Andrzej Wajda

Our European world will grow old but young, healthy barbarians will learn our language, fall in love with our past and our culture, and because of them our work is worth our while. (1)

To anyone interested in the history of European cinemas, Andrzej Wajda’s name is synonymous with endurance and an ability determine and answer the most pertinent questions asked by his fellow Poles and other Europeans at a given historical time. In 1999, he offered one such an answer to Poles by directing Pan Tadeusz, a grand adaptation of a Romantic epic, at the time when Poland was becoming a member of NATO, and the discussions of its membership in the European Union were well under way.

Unlike Wajda’s older films, which at the time of their release attracted a high arthouse praise and devotion from elite directors and audiences around the world and in Poland, Pan Tadeusz was an overwhelming commercial success, but only in its domestic market. With more than 6 million tickets sold to its screenings in Poland (2), it was significant in allowing for the unprecedented domination of Polish box-office by domestic productions, an exception in the history of the late 20th century Polish and also European cinema.

Pan Tadeusz did not do what Wajda’s other films managed in the past; it did not make the Polish voice heard internationally. While Wajda’s Neo Realist trilogy of Pokolenie (A Generation) (1954), Kanal (Canal) (1957), and Popiol i diament (Ashes and Diamonds) (1958) was quoted as inspiration by, for instance, Martin Scorsese, and Wajda’s diptych, Czlowiek z marmuru (Man of Marble) (1976) and Czlowiek z zelaza (Man of Iron) (1981), was a lauded messenger from behind the Iron Curtain, Pan Tadeusz answered to a different set of needs and problems faced by the post-transitional Poland. It was most audible where it was most needed: at home.

In Poland, Pan Tadeusz was criticised by some film critics for its lack of æsthetic and formal innovation, and for taking an easy way to a commercial success. Nevertheless, Wajda’s achievement lies in managing to walk the fine line between descending into the dark pits of nationalistic fervour and constructing a cultural, literary and historical anchor for his fellow Poles. The uncertainties of post-communist transitions, anxieties associated with Poland’s inclusion in the European Union and the UN, the end of the old paradigms of Polish national identity defined in the context of the centuries of foreign oppression and the easy pleasures of a transnational meltdown – all these factors destabilised the sense of national belonging for the (post)transitional Poles at the brink of the 21st century.

Far from being a national separatist, Wajda in Pan Tadeusz, and also in his other work, continues his quest for finding or – at least – designing a space that he could call home. In the most recent stages of this quest, he has become more than ever a proponent of nurturing a particular layer of individual and group belonging that is commonly referred to as “national identity”. In so doing, he insists on a positive kind of “othering” of national cinemas, in which they should cultivate, rather than obliterate, the national difference, which is the source of a positive creative power.


Andrzej Wajda also frequently speaks against the blandness of international co-productions. At the same time, he is not slow to bestow praise on popular cinema, be it Hollywood or any other, for being able to speak to its audience in a language understood by many. His fascination with the statement by Ryszard Kapuscinski, a prominent Polish journalist and globetrotter, quoted here in the epigraph, attests to Wajda’s belief in the rejuvenation of the old, which has to be dressed in a new, younger language before it can be accepted by a contemporary ear.

After the completion of his last (after Pan Tadeusz) film, Zemsta (Revenge) (2002), also an adaptation of a Polish literary classic, Wajda retreated to – what he refers to as – the “third gender” of filmmaking: that is, television theatre, and to his Master School of Film Directing, which he set up with Wojciech Marcszewski. In between Pan Tadeusz and Revenge, he received an Oscar for Life Achievement in 2000, and periodically he has also expressed his political engagement by becoming a senator.

Andrzej Wajda’s filmmaking trajectory is a great example of, for most time, an ability to attune his films to the changing range of frequencies accepted and expected by his audiences. It is difficult to speak of him as just an auteur, but rather an authorial chameleon, capable of simultaneously adjusting to and taking the leadership of the most powerful trends of a given moment.

