A giant of Polish and international cinema just passed away at the ripe age of 90. Andrzej Wajda, perhaps the best known Polish film director alongside Krzysztof Kieslowski, has had a long and fascinating life, as tumultuous and fascinating, and ultimately uplifting, as the recent history of his, and mine, homeland.
Wajda was born in 1926, the year when the democratic experiment in the recently reborn independent Poland ended with Marshall Pilsudski assuming power as was the vogue throughout Europe of the interwar years. Wajdaâ€™s father was a Polish Army officer who in 1939 was taken prisoner of war by the Soviets and year later murdered with some 15,000 fellow Polish officers in what became known as the Katyn massacre.
In 1942, at the age of 16, Wajda joined the anti-Nazi resistance, becoming a member of Armia Krajowa (Home Army, owing its allegiance to the Polish government in exile in London). His experiences inspired his work on a wartime film trilogy (â€œA Generationâ€, â€œThe Sewerâ€, which won the special jury prize at Cannes in 1957, and â€œAshes and Diamondsâ€).
After the war, Wajda studied painting and then moved on to motion pictures. Throughout his long career he was to be a prolific and widely feted director. He is perhaps best known for the duology â€œThe Man of Marbleâ€ (1976), which looked back at Stalinism in Poland, and â€œThe Man of Ironâ€ (1981), based loosely on the birth of Solidarity in the Gdansk shipyards a year earlier, with a cameo by Lech Walesa as himself. The film won him a Palm dâ€™Or at Cannes but no such recognition from Polandâ€™s communist rulers who drove his film company out of business.
Wajda was fortunate to live long enough to enjoy a quarter of a century in independent Poland, free of German and Russian occupations and free from government censorship. In 2007 he made â€œKatynâ€, in part, one thinks, a tribute to his father. It was nominated for an Oscar for the Best Foreign Film â€“ as were three other films in Wajdaâ€™s career. In 2000, he was given an honorary Oscar for his contribution to international cinema.
Wajda kept an active life right until the end, directing and teaching younger generations of film-makers.
His vision will be missed.