocative; it triggered discussions. The film itself became a participating voice in the discussion. It aroused real passions.
Everything for Sale
Your early films helped create the Polish School. How was it born and how is it manifested through these films?
It had a natural birth, for two reasons. One was that the directors couldn’t help but make films about their sole experience—the war. The other was Polish literature, which also focused on the war and thereby became our ally. The war was not only the most important event in the lives of people like myself or Andrzej Munk but also for writers like Jerzy Andrzejewski [Ashes and Diamonds] and Borowski. Even if we didn’t actually draw upon Polish literature, it provided us with a helpful background.
The war was so terrible that I felt it could be best described through documentaries. The facts were so terrible that to fictionalize them was difficult. However, since our artistic and literary traditions are romantic, the documentary element appearing in our films soon was blended with fiction. The baroque images, the bitter ironies, the romanticism of my films were all created by the Polish School.
But the Polish School came to an end, because it never found a new subject through which it could evolve and transform itself further. The next subject for Polish cinema was Stalinism.
In what way were films like Innocent Sorcerers and Samson a decline in your creativity?
Innocent Sorcerers could have been a much more interesting film, given the fact that the material was new—at the time, nobody had made a film about the new generation. But I didn’t have good actors. Those I knew were a generation too old. Somebody like Cybulski or even Skolimowski should have played the lead. It could have really been a surprise.
After I finished the film, it was shelved for a year and released only after many changes were made in it. It’s amazing to what extent the authorities found the film shocking: I had to cut a shot in which the hero turns on a stereo with his foot. It was totally unacceptable: in a socialist country, where such a luxury item was the very purpose of life, you simply couldn’t show such nonchalance! It was interpreted as a critique of a view of the world, of the future itself.
The two actors I associate most closely with your work are Zbigniew Cybulski and Daniel Olbrychski. Let’s talk about them.
Cybulski, more than any other actor, represented his generation. He created himself in such a precise manner that you couldn’t distinguish between his film work and his real self. He wore his own skin all the time. It was impossible to have him wear a different costume and make him play somebody else. But these were external characteristics. Inside, what was beautiful was his sense of responsibility to the public, which I never saw anywhere else. I worked with him twice in the theater—we did A Hatful of Rain and Two for the Seesaw, and I must say, he was born for this material. In one performance of A Hatful of Rain in Cracow, in a theater where he once had walk-on parts, he went on the stage and started acting. Then he suddenly stopped and said, “Excuse me, I made a mistake.” And he began the play once again. No other actor would dare do such a thing, but he felt he had a right to it. He had a fantastic imagination.
You know, he was practically blind, so his eyes were expressionless. This is why a close-up of his face would reveal very little. He attempted to compensate for this by movement, by using his silhouette. In Ashes and Diamonds, there are scenes where his legs are the most important thing in the frame—as seen in his silhouette. Directors who didn’t understand all that would not be able to convey what was special about him in their film, even though his work for them was just as good.
He represented a generation for whom life was a gift, a miracle. Olbrychski, on the other hand, belongs to a generation that sports a complex about not having lived through the war—about missing the most important event in modern Polish history. He was born in a cellar in Warsaw during a bombardment and was two years old when the war ended. After the war, the other major event was Stalinism; but his generation lived in the shadow of the previous one.
What came after Stalinism as a subject in Polish cinema?
Solidarity. Of course, it’s only been a short period and not too many films could be made about it, but it will continue to inspire. Krzysztof Kieslowski’s new film, which is yet to be released, is about it—it’s titled Happy End.
How do your projects come into being? For example, Man of Marble.
After I returned from Yugoslavia, where I made such failures as Gates of Paradise, I decided to start from scratch—yet again. Once again, it was a film about filmmaking, taken from a true story. I heard about a bricklayer who was a hero in Stalin’s days, but was later unemployed and couldn’t find work. Thus the subject began to emerge. Actually, it came up before Everything for Sale, but I wasn’t allowed to shoot it for eleven years, so I made the other one instead.
