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Afterimage: looking back at the films of the late, great Polish director Andrzej Wajda

Afterimage: looking back at the films of the late, great Polish director Andrzej Wajda

The films of Andrzej Wajda, who died last month at the age of 90, were animated by a fierce desire to bring the past to life and look at it unflinchingly. Carmen Gray considers the legacy of the great Polish director

21 November 2016

In a scene from Andrzej Wajda’s masterpiece Ashes and Diamonds, a Polish resistance fighter and a hotel porter reminisce about Warsaw as the Second World War comes to an end; about the old town and the chestnut trees that were destroyed when Nazi forces razed much of the city to the ground after the Uprising. The directing great lived his last days in the rebuilt capital. When news went around guests of the Warsaw Film Festival that he had just died at age 90, many of us were at a tequila party celebrating the premiere of Tales Of Mexico. Hosted by its young Polish co-producers at a sleekly renovated “concept bar”, the setting gave its own sense of the inescapable — and irrepressible — force of time; of a resurgence of outward-looking creative energy that seems far removed from the Warsaw that lay in ruins after the war.

But just as spirited resistance is the beating heart of Wajda’s work (in a Poland first under Nazi, then under Soviet occupation), it is arguably still the essence of a city that’s proved capable of such rapid transformation. An air of defiance is again strong in the air, as returning conservatism threatens Warsaw’s new vibrancy, and the successful “black protest” strikes against proposed tougher abortion laws earlier signal a refusal to quietly acquiesce to the machinations of state authorities. Amid a wider European landscape of ever-more aggressive incursions on political openness and personal freedoms, it’s an apt time to revisit Wajda’s towering body of work, and its ever-recurring questions.

A real city remembers its ghosts, and for all its urge to revive, Warsaw’s commitment to this can still be felt. The morning after Wajda’s death, I joined a small group of filmmakers, producers and other journalists on one of the festival’s organised city walks — that day around “Jewish Warsaw”. We soon realised the indispensability of the guide: there were so few physical traces of the once-thriving community (fragments of the ghetto wall, a side street of “authentic” brickwork that survived the fires), that we had to be shown where to look.

Wajda realised that cinema has the power to create images imbued with the aura of memory

The first stop was a striking statue strewn with fresh sunflowers of Janusz Korczak, standing on a dead tree shaped like a seven-candlestick menorah. The doctor and orphanage head had refused to leave his children and accompanied them to Treblinka’s death chambers. Wajda made a film, Korczak, about him in 1991, from a script by Agnieszka Holland. It bitterly divided audiences on its Cannes premiere, over whether it adequately addressed the complicity of some Poles in Nazi atrocities. It’s a raw nerve that underlies heated debate both within and outside the country on a number of Poland’s films about the Holocaust; the kind of debate that keeps history alive. Wajda realised that cinema has more power than any monument to create images imbued with the aura of memory; to bring the past — or at least, our perspective of it — back to visibility. In a razed, rebuilt city such as Warsaw, such recreations take on a special, urgent significance.

Wajda’s engagement with history was highly personal and drawn from harsh experience. His army officer father was executed in the 1940 Katyn massacre by the Soviets, who in a cover-up blamed the Nazis. After the fall of communism, Wajda was finally able to make a film (2007’s Katyn) about the atrocity and the suppression of the truth over culpability by the Soviet authorities. Wajda himself had joined the Polish resistance at age 16 and served in the Home Army before he embarked on an artistic road, studying painting and entering the famed Łódź Film School. The role of the Home Army as the war comes to an end is the subject of Ashes and Diamonds (1958). Polish underground member Maciek must weigh the high price of political commitment in times hostile to the charms of normal life when he falls in love with a barmaid, but is pressed to carry an assassination through. Played by Zbiegniew Cybulski, he has a rebellious cool that Wajda modelled on James Dean. We soon learn his dark glasses are not just for show and reflect the extreme stakes of his activities, his eyesight having been damaged from the constant darkness of the sewers during the Warsaw Uprising (an insurgency Wajda had covered head-on in his prior, Cannes-awarded Kanal).

Wajda managed to stay prolific, walking that complicated line familiar to many making films under the communist regime — signalling dissent where he could, while placating the censors enough to allow him to keep working (the less than rosy fate of Maciek, for instance, toned down any glamour of rebellion). Wajda’s Man of Marble (1977) is startlingly frank, though its script and release were obstructed for more than 15 years. A sophisticated epic of multiple layers, it follows headstrong film student Agnieszka (Krystyna Janda) as she endeavours to make her thesis film on Mateusz Birkut. A bricklayer elevated as a socialist worker hero by the Party, his likeness was made into propagandist statues. As she delves into archive material about his mysterious fall from grace and her research begins to reveal Stalinist corruption, she faces obstruction from the authorities. Her double denim and use of flirtation as a means of research persuasion may seem dated, but her firebrand civic determination hasn’t faded in appeal. In a moment of depression she’s tempted to admit defeat, but realises that even if her project is quashed her own need for truth is enough, so she seeks out Birkut’s son in the Gdansk Shipyard — site of the riots central to the rise of Solidarity, the Polish worker union formed separate to the communist party. Wajda, a strong Solidarity supporter, made it the focus of sequel Man of Iron, which won the Palme d’Or at Cannes.

In Man of Marble Agnieszka surreptitiously shoots the form of a Birkut statue lying on its side in a dusty museum storeroom — art for ideological sake, decommissioned and hidden away as soon as it ceases to serve the state. The uses and abuses of art for political ends was a constant theme for Wajda: near the beginning of his final film Afterimage (2016), a massive banner of Stalin blocks the window of avant-garde painter Wladyslaw Strzeminski. It casts a sordid red across the room and blocks the light he needs to create. Reaching out the window, he tears a hole in the monstrous fabric obstruction in frustration — an act which swiftly brings the police knocking.

Afterimage reveals an auteur not mellowed in his biting advocacy of truthful dissent

The film, Poland’s submission for this year’s Oscars, screened at the Warsaw Film Festival shortly after Wajda’s passing. While its form may be fairly conventional for a biopic about a proponent of uncompromising radicalism, it’s a forceful tribute to someone Wajda clearly viewed as a kindred spirit and reveals an auteur not mellowed in his biting advocacy of truthful dissent. As we see in its focus on the painter’s last four years until his death in 1952, the state went after Strzeminski in its repression of art that did not conform to the dictates of Socialist realism. Authorities removed him from his teaching post and refused him work, food stamps or the credentials to buy art supplies in a form of passive murder by denial of the means to physical and spiritual sustenance.

The title of Afterimage is taken from Strzeminski’s Soloist paintings “Afterimages of the Sun”. It’s explained that an “afterimage” is the imprint that stays on the retina when the original has faded. It’s a fitting name for Wajda’s work in general, you could say, in his recapturing for us a vision of lost historical moments; of past beacons of resistance.

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