My first encounter with Andrzej Wajda was in the sixth form in 1966 when the school film society showed Ashes and Diamonds. I knew next to nothing about Polish politics immediately after the Soviet liberation, but the film left an indelible impression – not least due to the compelling  black and white cinematography (the first time I can remember that aspect of film-making having an impact on me) – though the central performance by Zbigniew Cybulski – lean, gun-toting, feelings impenetrable behind dark glasses James Dean style – was a major factor, too. More than a decade would pass before I would be re-acquainted with the work of Andrzej Wajda whose death, aged 90, was announced this week.

Ashes and Diamonds remains one of the few films from which key scenes unspool in my mind at the slightest bidding. In the opening minutes the camera pans down from a church steeple topped by a cross to two men dozing in bright sunlight by the side of a country road that stretches to the horizon. A vehicle approaches, the men leap to their feet, firing machine guns and killing the jeep’s occupants. It’s the morning of the first day of peace.

Zbigniew Cybulski in Ashes and Diamonds
Zbigniew Cybulski in Ashes and Diamonds

Based on a pro-communist novel by Jerzy Andrzejewski, Wajda’s film plunges us into the struggle for Poland that began in the last days of World War 2 between the underground anti-communist Polish army and pro-communist forces supported by the advancing Soviet forces. Wajda subtly altered the slant of Andrzejewski’s novel, shifting the viewers’ sympathies towards Maciek, an anti-communist soldier who is beginning to experience doubts about continuing his struggle as the war ends.

He would rather kill a man, even against his own will, than give up his arms. He is typical of his generation: he depends only on himself and on a well concealed gun, reliable and accurate. I love these uncompromising young men and I understand them. I want my modest film to reveal to the cinema audience the complicated and difficult reality of my generation.

Ashes and Diamonds: the opening sequence

I remember being gripped by the noirish styling and thriller pacing of the film, but more than that, for the first time when watching a film, by the photography and imagery: an inverted crucifix in a rubble-strewn church, a riderless white horse, vodka shot glasses aflame on a bar like votive candles, fireworks illuminating the scene of a brutal assassination. And most of all, the final sequence in which the mortally-wounded Cybulski is pursued through lines of flapping white sheets before dying on a rubbish tip. The sequence is intercut with shots from a banquet in a local hotel where reactionaries, turncoats, and communists drunkenly sing and join hands to celebrate the new order.

Ashes and Diamonds has come to be regarded as one of the great masterpieces of Polish cinema, celebrated, for example, by Martin Scorsese and the Greek director Theo Angelopoulos, who claimed it as one of ten defining masterpieces of world cinema.

Ashes and Diamonds: the final scene

More than ten years went by before I was re-acquainted with Wajda’s work. In 1980 a group of us had joined forces with the founder of Liverpool’s radical bookshop News From Nowhere to launch the short-lived Another View Film Society, dedicated to screening political, challenging films, where possible with guest speakers providing a short introduction.

In August 1980, workers at the Gdańsk shipyard went on strike and formed the independent trade union Solidarity. A wave of strikes spread through Poland and as Solidarity became a national organisation the Communist government cracked down on dissent. This was the context for our screening of Man of Marble, a film completed by Wajda in 1976, but not seen outside Poland until after 1978 when the Polish authorities granted it an export license.

 Jerzy Radziwilowicz in Man of Marble
Jerzy Radziwilowicz in Man of Marble

Wajda first had the idea for the film in 1962, but his script was banned by the authorities. In those years, Poland went through cycles of hard-line repression, social and industrial unrest followed by a political thaw. In 1956, following Stalin’s death and the death of the hard-line Communist leader Bierut, Gomułka’s regime became temporarily more liberal, freeing many people from prison and expanding some personal freedoms. It was during this window of greater artistic freedom that Wajda made his great trilogy on the divided loyalties of wartime Poland: A Generation (1955), Kanał – a pioneering account of the 1944 Warsaw uprising – (1957) and Ashes and Diamonds (1958).

In 1975 history repeated itself when government increases in food prices led to riots and unrest across the country. Once again disturbances were followed by a short period of liberalisation. The hated Gomulka was replaced by younger, more flexible politicians. Wajda was finally able to film Man of Marble and get it released in Poland, some three million people seeing it in less than three months. Poles knew that the Communist government had censored the crucial final scene of the film.

In Man of Marble, a student filmmaker, memorably played by Krystyna Janda, is trying to find out what became of a bricklayer who in the Stalinist 1950s had won national fame for his enthusiastic, Stakhanovite feats of productivity and was commemorated in many marble statues. After tracing the worker’s rise as a state-sanctioned hero, she uncovers his decline at the hands of the same government that once extolled him.

The story is told like a thriller, the truth emerging from the Communist propaganda of two decades through the young film-maker’s determination to track down evidence from interviews, newsreels, and closed archives. You are gripped from the opening five minutes, a credit sequence in which Krystyna Janda’s film-maker challenges her boss, defends her right to investigate a story from the then-untouchable Stalinist 1950s, and travels through Warsaw to the fierce beat of  an all-female band. The film, dealing frankly  as it did with the crimes of Stalinism, caused much debate and was a significant factor in strengthening support for the nascent Solidarity movement in the following three years.

By the time we screened Man of Marble the Solidarity movement had emerged, grown into a national movement, been recognised by the government, and then driven underground following the declaration of martial law in 1981. I recall the heightened atmosphere in which we presented the film, followed a week later by Man of Iron, the film in which Wajda portrayed the same characters swept up in the events at the Gdansk shipyard which led to the formation of Solidarity.

