ANDRZEJ WAJDA. The Complete Works of a Polish Master

Andrzej Wajda had been creating films for 60 years.


14 June 2024

ANDRZEJ WAJDA. The Complete Works of a Polish Master

He is a true veteran of contemporary cinema, acclaimed both in Poland and internationally. This recognition goes beyond the honorary Oscar for lifetime achievement, which was a mere formality. He is a director whose films are listed among the best in the history of cinema. Importantly, this acclaim comes not from popularity rankings, which follow different rules, but from voices such as Martin Scorsese and Francis Ford Coppola, who count Ashes and Diamonds among their favorite films (both of whom are also veterans, though they debuted several to many years later than Wajda).

Is he the best Polish director? Here, he would have to compete with Roman Polanski for the throne, but when it comes to directors who created in Poland, Wajda has no equal. One can elevate individual films by Has, Kieślowski, Munk, Kawalerowicz, Różewicz, Bareja, and Machulski, but the rich oeuvre of Wajda, its significance for Polish culture, and his ability to comment on history and contemporary times cannot be ignored. He achieved this status very quickly – his first three films already laid the foundation for the monument of a great cinema Artist. There is no exaggeration in these words. Proof? The following list of 38 films, which we discuss individually, along with an evaluation.

A Generation (1954)

A Generation Pokolenie

Starring: Tadeusz Łomnicki, Tadeusz Janczar, Ryszard Kotys, Urszula Modrzyńska, Roman Polanski

Major awards: Łagów (Lubuskie Film Summer) – award for Andrzej Wajda for the debut of the decade, State Award special mentions for Tadeusz Janczar and Tadeusz Łomnicki (best male roles), State Award special mention for Andrzej Wajda (direction), State Award special mention for Andrzej Lipman (cinematography)

A Generation heralded the Polish Film School. It was made during the era of socialist realism in art and while the post-war trauma was still palpable. The director’s feature debut is still widely discussed today, considering its propaganda message, historical portrayal, and artistic form. Wajda depicts a generation coming of age during World War II in German-occupied Warsaw. The youth face the dilemma of whether to fight in defense of the country. The choice of which group to join – the People’s Guard or the Home Army – is not a dilemma; the former is favored and wins. Wajda presents the inner turmoil of the young, their naivety and maturation, their engagement, optimism, and the joys and sorrows of daily life in the occupied city. The youth contrast with the generation of their parents. The action takes place mainly on the city streets and in a carpentry shop where young apprentices and old hands meet, conspire, and secretly engage in political activities. It’s a mix of political, historical, and patriotic themes. The film features future stars of Polish cinema both on-screen (in main and minor roles) and behind the scenes (J. Lipman, K. Kutz, A. Ford). The acting is generally good, though some scenes are overly theatrical. A Generation has moments of weak narration and sometimes overly pompous, unrealistic dialogues. However, elements like neo-realistic framing and lighting (e.g., the beginning of the film), internal editing, symbolic shots (the scene with Jaśek and the stairs!), tension-building music (moments of joy and dread), and group shots are surprising and original in this black-and-white film, making it worth watching. [Ewelina Świeca]

Kanal (1957)

Kanal Kanał dir. Andrzej Wajda

Starring: Tadeusz Janczar, Teresa Iżewska, Wieńczysław Gliński, Tadeusz Gwiazdowski, Emil Karewicz, Stanisław Mikulski, Władysław Sheybal, Teresa Berezowska

Major awards: Special Jury Prize at Cannes (and a nomination for the Palme d’Or), Gold Medal in the category of young directors’ feature films at the World Festival of Youth and Students in Moscow, Golden Duck (awarded by the magazine “Film”) for best Polish film, award from the Brazilian Association of Film Critics

It’s September 25, 1944, the 56th day of the Warsaw Uprising. A unit under the command of Lieutenant “Zadra” attempts to break through the sewers from Mokotów to the city center. Wajda’s film, based on a story by the insurgent Jerzy Stefan Stawiński, is a harrowing study of tragedy. There is no chance of a happy ending – for anyone. The uprising is dying out, and the hope of the first days has vanished. What remains is exhaustion, doubt, wounds, and a sense of duty battling with indifference, revealing all weaknesses and character flaws. Much of the film takes place in the suffocating, closed space of the sewers, creating a claustrophobic atmosphere of entrapment. We can only helplessly watch as the characters gradually head toward doom, which they are doomed to from the start. This doom takes various forms, but each reflects failure: the failure of this lost underground group and the decimated uprising units facing death, captivity, camps, executions, and ruins. It is hard to shake off the impression Kanal leaves. For a long time, the melody played by the despairing Michał, the sound of a shot from a small Walther, the image of “Korab” and “Stokrotka” dying of exhaustion while clinging to a grate, and above all, the figure of “Zadra” staggering and turning back to save his soldiers, none of whom survived, linger in the memory. [Karolina Chymkowska]

