On March 6, the Polish film and theater director Andrzej Wajda celebrated his 80th birthday. In fact, all of Poland celebrated it with him. I was in the country that week, and I have never before seen such total media interest in a cultural figure. Wajda is certainly Poland’s “living national treasure.”

Television, radio and press alike gave enormous coverage to the man and his work. This is because Wajda has been more than just a director: he has been the expressive conscience of his people for more than half a century.

In his first films, made in the mid- to late-1950s, Wajda explored — with courageous honesty in those neo-Stalinist times — the Polish wartime experience under Nazi occupation. The horrible plight of resistance fighters waging war from the sewers of Warsaw was depicted in “Kanal” (1957); and, in “Ashes and Diamonds” (1958), Wajda brought to life the last day of war in all its complexity of misery and euphoria.

As well, Wajda has turned his eye to the more distant past, in such films as “Ashes” (1965), based on Stefan Zeromski’s novel set during the Napoleonic era, and “Pan Tadeusz” (1999), based on Adam Mickiewicz’s poetic epic about his native land under Russian domination in the 19th century. Wajda also shocked the communist leadership of Poland with his deft attack on their ideology in “Man of Marble” (1977). In fact, Wajda told me back in 1977 that when Poland’s then-leader, First Secretary of the Communist Party Edward Gierek, threatened to ban distribution of “Man of Marble,” the director said to him, “You stop this film and I will leave Poland for good.” The first secretary backed off. The effect of Wajda’s abandoning Poland would have been that consequential.

Passionate interest in Japan

I met Wajda in March 1970, when he made his first visit to Japan on the occasion of the film festival held at Osaka Expo. Since then he has had a passionate interest in Japan, directing, in 1994, Tamasaburo Bando in a version of Dostoevsky’s “The Idiot.” Not long after that, using the funds from the Kyoto Prize he won in 1987, he established a museum to house and exhibit Japanese art in Krakow.

He is now in pre-production for a film about the atrocity committed at Katyn Forest in 1940.

“Over all my more than 30 films,” he told me this month in Warsaw, “I have tried to address myself to the most important historical events that have affected life in Poland. But one event eluded me for a long time: the massacre, at the hands of the Soviets, of Polish military personnel and other Poles at Katyn Forest. There wasn’t a good novel to base the story on, for one thing. At any rate, this film will close a gap in my works about the fate of my country.”

Perhaps the other reason for his hesitation was the fact that his father, Capt. Jakub Wajda, then aged 40, was one among 654 captains executed at Katyn Forest.

After Poland was invaded in 1939 and occupied jointly by the Soviet Union and Germany, the Soviets took tens of thousands of Polish prisoners as a stopgap measure to head off any insurrection. On March 5, 1940, Stalin and other members of the Politburo gave the order to murder most of them; and in the following two months, 14,700 Polish soldiers and 11,000 other Poles, many of them teachers, doctors and the like, were killed.

In 1943, the German Army, which had overrun Belarus and Ukraine, discovered the mass graves at Katyn Forest, near Smolensk. Although they openly publicized this discovery, its existence was nonetheless denied by the Soviets and suppressed by the Allies. Later, during the decades of postwar communist rule in Poland, it was taboo to bring up the subject of the Katyn Forest massacre, which was officially blamed on Germany. It wasn’t until 1990 that the then-Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev admitted Russian responsibility.

“We knew who did this awful thing,” said Wajda. “My own father had sent letters from his detention camp to my mother. When those letters stopped coming in the spring of 1940, we had no doubt about what had occurred.”

I gathered from Wajda that this film will be an intimate story about a family waiting for the return of a husband and father. It will be set in his hometown of Suwalki, in northeast Poland. In this sense, the terrifying scale of the crime will be depicted as a singular human drama, making it accessible even to viewers around the world who may have scant knowledge of Central European history.

Amazing generation

Wajda studied painting after the war, and, like the director he has most admired, Akira Kurosawa, his films have a stunning visual quality. He was part of an amazing generation of Polish filmmakers that included Andrzej Munk, Wojciech Has and others. In 2000, when Wajda accepted his Academy Award in Los Angeles for the entire body of his film work, he said that the award was “not only for me, but also for all Polish cinema.”

This, above all, is what makes Polish cinema so moving and influential: its directors, particularly those of Wajda’s generation, have been committed not to what an amorphous “international market” might find acceptable, but rather to the expression of their country’s and their culture’s most profound artistic, intellectual and moral values. Only a very few of Wajda’s films have been made outside Poland. He thinks of his own people first, and their personal stories are at the heart of his work.

I watched him during the birthday celebrations held earlier this month at the Polish Film Institute and the building of the leading daily, Gazeta Wyborcza. He has the step and energy of a person decades younger; and I am convinced that it is his tremendous faith in the power of film that continues to motivate him and allow him to create.

“I believe that cinema can be more than pleasure, entertainment, even art,” he said. “It occurred to me that it could change the world and give a form to human knowledge.”

Poland is a country that has suffered centuries of oppression by powerful neighbors. Since little more than a decade ago when it once again became independent, its artists have begun to speak freely about its past. If these messages do reach us, it will be thanks to consummate artists like Andrzej Wajda, who said, when he was on that Los Angeles stage six years ago, “I passionately yearn that the single flame that humankind encounters will be the flame of great sentiments — love, gratitude and solidarity.”

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