What went wrong with Gates of Paradise?
It’s always difficult to make a film with foreign actors in a strange country. The actors were British, we shot in Yugoslavia—and on top of that, the script was extremely poetic, with blurry contours. It just didn’t work.
You’ve worked in France, Germany… How do you like working abroad?
I work abroad only when I have to. I don’t do it gladly, because I know how difficult it is to make something that makes sense. Actors, especially, can destroy a film that’s made abroad. A bunch of actors manifesting different styles prevent a director from unifying the project, and the result is often something artificial. Then you dub them to get one language, which takes half their soul away.
You’re the only major Polish filmmaker who prefers to stay at home: Polanski, Skolimowski, Zanussi, and Zulawski have all left.
Polanski is a case apart. From the very beginning, he never intended to remain in Poland. He only made his first film there so as to use it as a springboard toward making films abroad.
As for the others, I don’t think they’ve made better films abroad than they did in Poland. This is true about Zanussi and definitely about Zulawski. With Skolimowski, it depends. Deep End is wonderful, but I prefer Bariera and Hands Up! to the others made elsewhere. I think these filmmakers are aware of this themselves—and it’s not surprising. It’s only natural.
Don’t you believe in transcending cultural differences? Look at Milos Forman…
That’s different. I like what Forman contributed to American cinema. One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest couldn’t have existed without him. And Wim Wenders’ Paris, Texas couldn’t have been made by any American director.
Man of Marble
Perhaps Danton couldn’t have been made by anybody else in France.
I think you’re right [laughs]. French directors don’t believe that film should say something serious—they think a serious subject makes a film pretentious. They were baffled by me.
What’s new with your Janusz Korczak project?
I’ve wanted to make it for two years now, and I hope to start before the year is over. I hope I’ll get the go-ahead. I’d like to make an entirely Polish film.
Agnieszka Holland wrote a very good script about the last period of his life. The film begins in the summer of 1939, when he and the children are on vacation, unaware of the horrors yet to come. When they are taken to the ghetto, he fights to keep them alive. But he has a dilemma: he has always taught them to be decent, honest, and not steal—but suddenly they find themselves in a world where cheating and stealing are prerequisites for survival. What is he to do: save their souls or their bodies? Since he can’t save their lives anyway, he chooses their souls. He cements the windows facing the ghetto, to isolate them from it. And he refuses to save his own life, which is offered to him, and prefers to die with his pupils. What kind of a teacher would he be had he left them at such a moment?
Since we don’t know exactly how they died—there were no witnesses—the film will end with a poetic image, which would change it almost into a legend. We’ll see the kids on a train, when suddenly the last car is separated from the rest until it slowly stops. It’s a sunny day, and the kids find themselves in a wheat field with Korczak. They start walking into it until they simply dissolve into the field.
Maybe there’s more inspiration in looking back for subject matter than in looking at the present?
It’s difficult to make something today that is really . . . I keep looking for subjects I could make in Poland, but I also have others that I intend to shoot elsewhere. For example, I’d like to do The Possessed in France, with Gérard Depardieu.
What was it like working with actors such as Gérard Depardieu and Hanna Schygulla?
Easy. They’re both great—they only need to be accepted. There’s no better way to work with them than through discussion and friendship. They need to play for somebody who accepts them. I do. They both have an immense vitality; they give all of themselves, creating the most minute details. Since the script is never completely ready—some scenes and bits of dialogue always have to be changed—there’s a struggle with the material, and we do it together.
You keep mentioning the need of actors to be accepted. Maybe that’s why they become actors. Is there a parallel here? Did you become a director in order to be accepted?
I don’t think so. A director has to believe in himself, since he’s in charge, and not expect the acceptance of others.
Yes, but the reason for wanting to make films…
I want to make those movies that nobody can make for me. I like going to movies, but there are some films nobody else can make. So I do that…
When did you realize that you wanted to direct? And why films?