Wajda is also a generous and graceful interviewee, whose interest in the exchange of ideas is always apparent.

* * *

RENATA MURAWSKA: More than a decade ago, Poland left behind fifty years of socialist order and embarked on a path of political and economic reform that has been changing the social and cultural fibre of Polish society. What have these changes meant for the film industry in Poland?

ANDRZEJ WAJDA: One might have thought that the most significant change in the film industry that would come about with a transition from the communist economy to capitalism would fundamentally concern the sources of funding. Our market is relatively small, like many other countries of Europe in which films are made for people who speak one language. Our films speak only to 40 million Poles in Poland and a few more millions abroad.

In the first years after 1989, films were partly financed from the state’s budget as well as by public television. Still, except for a few special cases, most films are made this way. The difficulty with the present state of affairs is that there is no legislation on the sources of funding for the Polish film industry. There is no legislation concerning filmmaking. And, there is no legislation on television that would be beneficial to filmmaking. These two sources of support have not been resolved and they decide the existence of the national cinema.

In Europe, there is no television filmmaking legislation that could assist film production because private broadcasters are not interested in supporting Polish film. There is no filmmaking legislation because distributors are not interested in sharing their money with the film industry – for instance, by giving a percentage of ticket sales back to filmmakers. Given this situation, therefore, it was not the funding structure that was decisive in shaping a post-socialist Polish cinema. It was film audiences that influenced it most.

In the first years after the systemic transition, our screens showed American entertainment that had not been available before, or had been available only sporadically. Suddenly, the screens were dominated by American entertainment to the extent of something like 95 percent. As a result, audiences turned away from the kinds of films that we used to make. Also, the problems depicted in films made in the old, communist reality, like my Man of Iron, or Wojciech Marczewski’s Dreszcze [Shivers, 1981], Ryszard Bugajski’s Przesluchanie [Interrogation, 1981], Agnieszka Holland’s Kobieta samotna [A Woman Alone, 1981] or Feliks Falk’s Wodzirej [Top Dog, 1978], these problems suddenly ceased to exist. New young audiences started to come to the cinema for American films that are targeted at them. Previously the same Polish audiences would have been pressured into seeing cinema made for adults, films made by us about those spheres of life that were significant for us and which should be significant for our society.

By dint of that concern and because that society was willing to examine its particular reality, Solidarity could come into existence. Solidarity could demand workers’ rights. Intellectuals could join in. And the cinema could play a critical part in it. At least the thought that this was the case is what I would like to cherish when I die. However, that old mode of Polish filmmaking virtually disappeared.

Films made in the spirit of the past continued to be made. For instance, I directed Wielki tydzien [Holy Week, 1995] based on Jerzy Andrzejewski’s novel, Pierscionek z orlem w koronie [The Ring with a Crowned Eagle, 1992] (3), but it turned out that those films did not address any audience. Before, those films were censored. One couldn’t make films like that.

RM: How a clever filmmaker managed to smuggle political messages into a film to get it past the censors had often been one measure of a film’s success. In what ways did that change with the end of formal censorship in Poland?

AW: So what that political censorship was abolished? With it adult political audiences abandoned cinemas. In their place appeared a void. That previous political audience migrated to the seats in front of their TV. Cinemas gained new young audiences who wanted films made for them. The first real success of the Polish cinema was entertainment films, which were made showily, following American patterns, with heroes shadowing the American ones, with shootings, with all that constitutes popular American cinema. Those films got assimilated into Polish cinema. They were the only successful Polish films at the time. And, they were soon followed by even more successful Polish films, which were historical films based on Polish literature.