Ashes and Diamonds (1958)

Ashes and Diamonds Popiół i diament dir. Andrzej Wajda

Starring: Zbigniew Cybulski, Ewa Czyżewska, Wacław Zastrzeżyński, Adam Pawlikowski, Bogumił Kobiela

Major awards: Venice (International Federation of Film Critics Award), Golden Duck (Best Polish Film), BAFTA (nominations: Best Film from any Source and Z. Cybulski for Best Foreign Actor)

It is hard to write anything original about Ashes and Diamonds. Every sentence in this description has been said before—this film has been so thoroughly interpreted and analyzed. Ashes and Diamonds delivered many unforgettable symbolic scenes. In this film, Andrzej Wajda achieved mastery. Lighting glasses of spirit, a conversation with a lover under an upside-down cross, or Maciek’s death on a garbage dump (of history) have long escaped their cinematic context. The power and uniqueness of this work are undoubtedly evidenced by the fact that the film has not aged in any respect. The acting, composition of many scenes, and cinematography (depth of field and focus) still impress. The passion with which Andrzej Wajda created this film is palpable. It is also a film that remains relevant. It is not only approached when discussing the situation of Poles during and immediately after World War II. [Maciej Niedźwiedzki]

Lotna / Speed (1959)

Lotna Speed dir. Andrzej Wajda

Starring: Adam Pawlikowski, Jerzy Moes, Jerzy Pichelski, Bożena Kurowska

Major awards: No information available

A war film based on a story by Wojciech Żukrowski. World War II, the Polish cavalry sets off against German tanks. The protagonist around whom the front-line events revolve is the mare Lotna—an elegant, brave, and obedient Arabian, attracting attention with her bright coat. The lancers come across her by chance and then receive her as a gift from a sick owner. Lotna excites the soldiers, especially the commanders, who compete for her. The mare first belongs to one commander, and when he dies, she passes to the next, and so on. Lotna causes jealousy and disputes, all against the backdrop of war—explosions, gunfire, planning the next charges. Wajda made a symbolic film depicting the life of soldiers during the war. The lancers are characterized by heroic fighting and excellent presentation, and the civilians eagerly help them. Besides the war and animal themes, the film includes love and friendship plots. The film is filled with symbolism and numerous allusions foreshadowing tragic events and death, not lacking in pathos. The cinematography deserves attention. Wajda was not satisfied with Lotna, and the film has stirred and continues to stir controversy due to its portrayal of the early days of World War II (the Polish cavalry charge with sabers and lances against German armored forces). The film perpetuates the myth of the lancers heroically fighting for their homeland against the greatest enemy. [Ewelina Świeca]

Innocent Sorcerers (1960)

Innocent Sorcerers dir. Andrzej Wajda

Starring: Tadeusz Łomnicki, Krystyna Stypułkowska, Kalina Jędrusik, Zbigniew Cybulski

Major awards: Award at the Edinburgh Film Festival

Have you heard about the fall of “Przekrój”? This magazine, so significant for Polish culture, is disappearing, and one could ponder its existence for a long time. But that’s not the point. We are talking about Innocent Sorcerers, Wajda’s first film focusing not on history but the here and now, in 1960. The film was meant to depict a new lifestyle representing the “Przekrój civilization” – jazz, alcohol, poetry, new values, and new needs. This weekly set the appropriate rhythm of life, created fashion, and proposed new customs. Innocent Sorcerers is somewhat an on-screen representation of the mood of those times. The main characters—Tadeusz Łomnicki with bleached hair and modest Krystyna Stypułkowska—engage in a semi-erotic, semi-intellectual game. In the background, Warsaw and its trendiest bars, where real jazz musicians (e.g., Krzysztof Komeda) play. In supporting roles, the most fashionable at the time—Zbigniew Cybulski, Roman Polanski, and the co-writer, then poet, Jerzy Skolimowski. The whole had a distinctly new wave feel—lonely people trying to escape loneliness, rebelling against primary values, and blindly throwing themselves into new morals. For this reason, the film was both criticized and praised. Today, it is undoubtedly a classic, not much associated with Wajda’s romantic style, which is a pity. [Rafał Oświeciński]

