Film-Philosophy

International Salon-Journal (ISSN 1466-4615)

Vol. 8 No. 40, November 2004

 

 

 

 

 

 

Hedwig Gorski

 

Wajda's Films Bequest the Irony in Polish History:

On _The Cinema of Andrzej Wajda_

 

 

_The Cinema of Andrzej Wajda: The Art of Irony and Defiance_

Edited by John Orr and Elzbieta Ostrowska

Foreword by Andrzej Wajda

London: Wallflower Press, 2003

ISBN 1-903364-89-2

227 pages

 

John Orr and Elzbieta Ostrowska, editors of the _The Cinema of Andrzej Wajda: The Art of Irony and Defiance_, collected articles that address the progress of the Lifetime Achievement Oscar-winning filmmaker's aesthetical development under and away from the strictures of the Communist Party. Wajda, a major auteur of Polish cinema since his graduation from the famous Film School in Lodz in the 1950s, managed to continue producing world-class films despite government censorship, martial law, and the shift to a capitalist commercialism in the 1990s. While Wajda's career spans the ebb and flow of political censorship and the nation's economic hardships, there are several constants that characterize the filmmaker's aesthetic. A majority of his films are based on the Polish literary canon, they appeal to the eye due to Wajda's *cinepainting* camera, and they are grounded in the post-war Polish School's inclinations to confront local history while addressing social and moral problems. Like the major defining cultural trait of the Polish soul, Wajda's films can be called romantic-expressive, regardless of the adaptive stylistic variations they encompass within the movements of Poland's national and cultural history.

 

The enlightening Foreword of the book was written by the director in 2001 and offers insights into his ideas about the positioning of his films in a Polish national cinema, the influence of American films, as well as what his films might offer future generations of Polish filmmakers. Polish artists who reaped the benefits of state-supported financing for their projects, while avoiding the blades of communist party censors, must now face the commercial marketplace of advancing philistinism that accompanies the democratized box office. As Wajda states: 'The intelligentsia is in retreat. The ethos of the intelligentsia is disappearing', while expressing some nostalgia for the Polish cinema that 'was born only to speak about the disasters of this nation' (xiv-xv). He bequeaths his cinematic accomplishments to the future *barbarians* who will make the European world 'young and healthy', thus making his films worthwhile because the youth 'will learn our language, fall in love with our past and our culture . . . [to] create beautiful Polish art' (xvii). Clearly, Wajda's *beauty* reflects a romantic vision.

 

As the editors point out in the Preface, Wajda has been able to 'harness different traditions of realism, romanticism, and modernist reflexivity in forging a coherent filmic vision of his native country and its modern predicament' (xix). Nationalism provided the cornerstone for much of the country's art due to its centuries old struggle against repeated imperialistic interlopers on either side of the shifting Polish borders. This sort of public and political responsibility would seem to stifle artistic imagination. Instead, Poland has succeeded in producing at least two major filmmakers of genius, adding Polanski to the pantheon Wajda occupies, in addition to its canon of Nobel laureates in literature. There exists, also, the dramatic theory of Jerzy Grotowski's Poor Theater to impress non-Polenphiles. Some would add Kieslowski to Wajda's pantheon along with Polanski, raising the number of Polish cinematic geniuses on global screens to three. It would seem that the Polish mind thrives on adversity and the near insurmountable pressures wrought by adapting to shifting political winds. Polish nationalism is as inescapable as the nation's history for Wajda and the rest; nevertheless, national cinema in Poland, as in the rest of Europe, faces globalization, with Hollywood's influence gaining even more dominance.

 

John Orr's essay, 'At the Crossroads: Irony and Defiance in the films of Andrzej Wajda', introduces the novice and intermediate reader to Polish cinema's ties with Poland's history as artfully revisited in Wajda's films. Perhaps the primary irony comes from the benefits that artists reaped from the Polish communist state, which provided free higher education and supported the artistic intelligentsia. For example, grand opera and the classics as well as Polish folk traditions were the birthrights of, and made available to, peasants as well as Party dignitaries. The stature of the Film School of Lodz that graduated Wajda was an outcropping from the State's belief in film as a higher art form than, say, Hollywood's capitalist commercialism views it. There is further irony in that Polish filmmakers must now compete, even locally, with commercialism and Hollywood.

 

Wajda's most recent epic film, _Pan Tadeusz_, addresses this sort of competition from the notion of the legacy to the younger generation of 'barbarians', as he calls them. Are they barbarians, I wonder, because commercialism negates the necessary idealism of their antecedents? What better legacy is there for Polish cinema and its audience than Wajda's return to the nineteenth-century Romanticism closest to the filmmaker's and Polish hearts! As Orr points out, Wajda's 1999 film version of the Mickiewicz epic poem confirms the filmmaker's continuing supremacy among his peers, even after having 'cast aside the heavy cloak of defiance' (14). Wajda's re-issuing of the more refined, higher resonances of Polish culture found in Mickiewicz provides only one new model for Polish National Cinema as it adapts to globalism. The idea of being responsible for leaving a grand and elevated nationalistic legacy becomes, then, so very characteristic of Wajda, making obvious the auteur's sense of community responsibility by making beautiful, but thoughtful, films. Michael Goddard's essay compares how Grotowski's theatre and Wajda films re-inscribe the 'legacy of Polish Romanticism and Symbolism in a contemporary context' (132). Goddard conflates both directors' application of the Mickiewicz legacy into a reduction constituting 'individual metamorphosis', using Mickiewicz as their 'model for heroic subjectivity' (138).