Seven million people came to the cinema to see the first one of those films, Ogniem i mieczem [With Fire and Sword, 1999], based on Henryk Sienkiewicz’s novel of 1884. No one could believe that a cinema audience of that size existed in Poland. And in reality this audience doesn’t exist. They sit in front of TV and watch what they can find there. This audience came out of their TV rooms to see a film that was made for them. After that, there was the success of Pan Tadeusz, which was seen by six million viewers. Then came Zemsta, which had two million viewers, while Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone [Chris Columbus, 2001] had 2.5 million. All that shows that audiences did, after all, expect a film of this kind from Polish cinema.

What happened there? I think that adult Polish audiences, while observing what was happening in Poland, started to give in to a particular kind of anxiety. “What will happen to us?” “We are to join the European Union, but what is it going to be like to be part of it?” “Who are we going to be within in?” Putting it bluntly, we took onto the screen all those things that moved our historical authors, be it Adam Mickiewicz when he was writing Pan Tadeusz, Henryk Sienkiewicz with his With Fire and Sword, and in a way also Aleksander Fredro when working on his Revenge. All these concerns started to move Poles again. This kind of film gained an audience, because the times shown in those films shared similar problems with those of the new political situation, in which Poland now found itself.

Pan Tadeusz

RM: With this kind of redefinition of Polish collective identity, and keeping in mind the achievement of Polish cinema before 1989, is there anything occurring now that would recall a national cinema?

AW: The clearest expression of that type of filmmaking is exemplified by grand historical films. Some audiences came to see those films because they were used to filmic spectacle in American films, and the grandeur of these historical films matched that. All the attempts at making other kinds of contemporary Polish films were treated by them as films made for television, not cinema. “If you want us to see that film, broadcast it on TV. If you want us to go to the cinema, show us a big spectacle, just like Americans make them, but with Polish national themes.”

A novelty in Polish filmmaking was that it was possible to find funds for a big production. However, at the same time, the state budget committed less and less money to filmmaking. Eventually, the state’s funding covered only the stages leading to presenting a film project to potential funding bodies. It was enough to produce a script, indicate casting and put together a budget to present it all, but nothing beyond that. It was all that the state’s budget could afford. Those projects needed to look for proper funding elsewhere. About 50 percent of those films that got made were helped by public television.

Even better, there were established two separate committees deciding on state film funding. Firstly, there was the Package Board [Komisja Pakietowa] set up by the Cinema Committee [Komitet Kinematografii] and then it was television. This resulted in a difficult situation in which television was not willing to take many risks, and it turned away from young directors, who also were in a difficult position, lost in a new reality. They were lost in it, because they had no allies in good writers.

In the same period, Polish literature also underwent some significant changes. From social-political literature, which had a great tradition and strong motivation to be that way, Polish literature changed its focus to a psychological rather than a social one. Many young women surfaced as writers. They wrote about themselves. This sort of material was not very useful for film. Young directors had no choice but to throw themselves into writing scripts. That did not have a positive effect on the quality of Polish cinema.

On the one hand, we had great filmic spectacles that brought in big audiences, adults as well as primary and secondary school students. On the other hand, there were attempts to create contemporary Polish film. There had been between ten and twenty of those films in the first ten years after the transition. Those films, however good they were, did not create a decidedly unified generation like that of the cinema of the Solidarity times in the 1980s.

At the same time, television theatre became more visibly active. Television theatre, as is implied in its name, should rely on adaptations of scripts written for the theatre. In Poland it became in a way an independent third gender, so to speak, between the cinema and theatre. On the one hand, young theatre directors were coming to television theatre, because they wanted to get closer to the cinema, despite having studied and worked for the theatre. It was progressively more difficult to find work in the theatre, as well. I must say that many of these television theatre pieces could not have been made as films or as non-television performances. The difficulty of writing a good theatre play set in new reality was even greater given that the level of similitude to life that is allowed in a film would not work on the stage. Television theatre played a significant role after the transition. It prompted many young directors to attempt to show in that medium our new reality. Nevertheless, in the theatre, and in the cinema, the contemporary reality of Poland has been represented only to a minuscule degree in the last 12 years.

