Film

Polish film director Andrzej Wajda represented the voice and conscience of a nation

Polish film director Andrzej Wajda died last year at age 90. Roger Pulvers, whose friendship with him spanned four decades, examines his life, work and his love of Japan and its culture.

by Roger Pulvers

“I stood here just after the end of the war,” Polish film director Andrzej Wajda said. “I was only 19 years old. The entire area was flattened, just rubble. The Stare Miasto (Old Town) was one big gaping pit that I stared into.”

He was beside me on the edge of the Stare Miasto. It was July 1970. The Polish government had painstakingly restored the late-Renaissance and Rococo buildings down to the last sculpted portal. He himself was living in a flat within the Old Town on Plac Zamkowy (Castle Square). I had just arrived in Warsaw at 9:15 that morning and, meeting me at Central Station, this was the first place he took me. I had been to that part of the city before, but this time I was with the film director I most admired in the world. Now that Wajda has passed away — at age 90 on Oct. 9 last year — memories of meetings with him over the years rush at me like bright frames of a film winding back at speed.

I first met Wajda in March 1970 at the Osaka World Expo. He had come to Osaka as the representative of Poland, although the Polish film that was showing was not one that had been directed by him. It was “Matthew’s Days,” directed by Witold Leszczynski, a beautiful and lyrical film based on the novel “The Birds” by Norwegian author Tarjei Vesaas. Having been a postgraduate student in Poland and a passionate fan of Wajda’s work, I approached him after the screening.

The next day I was taking him around Kyoto, from temples and gardens to the narrow alleys of Gion. We took in a performance of bunraku, the traditional puppet theater. He returned to Osaka late that night, and the next I heard from him was in a letter in May. He was then already halfway through the shoot of his film “The Birch Wood.”

“My short expedition to Japan,” he wrote, “was a discovery no less than that of Marco Polo’s. I’m talking a great deal about it here. … I will be spending the summer in the countryside not far from Warsaw. I promise myself to find the time to write long letters to you and perhaps meet, if not in Poland then somewhere else in Europe.”

Roger Pulvers spent three days with Andrzej Wajda and his daughter, Karolina, at the Polish director
Roger Pulvers spent three days with Andrzej Wajda and his daughter, Karolina, at the Polish director’s country home in 1970. | COURTESY OF ROGER PULVERS

I had taken him up on the suggestion and gone to Poland that summer. After walking around the Old Town, he drove me to his country home in Gluchy, a village some 40 kilometers to the east of Warsaw. (He pointed out to me the superb condition of the road, saying, “They keep it this way for Russian tanks that may need to use it.”) His country manor house, furnished in the Napoleonic style that he was so enamored of, was the birthplace of one of the greatest poets of 19th-century Poland, Cyprian Norwid. Wajda and his wife at the time, actress Beata Tyszkiewicz, had bought the manor in 1966. Their daughter, actress Karolina Wajda, now lives there. I spent three days with him at Gluchy that summer of 1970 talking about film, theater, Japan, Poland, the Soviet Union (he was an excellent speaker of Russian), the United States and a host of other subjects.

“You know what appeals to me as a story?” he said one night after dinner with candles burning on the table. The village’s electricity had failed, and the old tall colonnade of trees lining the path leading up to the manor was swaying wildly in a gale. “A film director is making a film, let’s say in a country in South America or somewhere. He begins to feel that he’s omnipotent so he decides to give up filmmaking and become a politician, which he does, finding himself as dictator of the country and able to do whatever he likes.”

“That’s surely not the way you see yourself, is it?” I asked.

“Me? No,” he replied. “It’s more a story about someone like (Federico) Fellini. I’m happy just being a director.”

A sketch by Andrzej Wajda of Kiyomizu Temple in Kyoto.
A sketch by Andrzej Wajda of Kiyomizu Temple in Kyoto. | COURTESY OF MANGGHA MUSEUM OF JAPANESE ART AND TECHNOLOGY IN KRAKOW / ANDRZEJ WAJDA’S ARCHIVE

As a director he had already established himself as a person equally powerful, in terms of influence over the mind-set of his nation, as the Polish head of state. Wajda didn’t need to switch roles to be omnipotent.

His first three films — “Generation” (1954), “Kanal” (1956) and “Ashes and Diamonds” (1958) — had brilliantly and profoundly portrayed Poland in the throes of and on the verge of the aftermath of war, particularly as circumstances had affected the nation’s young. “Generation” featured an actor, Roman Polanski, who later became a famous director himself. (Wajda used Polanski again to great effect and this time in the lead in his 2002 film adaptation of Aleksander Fredro’s classic black comedy, “The Revenge.”)