Samson (1961)

Starring: Serge Merlin, Alina Janowska, Władysław Kowalski, Beata Tyszkiewicz

Major awards: No information available

A little-known film in which Wajda returns to the ruins of war, this time directly to the Warsaw Ghetto, from which Jakub Gold escapes. He escapes, which means he is theoretically safe—unlike his people, who are slowly dying from Nazi bullets. And this bothers him, giving rise to moral anguish and guilt. Unlike Kanal, Ashes and Diamonds, or Lotna, this time Wajda does not motivate the tragedy or ennoble death—Gold dies, and his death saves no one and nothing; it is not even a symbol of anything, not a sacrifice for the homeland. Death without meaning—absurd and unnecessary. This complete break from the romantic thought that Wajda had previously adhered to met with a moderate reception. Furthermore, the director himself did not spare himself criticism, not seeing in Samson either clear metaphors or a moving vision of the Holocaust. It is hard not to agree with him, although the scale of the film is worth appreciating. [Rafał Oświeciński]

Siberian Lady Macbeth (1962)

Starring: Olivera Marković, Ljuba Tadić, Miodrag Lazarević, Bojan Stupica

Major awards: Aleksandar Sekulović Pula (Yugoslav Film Festival) – award for cinematography, Olivera Marković Pula (Yugoslav Film Festival) – acting award

Although Lady Macbeth automatically brings to mind the character from Shakespeare’s play, it was not the source of inspiration for Wajda’s film. The literary prototype of the 1962 film is a story by Nikolai Leskov, written in 1864 and titled exactly like Wajda’s film. Leskov, much like Shakespeare centuries earlier, creates a drama of human passions. Katarzyna marries a much older man. When a younger and much more attractive Sergei appears in her life, emotions take over. The relationship with the servant quickly turns into an unhealthy affair, leading to a series of murders and tragedies.

Wajda made Siberian Lady Macbeth in Serbo-Croatian. Despite Olivera Marković (film’s Katarzyna) winning the top acting award at the Yugoslav Film Festival, and Aleksandar Sekulović winning for best cinematography, the film passed unnoticed in Poland. Later, rare television screenings did not allow it to become ingrained in the consciousness of the Polish audience, which is why it remains one of Wajda’s least-watched films to this day. Do we miss much because of this? Both yes and no. Siberian Lady Macbeth is a well-made film and an interesting story, but Wajda takes on the role of a craftsman rather than a creator. It is watchable but quickly forgotten. [Filip Jalowski]

The Ashes (1965)

Main Cast: Daniel Olbrychski, Bogusław Kierc, Piotr Wysocki, Beata Tyszkiewicz, Pola Raksa, Władysław Hańcza, Jan Świderski

Major Awards: Cannes (nominated for the Palme d’Or), Golden Duck (Best Polish Film)

The year 1965 and the premiere of The Ashes mark a significant point in Andrzej Wajda’s artistic journey. This film was the first collaboration with Daniel Olbrychski, who would become one of Wajda’s favorite actors in the following years. It is Wajda’s first cinematic fresco, a nearly four-hour epic overshadowing all his previous works in scale. Even today, the film remains controversial. At the time of its release, critics claimed that the adaptation of Żeromski’s work failed due to poor emphasis distribution. Wajda was accused of allegorically emphasizing Polish weaknesses, particularly heroism. Over the years, the film is mostly remembered for the unfortunate horse that died during filming, in the name of realism and artistic vision. The horse’s death is indeed regrettable, and the criticisms of the time are hard to dispute. However, Wajda managed to create a memorable and suggestive film, despite its moments of incoherence and unclear direction. [Filip Jalowski]

Gates to Paradise (1968)

Main Cast: John Fordyce, Lionel Stander, Mathieu Carrière, Pauline Challoner

Major Awards: Berlin (nominated for the Golden Bear, Best Film category)