Lack of character, maybe. I wanted very much to be a painter, but it requires an extraordinary faith in oneself, while imposing great loneliness . . . . You have to be invincible, and I wasn’t that strong. So I became a director—I still could deal with images, and it was much easier. And there were people around me. There are obstacles, of course, so the search to lend something the meaning it should have does involve anguish. But it’s nothing compared with the loneliness of a poet or a writer or a painter.
What kind of childhood did you have?
My childhood resembles the 19th century. I was raised in a huge garrison that housed a cavalry brigade, to which my father belonged. In the winter, we could ski—it all looked like a scene from a John Ford movie. In 1939, this whole Chekhovian image of a slow existence that is remote from the rest of the world simply dissolved.
You said once that you made films to compensate for experiences that you didn’t have in real life.
Yes. My war experience was limited. I was in a concentration camp, so I couldn’t take part in the Warsaw ghetto uprising, so it was natural for me to want to see it on the screen.
What influences on your work do you acknowledge? You once mentioned Elia Kazan, Orson Welles, and even François Truffaut.
There were many . . . . Early on in my career, I was influenced by Italian neo-realism, by people like De Sica, Giuseppe De Santis. I think that Ashes and Diamonds was influenced mostly by the American noir films such as Scarface and The Asphalt Jungle. They were beautiful films. I think that Man of Marble also bears the influence of American cinema.
Man of Iron
Man of Marble was very strong visually, with flamboyant camera movements, while in Man of Iron, the camera is much less important—perhaps because we are watching history in the making.
Right. It was something so close to us that my role was simply to note what had happened. It seemed more important than the notion of cinema.
To stylize the subject would have been to trivialize it?
Exactly. I couldn’t have made it if I were to consider stylistic elements. I think one should make many films in one’s life—and there are subjects that demand immediacy. If I had stopped to think it over, I would have lost my courage. Man of Iron should have been made regardless of its cinematic merit.
How do you reconcile such literary properties as Danton and A Love in Germany with visual decisions?
I try to divide the material into things that have to be said and things that can be shown. I also try to look at as many documentary materials as I can—photographs, documents, from which I go on to reconstruct the story’s reality. I can’t stress enough how important this is. The scene in which Hanna Schygulla is made to carry a sign saying “Pole Lover” is based on a true-life photo, as is the one in which a child licks a lollipop with a swastika. When I show that the hangman of Stani is to be another Pole, and that his reward for the execution is to be three cigarettes—it’s all true. I found plenty of documents, mostly typewritten SS orders, which confirmed everything that Hochhuth wrote.
On A Love in Germany, I decided to make the film in the place where the story actually took place. I then went there in person and discovered a beautiful, tranquil place that contrasted with its mildness the dramatic content of the film. I wanted that effect.
What about camera movements?
I tried to move it only when it was absolutely necessary. In Danton, too, I needed a cool camera which will observe the fervor of the revolution that imbued the people. The frame had to be very tranquil in order to show the abruptness of the protagonists. I tried to have the camera always at eye level and to use one lens, without jumping from long shots to close-ups, so as not to add any expressions of any kind, so as to leave it objective. The jolting had to come from the acting alone.
As opposed to Everything for Sale.
At that time, they started using the zoom lens for features. The long lens, the fuzzy colors… All these were quite original then, so I played with them. Claude Lelouch was the first to use all this in A Man and A Woman. He played with the camera like a child.
Are you an optimist? Or maybe it’s impossible to be both Polish and optimistic at the same time?
I must admit that I do feel optimistic on the basis of the events that took place two years ago: Solidarity marked such an awakening of Polish society after so many years of apathy that . . . I believe that these magnificent people, with their new self-awareness, will prevail.
Do I hear echoes of the same romantic, heroic tradition of Polish literature in your words?
I think so. The tradition is still alive. Outside of the reality of our country, we still retain the image of the country we’d like to have: it’s a better system, a better country.