The title “Ashes and Diamonds” derives from the metaphor in a poem by Norwid in which diamonds, like stars, may be hidden inside a heap of ashes. The hero of “Ashes and Diamonds,” Maciek, is played by Zbigniew Cybulski, the Polish James Dean (only a much better actor). Maciek is mercilessly shot dead at the end of the film. Whoever in Poland will find those diamonds, it won’t be him.

“I saw it as my obligation,” Wajda told me in 1970, “to be the voice of the war dead.”

Wajda became that voice again in a film he made just after the summer of that year, “Landscape after the Battle.” Here he was inspired by Tadeusz Borowski, the Polish poet who survived the concentration camps at Auschwitz and Dachau only to take his own life in 1951 at age 28. Borowski had written this: “Above us … night. The stars burn./ The violet sky, a cadaver./ And what’s left after we’re gone?/ A fractured block of iron/ And the dull mocking laughter of generations.”

These lines inspired Wajda, as they had inspired the great theater director Jerzy Grotowski, who chose them to adorn the poster of his seminal 1962 work “Akropolis,” to prove that there was more to the future than history’s mocking laughter.

Like Borowski, the hero of “Landscape after the Battle” is a poet named Tadeusz who has survived the camps. He falls in love with a young woman who wants him to leave with her to the West. (This narrative is also similar to Borowski’s.) The film carries one of the most poignant and disturbing anti-war messages in all cinema — that the traumas of war are never-ending — and it influenced me greatly in the making of my recent film, “Star Sand.” Wajda taught me that for a film — or any work of art, for that matter — to be truly anti-war in spirit and effect, it must be devoid of all self-righteousness and the thumping airs of triumph.

But war was by no means his only artistic preoccupation. Over and over again throughout the years he turned obsessively to the Polish past, taking up classics such as Adam Mickiewicz’s 1834 poetic saga “Pan Tadeusz” and Stanislaw Wyspianski’s 1901 play “The Wedding.”

In his 1973 film of “The Wedding,” Wajda was drawn to the play’s narrative, revolving as it does around national identity at a time when the nation of Poland was subjugated by Russia. He also identified strongly with Wyspianski who, like himself, was a painter of great talent, infusing dramatic imagery into his portrayals of a nation that would never accept anything less than full independence.

In the play, as in the film, the question is posed: Can a nation cope with freedom when there is an abyss separating the values of the educated classes and the rural masses? It is a question that could have been posed with equal trenchancy years later in Russia and China … not to mention in today’s United States.

One more vital thing about “The Wedding.” The play employs stylistic devices borrowed from Poland’s traditional puppet theater. The narrative is largely made up of snippets of conversation, as if the actors were puppets appearing briefly on stage before being whisked off. (Wajda’s fascination with bunraku came into play in his attraction to this concept.) In the film he keeps the camera handheld and moving, roving from one small group of revelers to another, giving the whole an uncanny visual energy. Art and history meld into a single fluid national narrative.

And speaking of affinities with artists, it is precisely this that so attracted Wajda to Akira Kurosawa, both as a film director and a person.

Wajda had come to Japan in January 1989 to hold rehearsals for “Nastasha,” a filmed drama based on Dostoevsky’s “The Idiot” and sponsored by the film company Shochiku and TV Tokyo. It starred the kabuki actor Bando Tamasaburo, whose stage presence had intrigued him. (Wajda had seen Tamasaburo in Kyoto in 1981 in “The Lady of the Camellias” and was immediately captivated by the ability of the onnagata — a male actor specializing in female roles — to embody what Wajda called “eternal femininity.”)

It was at this time that he expressed the desire to meet Kurosawa, whose films he had admired since first seeing them in the 1950s, and the encounter was arranged by the latter’s long-time collaborator, Teruyo Nogami.

But Kurosawa, in the midst of directing “Dreams,” passed on the message that he was tied up. Some weeks later, the foothills of Mount Fuji, the film’s location near the director’s home, were hit by a snowstorm that shut down the shoot. Wajda promptly informed Tamasaburo and the other lead of “Nastasha,” Kazunaga Tsuji, that the next day’s rehearsals were canceled.

Film directors Andrzej Wajda and Akira Kurosawa view storyboard sketches in 1989 together with Wajda
Film directors Andrzej Wajda and Akira Kurosawa view storyboard sketches in 1989 together with Wajda’s wife, Krystyna Zachwatowicz. | COURTESY OF MANGGHA MUSEUM OF JAPANESE ART AND TECHNOLOGY IN KRAKOW / ANDRZEJ WAJDA’S ARCHIVE

Wajda, his wife — stage and film designer Krystyna Zachwatowicz — and the artistic director of Tokyo’s Theater X (Cai), Misako Ueda, arrived at Kurosawa’s home in the late morning amid a blizzard. Wajda was eager to tell the director he most admired that it was Kurosawa’s film “The Idiot” that had inspired “Nastasha.” The two directors compared their storyboard sketches, for they both infused their filmic images with a painterly quality.