In Man of Iron, the Communist government sends a reporter to Gdansk, ostensibly to cover the strike by shipyard workers there but really to smear one of its leaders. The leader turns out to be the son of the bricklayer of Man of Marble, who is married to the young documentary filmmaker who uncovered the truth about his father. Soon the reporter gets caught up in the passion of the event he has been assigned to discredit.

Krystyna Janda and Jerzy Radziwilowicz in Man of Iron
Krystyna Janda and Jerzy Radziwilowicz in Man of Iron

Man of Iron was made in the midst of the ferment as Solidarity grew and expanded through the nation. Members of Solidarity, including the movement’s leader, Lech Walesa, appear in the film alongside fictional characters. Significantly, Wajda was allowed to insert the censored last scene of Man of Marble into Man of Iron. He later recalled:

That was the best sign that in the years between the two movies the Communists really started losing ground.

Wajda organized and ran the Solidarity filmmakers’ union and became an active member of the Committee to Help Workers, a key dissident organisation. After the declaration of martial law, as censorship was re-imposed, Wajda was involved in the clandestine distribution of banned films through underground cassettes. For the next four years the government rejected his film projects, and he was not able to work in his homeland again until 1985. On his website, Wajda recalled how Man of Iron came to be made:

At the Lenin Shipyard in Gdansk, talks between the government and workers had already been underway for some time, but at the beginning, only shreds of information were reaching Warsaw. At the time, the Association of Filmmakers, of which I was president, had won the right to record important historical events for archive purposes, and a group of filmmakers was already at the shipyard.

The workers’ guard at the gate recognised me at once. While I was on my way to the assembly hall, one of the shipyard workers asked: Why don’t you make a film about us? What kind of film? The Man of Iron he answered without hesitation.

I had never made a film to order, but I could not ignore this call. The echo of Man of Marble returned to me; the final scene had ended right here, at the gates of the Gdansk shipyard. This could provide a good excuse for making a new film. […]

Today I still feel a double satisfaction. In the first place, I had not shied away from the creative risks involved in dealing with current events, and secondly, I had managed to make the film before the imposition of martial law.

A few months later, Jaruzelski’s tanks drove into the streets, confirming that the social contract had been signed under force… These were the same tanks which the general had refused to lend me for the film in the autumn of 1980.

‘Wajda didn’t just document history, he also helped make it,’ writes Michael Brooke in his celebration of the director’s work for the BFI’s Sight and Sound.

Gdynia, December 1970: demonstrators carry the body of Zbigniewa Godlewskiego on a door
Gdynia, December 1970: demonstrators carry the body of Zbigniewa Godlewski on a door

In the closing moments of the film, a song is heard on the soundtrack. It concerns ‘Janek Wiśniewskiis’, the fictional name given to a real person, Zbigniew Godlewski, who had been shot dead by security forces during the 1970 protests in the Baltic port of Gdynia. The name had spread across the country in a poem, ‘The Ballad of Janek Wiśniewski’ – to which music was later added:

Don’t cry mothers, it was not in vain
There’s a banner with a black ribbon above the shipyard
For bread and freedom, and for new Poland
Janek Wisniewski fell

Since Man of Iron, Wajda has made many more celebrated films which I have somehow missed. In 2012, Walesa: Man of Hope became the third part of his Solidarity trilogy. There have been several literary adaptations, including the 1979 drama The Maids Of Wilko, based on a short story by Polish poet and author Jarosław Iwaszkiewicz, and Danton, based on a stage play depicting the last months of Georges Danton, one of the leaders of the French Revolution. His most recent film, yet to be seen here, is Afterimage, described as a passionate biopic about the avant-garde artist Wladyslaw Strzeminski who battled Stalinist orthodoxy to advance his progressive ideas about art.

Andrjez Wajda directing
Andrjez Wajda directing

But perhaps his most significant film – both personally and in terms of Poland’s history – was Katyn, made in 2007. Wajda was born in 1926, in a town near Poland’s border with Lithuania. His father was a cavalry officer, and as a boy Andrzej moved with his parents from one military camp to another.

The German Army invaded when he was 12. Two weeks later, the Russians joined in the dismemberment of Poland. The country was quickly overrun by Nazi and Communist forces carrying out the collusion of the Hitler-Stalin pact. Wajda’s father was one of thousands of Polish officers taken prisoner and killed by the Russians in the Katyn Forest in western Russia and two other locations.

Though most Poles knew that it had been the Russians, not the Nazis, who were responsible for the massacres, the official version of events under Communist rule insisted that the Polish officers had been killed by the Germans. Only in 1991 could Wajda, by then an elected senator in post-Communist Poland, make a documentary called The Katyn Forest in homage to his father and those murdered with him. He followed that with his 2007 dramatisation of the events, called simply Katyn, praised by the New York Times as ‘a powerful corrective to decades of distortion and forgetting.’

After his father disappeared, young Andrzej lived through the war with his mother, a teacher, working at odd jobs in the countryside. He also had what he later called “a posting of no significance” with the Home Army, a resistance group sponsored by the anti-Communist Polish government in exile in London.

He enrolled in the Fine Arts Academy in Krakow after the war but transferred to the newly opened Film School in Lodz. He began making films soon after graduating. The rest is history.

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