As I said earlier, there are no writers who could create a literary vision of the new reality. There are some talented young directors, however their talent doesn’t necessarily translate into a literary talent.

Admittedly, this new reality is difficult to capture. It seemed to us, the people affiliated with Solidarity, that everyone thought like we did. We expected that people were just waiting for the collapse of the Soviet Union, or at least for its retreat, and they were going to be full of initiative in all areas of life – in culture, in economy and in politics. They all would start to work effectively. They would start to think rationally. In short, Poland was to be transformed in a day into a Western-European country. It transpired that this was not the case. In the forty years of the people’s republic, some of the worst historical traits were preserved in our people. These included even the common characteristics developed in the economic reality of the time of partitions in the 17th and 18th centuries.

It turned out that the country was helpless in the face of a new reality. Also a great part of Polish industry proved to have existed only to support the Soviet military industry, and it became superfluous and incapable of being transformed into anything else. We did not foresee that or the magnitude of these phenomena.

RM: Returning to the more localised question of what Polish national cinema should or could be, what would you expect from it to satisfy the fundamental requirements of its existence?

AW: National cinema can be defined most of all by its language. It is spoken in the language used or understood by its audience. This is the cinema that by default addresses the audiences that speak a particular language. Why does there exist a global American entertainment industry, but there isn’t an equivalent coming from France or Italy? This is the case simply because the English language opens the whole world to the American cinema. We exist in that world also, except that for us the necessary condition of a national cinema lies in creating films in our language. Could [Federico] Fellini’s actors have spoken English? If they had spoken English, the whole history would have had to be different.

When a film is created, it is created in a language, which is not only about words, but also the way that very language encodes our perception of the world, our understanding of it. This is how we get the language. That is why it is so difficult to find a common denominator for the whole of Europe. There are tens of interpreters in Brussels, but I think it is quite a safe assumption to say that at night when everyone comes down to a bar they communicate in English to establish what is happening, so next day they know what to think about a given matter.

Language also encodes our past. We want to know who we are. To know who we are, we have to know who we used to be. Consequently, our literature, written in the past, anchors us in that past. That is where our experiences are described, experiences to which we keep referring. These are not the experiences of other nations. Hence the question that is often asked is whether anyone from the outside can understand that. For most of my life, I would have said, “Yes, that’s beautiful, but is anyone going to understand that?” But I would rather make films for those who understand than those who don’t. Ingmar Bergman and Fellini also made films for those who understood.

Of course, Bergman’s films were more psychological than political, because his sociological problems were not as significant.

Our situation is more difficult. This is because our history is, unfortunately, our exclusive property. The historical journey of our loss of independence, regaining independence and then again falling into dependence, shaped us in the way that we cannot simply reject and say that we are starting everything anew on Monday because it happens that on Monday we become a free country. We carry that past with us, whether we want it or not.

Suddenly, on Monday, many political parties got formed and they represented a multiplicity of views on the future of our country. Most of all, they projected their own egoism, which Solidarity did not have. At the same time, the Left did not disappear. It proved that they became effective defenders of the old. They were the ones to defend big state factories. Ironically, Solidarity also defended the same big factories. They defended farmers who were inefficient and unproductive, but Solidarity defended them as well. Suddenly, there was a clash that we could have not foreseen, the clash of what in politics is referred to as the left and the right.

RM: Isn’t that clash what could have become Polish contemporary national cinema?

AW: Yes, but all attempts at making such films failed because audiences did not want to come to see them in the cinema. There, people wanted to see things they could not see on TV. In the Polish People’s Republic, there was censorship and coercion, and it was impossible to see representations of the real political life. Lies were printed in newspapers and were coming out of TV. All this resulted in a situation in which the truth we managed to show in some ways in film, each allusion was decoded by the audience and was the reason for them to come to the cinema. When the same audience could watch the very thing on TV starting at 7 am, and after it all had been written about in newspapers, they abandoned their interest in it. Even more surprising is that they ceased being interested in politics at all. Politics became a domain of a minority of this society, and possibly one of its worse minorities. The better ones got busy with business and new economic freedoms.

