It may sound slightly over the top, but Andrzej Wajda is arguably to Polish cinema what Frederic Chopin was to Polish classical music, an assertion that can be explored in an 18-film tribute running December 13-23 at the Greek Film Archive in Athens.
Wajda was born in 1926 and studied art in Krakow and cinema at the renowned National Film School in Lodz. He has been making films almost nonstop since 1954, drawing mainly on the modern history of Poland for his subject matter. He has just completed a biography on the politician, trade unionist and human rights activist Lech Walesa, which is slated for release next year.
Throughout the years, Wajda's films have served as a window onto the tumultuous history of Poland – which was partitioned by the Austrians, the Prussians and the Russians – aimed at awakening or preserving Poles' sense of national conscience.
Wajda's heroes are normally tragic figures seeking their place in the world in a country that is either fragmented by occupational forces or stunned by the fear of Stalinism. His images at times seem like an act of underground resistance and at others are like a cry for help.
In the second half of the 1950s, Wajda's trilogy (“A Generation,” “Kanal” and “Ashes and Diamonds”) about World War II and the Polish resistance took Polish cinema out of the beleaguered country's borders for the first time. The films were like mirrors that show a much darker side of humanity than we are accustomed to from war movies.
“Kanal,” a black-and-white drama about the resistance, starts off feeling like a heroic portrayal but gradually turns into a claustrophobic thriller. It is set in the summer of 1944, when the Red Army suddenly stopped its march on Warsaw for no apparent reason. The Nazis, who were on their way out of the city, earned time to annihilate tens of thousands of Poles who were using the underground sewer system as a shelter, leading many analysts since to surmise that it was a tactical move by Stalin so that the Germans would do his dirty work for him before he took the city.
In 2007, Wajda returned to the same era with “Katyn,” openly addressing another of Stalin's war crimes. In 1939, the Soviet Union marched into Poland at almost the same time as the Nazis, imprisoning the elite of the Polish army. The officers were taken into the Katyn Forest, near Smolensk in Russia, and shot in the back of the head. The mass graves from the massacre were discovered in 1943 and the crime was originally pinned on the Nazis, though the truth did not emerge until 1990. Wajda’s father was among those executed at Katyn.
The Polish director has also made some beautiful films, such as “The Wedding” in 1973 and “The Maids of Wilko” in 1979, as well as existential dramas such as “Everything for Sale,” from 1968. Other films were eloquent descriptions of life in Poland under a socialist regime and helped shape the country's cinema in the 1970s. “Without Anesthesia” (1978) and – even more so – “Man of Marble” (1977) are political films that blend the feel of a Kafkaesque nightmare with a documentary on the postwar, post-Stalinist trauma, but also offer a small ray of hope.
In 1981, “Man of Iron,” a kind of sequel to “Man of Marble,” Wajda uses his camera to convey his enthusiasm with the Solidarity union movement and the 1980 uprising of the workers at the Gdansk Shipyard under Lech Walesa, who also appears in the film.
The tribute to Wajda at the Greek Film Archive comprises 18 films, some of which have never been screened in Greece before, and is organized jointly with the Polish Embassy in Athens and the Kampania Artystyczna company. There is also a parallel exhibition of stills from his film sets, posters showing how Polish graphic artists developed an entire school around film posters, as well as paintings by Wajda.
Greek Film Archive, 48 Iera Odos & Megalou Alexandrou, Metaxourgeio, tel 210.360.9695, 210.361.2046. The screening program is available at www.tainiothiki.gr.