Thursday, October 23, 2008

Polish Master

Truth or Dare: The Films of Andrzej Wajda
October 17-November 13, 2008
Walter Reade Theater
151 West 65th Street

Andrzej Wajda and Polish Television Theater

October 24-28, 2008
Anthology Film Archives, 32 Second Avenue

Polanski in Wajda's
The Revenge
(Film Society of Lincoln Center/Polish National Film Archive)
Polish director Andrzej Wajda–who turned 82 this year–has made films in many styles and on many subjects, as the Film Society of Lincoln Center’s nearly complete retrospective, Truth or Dare: The Films of Andrzej Wajda–alongside Anthology Film Archives’ mini-series, Andrzej Wajda and Polish Television Theater–demonstrates.

Behind the iron curtain for much of his career, Wajda has constantly triumphed over adversity, right from the beginning of his storied career when he made his celebrated WWII trilogy, A Generation (1955), Kanal (1957) and Ashes and Diamonds (1958). He’s since become Poland’s conscience, from its brief cultural thaw under Soviet rule (1960's Innocent Sorcerers) to the beginnings and strengthening of the Solidarity movement (1977's Man of Marble and 1981's Man of Iron) to its post-Communist society (1996’s Miss Nobody). Of course, the director has also documented Poland’s own history, both distant (1965’s Ashes) and more recent (2007's Katyn, a nominee for last year’s Best Foreign Film Oscar).

However much he tackles distinct Polish themes, Wajda’s art is definitely not pedantic or patriotic; his entire oeuvre shows a critical and psychologically acute director whose character-driven dramas consistently explore universal facets of humanity, highlighted by his famed 1950s trilogy about constantly shifting morality during wartime. Film after film underlines Wajda’s penetrating insights into human behavior: in Innocent Sorcerers, a medical student would rather play jazz with his pals and pick up young women than study; in Lotna (1959), a stunning Arabian stallion causes the deaths of several soldiers who choose its beauty over their safety during the German blitzkrieg.

Since his father was killed in the Katyn Forest massacre in 1940, it’s no surprise that Wajda has always been drawn to the theme of Polish complicity in the murder of Jews. Samson (1961) features a Jewish protagonist who escapes the Warsaw Ghetto, then decides that surviving is not enough, while Landscape after Battle (1970) displays the heartrending disengagement from reality of newly-liberated death-camp inmates who must return to “normality.” More recently, Wajda has returned to this tragic theme: Holy Week (1995) follows a non-Jew whose dislike for one Jewish woman undermines his Semitic sympathies; and last year’s Katyn recreates the horrible circumstances of the systematic murder of Wajda’s father and tens of thousands of other Polish soldiers by the Russian army.

Wajda’s cinematic vitality continues to astound: prior to Katyn, he made Pan Tadeusz (1999), a florid costume epic based on Adam Mickiewicz’s celebrated 19th century epic poem, followed by The Revenge (2002), a rollicking comic romp based on Aleksander Fredro’s beloved 19th century play, which stars the riotously scene-stealing Roman Polanski (who can also be briefly seen in several of Wajda’s earliest films).

The director’s astonishing range can also be glimpsed in the Anthology Film Archives series, Andrzej Wajda and Polish Television Theater, which includes the first American showings of several of his acclaimed theatrical productions adapted for Polish television. Of note are his idiosyncratic takes on Shakespeare–his 1969 Macbeth features several of Poland’s greatest actors, while his 1991 Hamlet stars the famed Polish actress Teresa Budzisz–Krzyzanowska as the Danish prince–along with adaptations of Dostoyevsky (Crime and Punishment) and Polish novelist Jaroslaw Iwaszkiewicz (June Night).

Whether the medium is film, television, or theater, Andrzej Wajda is one of the 20th century’s indisputably great artists still going strong in the 21st century.

originally posted on

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