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Man of movies
Andrzej Wajda turns 75


If the late Krzysztof Kieslowski was Polish cinema’s master of chamber music, Andrzej Wajda is its great symphonist. Even his lyrical films swell and career with heroic themes, surging emotion, shifting tones and sheer volume. It’s a lot to take in, especially since, unlike Kieslowski, Wajda’s no cosmopolitan, but relentlessly Polish in his historical and cultural allusions, his spirit and his intent. He may well be the last true national artist, and he is certainly one of the few remaining world-class filmmakers. He received an honorary Oscar for lifetime achievement last year, but his creative life is far from over. His most recent film, Pan Tadeusz (1999; March 10 at 9 p.m. at the HFA), broke box-office records in his homeland, being seen by some 10 million of his countrymen, including the pope.

Pan Tadeusz will screen as part of the series “Poland through the Prism of Andrzej Wajda” at the Harvard Film Archive and the National Center for Jewish Film at Brandeis University, a kind of birthday celebration for the director, who turns 75 on March 6. It epitomizes Wajda’s richness and power and also the problems some audiences, non-Poles especially, have with his work. Based on a 19th-century epic poem by Adam Mickiewicz that’s familiar to every Polish schoolboy, it’s the story of the title hero, a young aristocrat whose destiny is to reconcile two warring families by marrying a girl from the rival clan so that together they can join with Napoleon and free Poland from the tsar.

Fraught with folly, irony, low comedy, high tragedy, sweeping battles, drunken debacles, and overall visual splendor (who knew gathering mushrooms could be so beautiful?), Tadeusz exults in Wajda’s themes of fate and heroism. Unfortunately, there is no real hero — Tadeusz, played by Polish heartthrob Michal Zebrowski, is a bit of a wimp — and the interfamilial intrigues, not to mention the historical details (is this Lithuania or Poland?), all relayed in rhyming couplets with a voiceover narrative from Mickiewicz himself as he languished in Parisian exile in 1834, make for a daunting two and a half hours. Even if you can make out the subtitles.

Things were simpler back in the sewers. Kanal (1957; March 2 at 7 p.m. and March 7 at 9:30 p.m. at the HFA), Wajda’s second film, remains one of his best. The life and death of a Resistance unit during the doomed 1944 Warsaw Uprising against the Nazis, Kanal begins with a city in surreal ruins: a grand piano peers from a pile of smoking rubble, a child with a gun mans the barricades against German tanks, and the survivors must literally go underground, seeking refuge in the sewers. There they also seek the meaning of their futile struggle. What they find is treachery, love, courage, and a bolted grate forbidding escape in what may be the greatest war movie ever made.

Some escaped the sewers only to undergo further twists of fate and faith. The Germans have just surrendered in Ashes and Diamonds (1958; screens Thursday, March 1 at 7 p.m. at Brandeis), but for Maciek (Zbigniew Cybulski, one of the most charismatic actors of all time, here at his best), a veteran of the defeated, anti-Communist Home Army, the war goes on. He must assassinate a Communist party chief, but his devil-may-care fatalism has been gravely tested. He’s fallen in love, and his last hours before his fatal appointment pass with portents, private rites, and aching ironies. Images from this film — the upended cross, the flaming vodka glasses, the bloody sheets — are among the most evocative in world cinema, and Cybulski’s performance — he has been called “the Polish James Dean,” but Dean never was this good — is the definitive portrayal of terminal romanticism on the screen.

In true Polish fashion, Cybulski died in a freak accident in 1967, leaving Wajda and his obsession with the nature of heroism without a heroic actor equal to his vision. Before that, however, he had turned to the Bible for inspiration in Samson (1961; March 3 at 7:30 p.m. at Brandeis), a loose retelling of the strongman’s rise and fall set during the war. Jakub (John Garfield look-alike Serge Merlin) is no hero; he just wants to make friends with his fellow students but ends up accidentally killing one during an anti-Semitic rally. His prison term ends when the Nazis take over, and he is relocated to the Warsaw Ghetto. Almost by accident he escapes, and his implacable passivity gives way to a final act of outrage. Evoking Buñuel and the Orson Welles of The Trial in its weird sexual subtext, Samson has been criticized for its dithering protagonist, but it is one of the first Polish films to confront the Holocaust.

No hero is forthcoming in The Wedding (1973; March 6 at 9 p.m. at the HFA and March 8 at 7 p.m. at Brandeis), another period adaptation of a Polish literary classic (the turn of the century play by Stanislaw Wyspianski), this one also with rhyming dialogue. As in Pan Tadeusz, a wedding of opposites — an aristocratic poet and a farmer’s daughter — offers the symbolic hope of national unity and liberation. Instead, it invokes a night of drunken hallucinations, buffoonery, failed revolt, and paralysis. Neither are the trio in Promised Land (1975; March 9 at 7 p.m. at the HFA and March 10 at 7:30 p.m. at Brandeis) cut from heroic cloth. An impoverished noble, a bourgeois German, and a resourceful Jew are ruthless but lovable rascals out to open their own textile factory, the 19th-century Lódz equivalent of a dot-com company. Dense and sprawling but erratic in tone (are they good guys or bad guys?), Land ends unconvincingly on a revolutionary note.

Perhaps what makes a hero is a heroic historical moment. Certainly Wajda found the inspiration for his cinematic Eroica in the growing Solidarity labor movement that would ultimately topple the Communist regime. In Man of Marble (1977; March 3 at 7 p.m. at the HFA), Agnieszka (Krystyna Janda, who tends to confuse cigarette smoking with great acting), a crusading filmmaker, is intrigued by the story of Birkut (Jerzy Radziwilowicz), a worker hero who was made into a media icon in the ’50s but subsequently disappeared. Taking a tip from Citizen Kane (as another character notes, the concept is “a little hackneyed”), she interviews colleagues, family members, an alcoholic ex-wife, and the great man’s son to re-create the life and learn the truth — that Birkut was a genuine hero betrayed by a corrupt system.

Four years later and events would overtake Wajda’s fiction. In Man of Iron (1981; screens March 4 at 2 p.m. at the HFA), Agnieszka has married Birkut’s son Maciek (Jerzy Radziwilowicz again, and not the equal of Cybulski’s Maciek in Ashes and Diamonds) and they have joined Lech Walesa (who appears in the film) and the Gdansk strikers in their bid for freedom and justice. Another journalist, however, is on the case, a government hireling assigned not to uncover the truth behind the legend but to distort and discredit it. Made in a narrow window of opportunity just before the imposition of martial law (Wajda claims that the tanks he had asked the army for to use in a scene ended up crushing the strike for real), Man of Iron slipped past the censors to win first prize at Cannes and elicit world support for Solidarity. Orchestrating the events around him (like Medium Cool, the story unfolds in the midst of the actual events) with his cinematic artistry, Wajda became the hero his movies call out for.

Issue Date: March 1-8, 2001