 

Most of the essays in the book refer to _Pan Tadeusz_ (1999), Wajda's romantic 'aesthetic renewal' and reflection of the 'deep harmony in the order of things' (Orr 14) while discussing his oeuvre of films. Orr points out that Wajda managed to create a masterpiece (a touchstone for the book's discussions of his other films) nearing the end of his career. In doing so, Wajda succeeded in resolving the weaknesses found in Ryszard Ordynski's 1928 version that coincided with the tenth anniversary of Polish independence. Though popular with audiences, the Ordynski adaptation was criticized for trivializing the Mickiewicz poem and for its lack of originality (Haltof 14). Wajda distances himself from the postcolonial (Kalinowska 75) deconstruction of the Polish gentry's world even as his _Pan Tadeusz_ coincides with the tenth year of Poland's post-communist political transformation. Lisa Di Bartolomeo's essay discusses Wajda's successful adaptation process for the film, while Izabela Kalinowska's essay looks at exile, homeland, and Wajda's romantic vision as the potential for a retrograde move toward colonial ideals. She rightly points out the contradictions built into the modern adaptation of nineteenth-century history -- adaptations that are filled with reversals of Poland's imperialistic past.

 

Tadeusz Lubelski's essay discusses the auteur's reflexivity in _Everything's for Sale_ (1968), a film about making a film on the heels of the European New Wave. Lubelski properly identifies the role of the author-characters in the film as 'therapeutic', serving as 'guardians of the Romantic myth of origins' who invite the audience to 'participate in a communal ritual . . . to recognize the community's identity' (45). Lubelski's essay provides a contrasting comparison to the Parisian salon scene in _Pan Tadeusz_ where Mickiewicz, the exiled author, reads the 'vivid and radiant myth of Poland' to an audience of emigres severed from the Polish-Lithuania world in which the Mickiewicz plot is set (44). Kalinowska describes an event in Connecticut where Polish-Americans wept for and cheered Wajda's film and the traditions of the Polish gentry so characteristic of Polish culture. Lithuanians, as well as Ukranians, nevertheless experienced the Poles on their soil as colonizers. Lithuanians viewing the film could be neither as distant nor unattached as the audience in the Parisian salon, nor would they cry with nostalgia for the lost *Polish* homeland Mickiewicz idealizes. Such are the paradoxes built into a world view that Wajda's Polish nationalism sublimates.

 

Ostrowska's essay discusses the _The Wedding_ (1972) -- Wajda's adaptation of the Stanislaw Wyspanski play -- and other more obscure Wajda films for the benefit, perhaps, of a non-Pole audience with less access to Wajda's entire film catalogue. She evokes a sensuality within the 'spiritual metaphor of Polishness' (47) and the moral duty to motherland. It is also satisfying to read about _A Chronicle of Amorous Incidents_ (1986), a beautiful film with its haunting 'idyllic' images of a wedding-suicide pact involving a school boy enamoured of a school girl whose military father opposes the relationship. As Ostrowska points out, 'the destructive influence of History is often to blame' for the absence of contented love in Wajda's films (51). This mirrors a ubiquitous theme in Polish culture and art: the abrupt graduation from youthful innocence to adult communal responsibility caused by war or social conflict. While the purpose of Wajda's defiance has been exhausted, any artistic reflection upon the historic past cannot escape its irony.

 

I read the final scene of _A Chronicle of Amorous Incidents_ in two different ways after two viewings on Polish television. After the first viewing, I agreed with Ostrowska's interpretation, that the bombs exploding meant a sure death for the two young lovers awakened from their failed suicide attempt. Seeing the film again, though, it seemed the lovers had died and their ghosts rose to face the responsibilities of the war, to bolster the twentieth-century Polish soul against the cynicism wrought by oppression and horror with the reminder of their fragile and idealistic young love. I wonder if Wajda thought about the ambiguity in the scene's meaning; however, I must admit that I have not read the novel upon which the film is based. Nonetheless, a variety of viewing experiences and interpretations of symbolic ambiguities only serves to underscore the greatness of the film, and the genius of the filmmaker responsible for such intricate layering.

 

The coverage of Wajda's films in the book is not far from being comprehensive, thanks to the editors and the expertise of the other contributors -- all being academics or critics from Europe and the United States. The articles reference many of his films, while offering varied and more extensive discussions of those films which received wider distribution. The bibliography provides useful titles for research into the work of a filmmaker about whom discussion could never be exhausted.

 

A good book to read in conjunction with Orr and Ostrowska's Wajda collection is _Polish National Cinema_ (2002) written by Marek Haltof and published by Berghahn Books. Haltof provides a context for Wajda's films that deals with the Polish film industry since its beginnings in 1902. The Polish historical and political timeline is referenced with much more factual detail, and the focus is on the growth of the Polish national cinema as compared to the European and American film industries. Provided this context, Wajda's accomplishments seem even more unique and outstanding. Haltof's extensive discussions about the major Wajda films include fascinating statistics about their box office reception. This is the type of information the more theoretical Orr and Ostrowska collection necessarily avoids.

 

There is little else lacking in _The Cinema of Andrzej Wajda_. Some of the most fascinating, but minor threads of discussion include the strategies Wajda used to avoid communist party censorship, as well as on the relationships and influences of the producers and cinematographers with whom Wajda collaborated to make his films. The myth about the advanced skills and instincts of Polish cinematographers continues, even in Hollywood. In Poland, the cinematographer's importance to a film is almost level with the director's. Perhaps a future title could discuss the influences of cinematographers on Wajda's formidable cinematic painter's eye and its romantic visions.

 

Carencro, Louisiana, USA

 

 

Copyright Film-Philosophy 2004

 

 

Hedwig Gorski, 'Wajda's Films Bequest the Irony in Polish History: On _The Cinema of Andrzej Wajda_', _Film-Philosophy_, vol. 8 no. 40, November 2004 <http://www.film-philosophy.com/vol8-2004/n40gorski>.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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