Wajda called Kurosawa “the great master,” saying of him that “he understood our European traditions, particularly our literary traditions as seen in the works of (William) Shakespeare and (Fyodor) Dostoevsky, better than we do. … His films, with their visual power and depth, convinced me that film can be art.”

I firmly believe that Wajda’s first trip to Japan in the spring of 1970 provided him with renewed inspiration. His films of the 1960s had not resonated with the public, either Polish or worldwide, as his 1950s’ trilogy had. But 1970 onward saw a burst of stunning work, spearheaded by his two attacks on the cold-blooded hypocrisy of communist rule, “Man of Marble” and “Man of Iron.” The hapless hero of these films is Mateusz, chosen in 1952 to be a model worker. Of course this trumped-up hero worship is the kind of state-manipulated ruse by which we are all deceived, all of us who trade in our minds and dignity for the vacuous promise of riches.

Much later, in his 2007 film “Katyn,” Wajda turned to one of Poland’s greatest tragedies, and one that affected him personally: the massacre of more than 20,000 Poles by the Soviets.

“One day,” he had told me while we were sitting in a taxi in Kyoto in 1970, “I will make a film about the Katyn massacre, when my father Jakub was murdered.”

An image from the set of Andrzej Wajda
An image from the set of Andrzej Wajda’s ‘Man of Marble’ (1977). | STUDIO FILMOWE ZEBRA / PHOTO BY RENATA PAJCHEL

Even so much as mentioning this massacre was taboo in Poland at the time. It took him 37 years to make the film. Like “Man of Marble” and “Man of Iron,” “Katyn” stands as a narrative documentary of historical events as they affect the ordinary individual. (For more on “Katyn,” see bit.ly/2kGJ0yN.)

Wajda’s love for Japan and its culture took concrete form in 1994 when he founded the Manggha Museum of Japanese Art and Technology on the banks of the Vistula River in Krakow. The museum was named after the remarkable 19th-century collector of Japanese art Feliks Jasienski, who called himself “Manggha” in homage to the sketches of the artist Hokusai. This museum has become a center for the appreciation and study of Japanese culture in Poland.

When the catastrophic earthquake and tsunami struck northeastern Japan on March 11, 2011, Wajda was deeply moved by the empathetic charity with which Japanese victims treated each other. He had always remarked to me on the personal kindness and consideration shown to him by Japanese people.

“When I look at the way everyone has stood up to this massive appalling disaster,” he wrote, “I feel a renewed sense of the respect that I have always had for the Japanese people. It is a model of behavior that all peoples of the world should learn by.”

Andrzej Wajda poses for a photograph near the frame of the Manggha Museum of Japanese Art and Technology on the banks of the Vistula River in Krakow during construction.
Andrzej Wajda poses for a photograph near the frame of the Manggha Museum of Japanese Art and Technology on the banks of the Vistula River in Krakow during construction. | COURTESY OF MANGGHA MUSEUM OF JAPANESE ART AND TECHNOLOGY IN KRAKOW / ANDRZEJ WAJDA’S ARCHIVE / PHOTO BY RAFAL SOSIN

Even though he went through a quadruple bypass operation in 2000, the remaining 16 years of Wajda’s life were marked by prodigious creativity and personal fulfillment.

His last film, “Afterimage,” depicting the life and times of the interwar graphic artist Wladyslaw Strzeminski, was released in Poland in September 2016, a month before Wajda’s death. (It will be released in Japan this June, showing initially at Iwanami Hall in Tokyo.)

It is not surprising that he turned back, in the end, to his first love: painting. Of his own work he wrote, “When drawing I gain a better realization of what it is that moves my imagination.”

Throughout all my encounters with him between 1970 and 2006 — the last time I saw him was at his home in Warsaw on the day he turned 80, March 6 — I was struck by his gift of being able to bridge the personal with the national, and then take what seems unique to a nation and transform it into universal truth.

As a man he was totally lacking in any form of pretension. When I left his home on March 6, 2006, a taxi driver he had used for 20 years drove me to Warsaw’s Central Station for my trip to Krakow.

Polish film director Andrzej Wajda speaks to journalists in Warsaw in December 2015.
Polish film director Andrzej Wajda speaks to journalists in Warsaw in December 2015. | AP

“Mr. Wajda is the most thoughtful man I know,” said the driver over his shoulder. “He never fails to ask about my wife and children and has shown us much kindness over the years.”

Wajda never relented in forcing Poles to look at themselves in the crystal mirror of his films. And the images they were made to witness constantly circled the globe — and continue to do so — compelling all of us to confront our private vices and public shamelessness, to hope that our better selves will prevail in our homes, our nations and beyond.

What remains now that my dear and supremely warm-hearted friend is gone is the ultimate beauty of his life’s work, and the example of compassion and loving kindness that he set.

Roger Pulvers’ film “Star Sand” will be released in Japan this summer.