I have begun to obsess over Polish Cinema. Why this obsession? I feel this intense yearning to watch every film by Andrzej Wajda. The way he portrays women is incredible. They are portrayed like Our Lady Mary– the Saviors and the symbols of truth, innocence and honesty and usually saving the butts of men, or at least trying. The men instead are stubborn and their allegiance to their country always seems to get the better of them. The women are the ones who enable life to continue even in the most wretched of circumstances. Wajda’s films are highly politicized and for good reason. Wadja began filming just five years after World War II, a time of intense turmoil in Poland especially. A country was tossed back and forth like a ragdoll between both Germany and what was then the Soviet Union. Before 1989 Wajda’s films had to be approved by the censorship authorities in Communist Poland. So despite his discontent with Socialism he had to mind himself so his films could be approved. And his films were important, not only did they expose the evils of socialism, but I’m sure they provided ammunition, albeit small, for events such as the Gdańsk shipyard strike. At least in films like Man of Marble–which was hugely successful in Poland with lines outside the cinemas–audiences related to the film because it highlighted the manipulation and the trickery of the Socialist Worker’s Party. Although the film was looked at as potentially harmful to the government, it wasn’t banned.
In Man of Marble, basically a film within a film, the character filmmaker, Agneiszka, an abrasive young student who smokes constantly while ordering around her male film crew. She is determined to finish her film, a documentary about a former Worker’s Party leader who rose to fame only with the assistance and manipulation of the government, unbeknownst to him. He was used like a puppet and they ruined his life; his life meant nothing to the success of the socialist leaders, which was the story of many in those days. Wadja displayed this to audiences to silently expose this truth. Poles knew about these injustices but weren’t allowed to talk about them. But here it was, the truth displayed for them on the big screen and their voices finally felt heard, which is why it was said that 1 in 3 people in Poland saw this film and celebrated it.
Dressed in blue and white, Agneiszka resembles the Blessed Mother. And the film she wishes to make will resurrect the corruption and manipulation by the government in Communist Poland and possibly remind people of the continuation of it. The man financing the film gets scared to release the film and takes away Agneiszka’s equipment and orders that production end. “Why are they scared?” Her father asks her after the film gets terminated, “because they think it is dangerous,” she says. Her father replies by saying, “It is honest.”
Man of Marble (1976)
In Ashes and Diamonds, starring Zbigniew Cybulski (basically the Polish James Dean) the woman with whom the main character falls in love takes him for a moment to a hopeful land, where only love exists and beauty and poetry, “Life is so beautiful sometimes,” he says to her. He has taken her on a walk through heavy rain. They end up in an old crypt reading a poem by Cyprian Norwid…So often, are you as a blazing torch with flames of burning rags falling about you flaming you know not if the flames bring freedom or death. Consuming all that you must cherish if ashes only will be left and want Chaos and tempest or will the ashes hold the glory of a starlike diamond. The morning start of everlasting triumph.”
All this while he wrestles with the idea of killing a party leader and falling back (which is what he was scheduled to do later that night) into the violence of the times or walking away from all of that to be with this woman with whom he has fallen in love.
In Wajda’s film Kanal, he dipicts the Warsaw Uprising and the Home Army soldier’s escape through the sewers while the city of Warsaw is being destroyed by the German army. The soldiers leading the rebellion escape at night into the sewers. “Shouldn’t we be afraid the Germans will come down here?” One soldier asks, the woman replies, “No. The Germans would never come down here.” Insinuating the Germans thought they were too good for such a place, too clean, & too perfect.
Again Wajda highlights the courage of women. In this film, the woman knows the way through the sewers. She is leading all of the men and they are depending on her. She knows the way. But one by one the men get lost, not willing to stay behind her, because she is going slow, encumbered by her injured lover whom she is carrying. At the end of the film, the woman’s lover is dying and too weak to climb up the shaft that will save both of them. She decides to find a better route for them, but they come face to face with a opening with bars over it. She can see the other side of the river from the opening. Delirious from fever, her lover doesn’t see the closed opening but only light, so she tells them they are safe and they will sit by the light a moment to rest, but she knows he is dying. She gave him the last bit of hope he needed to make his transition to death in peace.
All of these films were more like autobiographical accounts to Wajda and to the actors themselves; all of them experienced the hardships of Socialism, especially in Wajda’s earlier films. In one of his most recent films, Katyn, which depicts of the Katyn Genocide of 1940, a massacre of 22,000 Polish officers at the beginning of WWII. The Soviets blamed it on the Germans and the Germans blamed it on the Soviets, and no one knew what really happened to the officers until after the war. Mothers desperately looked for their sons, wives looked for their husbands, but to no avail until the truth came out years later. Like most of Wajda’s films, Katyn depicted most of this event as seen and experienced through the women. In an interview he mentions that the women are the ones that keep history going, that keep records and letters and without them we would have no memory of our past. The film was something Wadja had always dreamed of producing and directing but couldn’t because of the censor. So when all that ended in 1989, he began to think more about directing Katyn. His own father was one of the Polish officers killed in the Katyn forest and the lead actress’s (Maja Ostaszewska) grandfather was also a victim. So the actors themselves were very close to the story, as with most of Wajda’s political films, which is why they are so powerful.
I don’t think I would be so obsessed with these films if the casting wasn’t so good. Days after watching his films the characters still sit with me and think about the small almost imperceptible moments and shots. Like the moment in Man of Marble when Agnieszka is interviewing the former wife of the main character for her documentary and the wife begins to cry in the interview, so Agnieszka closes the window so the interview can no longer be recorded. Here, although she has a tough outer shell, displays her humanity, mercy, and generosity toward this other woman, and it shows that much of the pain of that era was felt behind closed doors and lived on years later. In this scene, Agnieszka seeks the truth, but not at the expense of another’s pain. This is admirable and very subtly displayed in the film.
These are the small details I think about days later. And I think about the characters days afterward too. They stick with me and their stories leave me with a gut wrenching heartache when the film is through.