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‘To live, is to forget’ – the Cinema of Andrzej Wajda: Recollections, Personal

October 13, 2016 | By

Andrzej Wajda is one of the leading film directors of the world and probably the most prominent Polish one along with the likes of Krzysztof Zanussi‎, Roman Polanski‎ and Krzysztof Kieślowski‎ among others. Winner of the lifetime award at the Academy Awards (Oscar) in 2000, Wajda also won several prestigious ones including BAFTA award for Danton, Honorary Golden bear at Berlin International Film Festival in 2006, Palme d’ Or at Cannes Film Festival for Man of Iron, Jury special prize at Cannes Film Festival for Kanal and Career Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival in 1998 to name some. The master director passed away on 9 October 2016. Silhouette editor Amitava Nag recollects watching a few films of Andrzej Wajda and their everlasting impressions.

Andrzej Wajda (6 March 1926 – 9 October 2016)

Andrzej Wajda (6 March 1926 – 9 October 2016)

Any sensitive individual, mostly, by virtue of his/her experience is bound to become anti-establishment.  Establishment talks in terms of power, in terms of pomp and it has no ideology – capitalist, Leftist or otherwise. It is imperative hence for a creative being to be frustrated within the aegis of State sponsorship simply because the State wants one version of truth that suits its own purpose. This is where Andrzej Wajda’s cinema emanates from. Wajda whose personal experiences of the WWII makes him disillusioned with the war had ultimately turned away from Communist hegemony as he witnessed the Leftist regime in his native Poland. Like the great masters, Wajda’s films don’t have heroes in the mold of the opulent Hollywood western films. For Wajda, there are no individual glories in war, only collective sorrow for whichever side you are on.

In the early ‘90s I watched Wajda’s War Trilogy – A Generation (1954), Kanal (1957) and Ashes and Diamonds (1958) as part of the film shows of our beloved film club at the Presidency College, Calcutta. I can still remember watching Kanal in a silent auditorium (which otherwise used to be generally abuzz with romantic couples searching for intimacy within the college auditorium in a city indifferent to young lovers) where we were spell bound with the enigmatic last scene where the general goes back to the sewer in search of his lost company. A film that was based on the unsuccessful Warshaw uprising of 1944 choked us with the power of its monotone visuals and the absolute inescapable noose round our throat. We had already watched films by then that had War representations viz. The Bicycle Thieves and Ivan’s Childhood. Both have a tremendous sense of forlorn sadness, a touch of helpless subjugation. Yet both the films have grandeur in the landscaping; the visuals and the narrative have an openness indicated by the vast frames and vibrant camera compositions. In Kanal on the contrary we felt claustrophobic, as if we ourselves are getting throttled in the sewer with no hope or chance to return to a better life. There was no hope left and no scope of romantic dalliance with philosophy, only the stark narrative hits the conscience more directly.

Trailer of Kanal

Ashes and Diamonds was a film which remained close to hearts for being more stylized and for the irresistible Zbigniew Cybulski who was also referred to as the European James Dean! Like some of Wajda’s later films Ashes and Diamonds is allegorical with symbols strewn all over the film.  There is this excellently crafted scene where we find the protagonist (who was necessarily an anti-hero) lighting vodka within glasses as if in remembrances of dead friends and colleagues during the war, only to be stopped by his companion who extinguishes the match stick and proclaims coldly “But, we are alive.”

A still from Innocent Sorcerers

A still from Innocent Sorcerers

There have been typical, commercial representations of this assassin prototype in Hollywood as well as in Hindi cinema where the ultimately the protagonist turns out to be a hero either through some benevolent deed in the end or by some flashback logic of a troubled past justifying the present. In Maciek, Wajda didn’t sow any seed of compassion, it was just that he loved killing! Yet, when he meets a girl and wants to be close with her he gets confused and yet understands there is life beyond death. It was too late for him then he had to kill the Communist leader he was commissioned to shoot and then die.

Trailer of Ashes and Diamonds

Innocent Sorcerers (1960) was a film that didn’t have ‘war’ as its central theme although the disillusionment of the central characters was teeming with undertones of a savaged past. Yet, like the French Nouvelle Vague this film has a sleek elegance of youthful arrogance and sexual flirtations that appealed to me when I watched it as a student. The pretense of sophistication that was indeed vulnerable in spite of a game of seduction was something that we loved to associate with and could find a style reference in the films of Godard and Truffaut. In the end when their alienation with self, society and opposite gender is complete, the young doctor and the mysterious girl were both amiable and innocent and foremost, they were romantic weaklings. Who could forget the memorable strip poker game which changed from seductive to languid  all too delicately posing a challenge to the Polish youth of the contemporary times?