RM: What does this mean for the shape of cinema in Poland, comparing to the pre-1989 period?

AW: A big part of the success of Polish cinema in the times of communism relied on the fact that we had more freedom than any other country behind the Berlin Wall, so we could express more easily what was happening behind that Wall, what people wanted and where they were going. Because the Cold War permeated the atmosphere of those times, the world was interested in who inhabited that land, and what it would be like if the war really happened. So they watched strange films, our films, because they wanted to see the other side of the world. At the moment when the Berlin Wall came down, automatically we became part of Europe, and now Polish cinema is experiencing exactly the same problems as those experienced by French, Italian or German cinemas.


In my youth, my Ashes and Diamonds and Canal were screened in American cinemas. In New York, one could see them in the cinema. Today, it’s almost impossible that a European film would make it to a commercial cinema chain. It may be shown in university cinemas. I’m not diminishing the value of university audiences. After all, these are the people who could shape America’s views and tastes, so it is a positive thing that the students can see European theatre or cinema. However, the limitation in the possibility of reception of European films results in them more and more addressing their own audiences. Therefore, they remove themselves from the question that I always have at the back of my mind: “Will anyone understand this or that film?”

There are jokes that we would laugh at, but no one else would. There is English wit that we would not laugh at. Why not have our own world, then? And why would the cinema not belong to that world? You could answer this question by saying that it was wonderful when Polish cinema was informing the world about what was happening here, what kind of a place this is. Yes, it was wonderful, and we were proud of what was called the Polish School in film. The Polish School began in a strange way and that beginning had a decisive influence on the freedom of that cinema, in that it was possible to make films like Andrzej Munk’s Zezowate szczescie [Cockeyed Luck, 1960] and later Shivers or Interrogation or Man of Marble or Man of Iron, or many other films. In any case, it was our aspiration to communicate with the world. This aspiration has now progressively diminished, amongst other reasons, because the world doesn’t expect it from us. The world is not interested in us. It has turned away from us.

Professor Brzezinski, a Pole who advised the most powerful players of the American political scene, and to whom I’ve just recently spoken in Wroclaw, would be able to tell you how Europe is going to manage its relations with Poland and America. However, I can tell you that there is definitely a new surprising dependence developing here. Also, our joining Europe does not have to mean that we would start making films the same as everyone else. It might mean that we would be making films that no one else would make, because we would be the only ones to need them.

Paradoxically, to make a film in Germany is the same as making a film in Poland. It is the same as making a film in Russia. It doesn’t open up the world. It doesn’t change anything, and festival successes and awards do not translate into a box-office success.

RM: Apart from historical literary adaptations, are there any other films that for you define what Polish national cinema is about now?

AW: Yes. I noticed the film Glosniej od bomb [Louder than Bombs, Przemyslaw Wojcieszek, 2001]. It was made by an amateur director. This is one film I like. It is young cinema made by someone who can make films and can direct them. If I were to list only one good recent film, that would definitely be it.

I think there are a few more films. Piotr Trzaskalski’s Edi [2002] was well received. However, it was well received because it’s a story of such an agreeable hero. This type of a simple yet enlightened man, almost taken from a fairytale, rarely appears in the cinema and especially in Polish cinema. This is where the success of that film comes from.

Two other films screened recently are also worth mentioning. Zmruz oczy [Squint Your Eyes, Andrzej Jakimowski, 2003] is exceptionally beautiful and original, but also Warszawa [Warsaw, Dariusz Gajewski, 2003] speaks to me with its gallery of lifelike characters.

Yet, I can’t see any unity in them. They don’t want that unity. They are not looking for some type of glue to unite them. Young filmmakers can’t fight for their films. They are not interested in filmmaking legislation, although they know that without it nothing can be done. They wouldn’t lift a finger regarding that. This again, in my opinion, is a new phenomenon of the inertia of film circles, which used to be for years the most active politically.