Krystyna Janda in Man of Marble

Krystyna Janda in Man of Marble

The chance of watching Wajda again came much later with the two magnificent ones – Man of Marble (1977) and Man of Iron (1981). Shot in documentary style and mixing Polish newsreels the duo are important for understanding the politics of Andrzej Wajda in his resentment towards the Stalinist rule and the Russian supremacy over Poland post the WWII. Not the least for the beautiful Krystyana Janda whom we discovered previously in Istvan Szabo’s delicately powerful Mephisto.

Two other Wajda films that captivated me are Everything for Sale (1968) and Landscape after the battle (1970). The first one which is a film-within-film is a tribute to Wajda’s friend, close associate and the maverick actor Zbigniew Cybulski who died a precarious death while trying to jump on a running train. The opening sequence of a film shooting about a person running to catch a train, missing and being run over is lifted straight out of Wajda’s personal tragedy towards his friend; yet, as the film progressed we are constantly torn back and forth by the questions of life, the meaning of survival and the futility of future plans. The interrelation between art and reality is so deeply superimposed that at times as viewer we find it difficult to comprehend whether what is been shown is the reality of the film or the film being shot within it. With Landscape after the battle, Wajda returns again to his favourite theme of his country during and after WWII. Being a visual artist Wajda’s treatment of landscape has always been remarkable from the first tracking shot of the Kanal to the climactic scene of Ashes and Diamond where after the final assassination we find fireworks go up in the sky as if to mock Maciek and then again in Landscape after the battle whose schematic resemblance with Ashes and Diamonds is significant.

Krystyna Janda in Sweet Rush

Krystyna Janda in Sweet Rush

The cacophony of love and life, of memories and displacements resonate in the films of my beloved Ritwik Ghatak as well and in a sense thinking of Wajda’s films almost always reminds me of Ghatak.  Like Wajda, Ghatak as well returned to one major theme in most of his films either actively or passively. If WWII was Wajda’s mainstay, the Partition of Bengal after WWII was Ghatak’s.  Both had communist ideologies but both criticized the Communist regimes or power structures in their own land through their films. In Everything for Sale, the protagonist comments – “To live is to forget”. It becomes ironical since he can’t forget his own past or the collective past of the nation and also he finds it difficult to come to terms with the present. Isn’t that applicable to Wajda as well in the way he returns to his bruised memories and charred recollections? Or, to Ritwik Ghatak?

The last Wajda film that I watched was Sweet Rush (2009) in the Kolkata International Film Festival a few years back. It had two parallel stories – a film being shot about the love of an ageing woman for a young man in a small town of Poland in the 1950s. The parallel story is of Krystyna Janda who played Marta, the actress and monologues of Krystyna about her own life with Edward Klosinski, her husband, a famous cinematographer and Wajda’s close friend who died of cancer shortly before the shooting of Sweet Rush. Similar to Everything for Sale in concept but starkly different in mood, technique and aesthetics, Sweet Rush becomes a telling fable of life, love and impending death where art gets submerged into reality.  It was a rare experience of watching something noble which words may find difficult to express. Nonetheless I tried my hand at a poem written a day or two after watching the film whose impact stayed beyond its screening time:

Sweet Rush

The night grays at getting older –
I clasp my hand in yours,
Are we close enough? I wonder
I wanted to split you open,
I wanted to split me open – as my past
Tinges my love with the dews of sorrow.

I have become my shadow
To lift from your pain, to caress your empty lips
I bare my heart and
I bear your heart –
They read when the words
Have finally gone to sleep

(All pictures are courtesy Google Image Search)

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Amitava Nag is an independent film critic based in Kolkata and editor of Silhouette. His most recent books on cinema are Murmurs: Silent Steals with Soumitra Chatterjee, 16 Frames and Smriti Sattwa o Cinema. His earlier writings include the acclaimed books Satyajit Ray’s Heroes and Heroines published by Rupa and Beyond Apu: 20 Favourite film roles of Soumitra Chatterjee published by Harper Collins India. He also writes poetry and short fiction in Bengali and English – observing life in a platter. He can be reached at
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