The strength of the earlier Polish cinema was in the unity of a group of filmmakers who worked together in their common interest. Perhaps, that kind of unity will be created again. Wojciech Marczewski and I very much strive for that in our school [Master School of Film Directing], because we think that it would point new people in the direction of the cinema of social issues. This is the only tradition in Polish cinema that carries strength. There is no other artistic tradition in Polish cinema apart from that of a 19th century artist with social responsibility to participate in all its problems. In short, this is our artistic tradition. Artists should pry into what happens socially. They should be displeased about the current state of affairs, in the name of what should be. If that tradition returns, if young people understand that this is not only their responsibility, but is also a filmic topic, then Polish cinema will regain its distinctive shape. It won’t imitate other patterns, just like our old films didn’t.

I think that what happened here is something that we are yet not fully aware of. America exhausted its exploitation of European cinema. American cinema took what it could from what was happening in Europe. However, we can’t turn that process around to benefit us and European cinema.

In this situation, can we have a common European cinema? Some would say that we can. I think that so far all the attempts in which an Italian would go to France and with a Frenchman together they would go to England, stopping on the way in Sweden, resulted in Euro-pudding. Everyone keeps making that dish, but no one likes to eat it.

Now, there are no limits. So, this openness has to be reflected somehow in cinema. Maybe there will be a cinema in which the Poles, Italians, French, Germans and Swedes will co-exist together, as we do within our respective countries. Who would be able to write for cinema like that? Who would be able to direct it? Who would be able to make a film about such a broad reality with its problems? I don’t know. I haven’t seen a film like that so far.

RM: Was this also a motivation for setting up your and Wojciech Marczewski’s film school?

AW: There were many reasons for setting up that school. One was the lack of unity that I have already discussed. The group of directors that started at that school brought with them a group of camera operators. Then followed scenarists, actors. So, from the initial number of 12 or 13 recruits, we have a few tens of people cooperating with our school.

Ashes and Diamonds

The second reason for setting up that school is that people should learn filmmaking in a practical way, in film workshops. There should be less lecturing by directors on how they made their own films and more practical hands-on experience offered to students. How I made my films is unimportant to young film-makers. It is completely inconsequential for my students that some time ago I made Ashes and Diamonds.

The third motivation came from the dissolution of the old film units [zespoly filmowe], which grouped filmmakers into artistic unities. With their disappearance, there came a need for a place in which young people could benefit from the experience of their older colleagues. Hence, the idea for a school that would offer that kind of unity – if it manages to survive and incorporate experiences of a few generations.

In September this year I am starting to work with students who don’t yet have their matriculation. Maybe we will help to construct a unity with some kind of future to it. They don’t all have to become film directors, but they will know that cinema is something splendid, and that cinema is also something important. There is already a structure for that but, if we manage to create such a group, they will know about each other. I count on these young people, and this is the legacy I would like to leave behind.


  1. Andrzej Wajda paraphrasing a great Polish journalist in John Orr and Elzbieta Ostrowska (Eds), The Cinema of Andrzej Wajda: The Art of Irony and Defiance (London and New York: Wallflower Press, 2003), p. xvii.
  2. Compare that number with 3.5 million tickets sold to James Cameron’s Titanic (1997), which was released in Poland a year earlier, in 1998.
  3. The eagle is the emblem of Poland. Throughout Polish history it has been depicted in a crown. During the communist period, the eagle was portrayed without a crown, so the reinstatement of the crown after the collapse of communism had symbolic significance, indicating the historical continuity of an independent Polish state. [Translator’s note]

About The Author

Renata Murawska lectures in film and media in the Department of Media at Macquarie University in Sydney. Her research focuses on comedy, émigré filmmaking, Polish and Eastern European cinema, and Public Relations.

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