Andrzejewski’s Gates to Paradise is essentially an anti-cinematic novel, composed of two sentences. One stretches over a hundred pages, while the other is brief: And they walked all night. Wajda dreamed of adapting this book since he first read it. Securing funding was difficult, as Andrzejewski’s novel tackled the theme of children’s crusades, hinted at homosexuality, and analyzed the behavior of a crowd blindly following a strong leader—a topic uncomfortable for the PRL. Eventually, Wajda received the green light from Yugoslavian producers. The cast included foreign actors, and the film was made in English. The result is unsatisfactory. Wajda failed to capture the avant-garde essence of Andrzejewski’s text, creating a historical film that only hints (mainly through the cinematography of Mieczysław Jahoda) at the controversial themes of the novel. Overall, Gates to Paradise lacks the sharpness that pierced through the pages of its literary foundation. [Filip Jalowski]

Layer Cake / Roly Poly (1968)

Przekładaniec Layer Cake
A frame from the movie Przekładaniec directed by Andrzej Wajda 1968 Filmoteka Narodowa Audiovisual Institute wwwfototekafnorgpl

Main Cast: Bogumił Kobiela, Ryszard Filipski, Anna Prucnal

Major Awards: Chairman of the Committee for Radio and Television Award

Unexpectedly, Andrzej Wajda decided to continue the tradition of adapting Lem’s works for the screen. After the strenuous task of making the outstanding film Everything for Sale, Wajda created the 35-minute Layer Cake for Polish Television. The screenplay was written by Lem himself, based on his story Do You Exist, Mr. Jones?. The comedy revolves around the then-fantastic issue of transplantation. Race car driver Richard Fox repeatedly survives severe accidents thanks to Dr. Burton, who replaces his damaged body parts with organs from the fatal victims of his crashes. Fox’s survival depends on the number of spectators he inadvertently kills, leading to a psychological crisis as he takes on the traits of his organ donors. This raises the classic Lemian question of where Fox ends and his donors begin.

In the story, the theme was cyborgization. Literary Mr. Jones successively replaces his body parts with artificial ones, raising the question of when a man ceases to be human and becomes a machine. Wajda’s film swaps cyborgization for a transplantation spiral with no end in sight. The film is delightful, with excellent humor and fitting futuristic decorations, despite its tongue-in-cheek approach. The irreplaceable Bogumił Kobiela shines as Fox. Only the racing sequences appear somewhat chaotic. Layer Cake is the only film based on Lem’s work that the author himself praised, likely because he had control over the project as the screenplay writer. [Adrian Szczypiński]

Everything for Sale (1969)

everything for sale wszystko na sprzedaż

Main Cast: Beata Tyszkiewicz, Elżbieta Czyżewska, Andrzej Łapicki, Daniel Olbrychski, Witold Holtz, Małgorzata Potocka, Elżbieta Kępińska

Major Awards: Warsaw Mermaid (Film Critics Club Award)

Just as Fellini has his, Wajda has Everything for Sale, a kind of film essay and diary focusing on the death of actor Zbigniew Cybulski. This film tells the story of Maciek from Ashes and Diamonds and the myth he created. It’s not so much a tribute as an attempt to confront the memory of those who pass away—what remains of them, who they truly were, and how they will be remembered. It reflects on culture, art, and the people behind the scenes. The film juxtaposes truth with falsehood, hypocrisy, masks, and rituals, serving as a commentary on the March 1968 events and a self-documentary of Wajda. The film features handheld camera work, much improvisation, and actors playing themselves, making it a truly unique film-essay. It’s intriguing not only for its bold content but also for its form—classic cinéma vérité with numerous excellent episodes (such as the hussar attack). [Rafał Oświeciński]

Hunting Flies (1969)

polowanie na muchy Hunting Flies

Starring: Zygmunt Malanowicz, Małgorzata Braunek, Hanna Skarżanka, Ewa Skarżanka, Józef Pieracki, Daniel Olbrychski, Irena Dziedzic, Leszek Drogosz

Major Awards: Hanna Skarżanka – Łagów (Lubuskie Lato Filmowe) – Award for Best Supporting Actress

Another attempt to break the myths that have shaped Wajda’s status as a creator. Perhaps not a classic comedy, but more of a dramedy with a strong ironic edge. No wonder, as the screenplay is based on a short story by Janusz Głowacki (the screenwriter of Wałęsa), who brilliantly plays with the world of illusions created by early PRL – although here Wajda softened the satirical tone in favor of a slightly misogynistic commentary. This is a story about characters whose roles are stereotypically reversed – he is the failure, she is the tough one. The whole female family are like mantises. But it’s not just the fair sex that turns life into hell – everyone around stifles the main character, setting him straight, while he, poor and defenseless, submits to their will. Zygmunt Malanowicz is very good, although Bogumił Kobiela was initially planned for the role of Włodek (ah, what a performance that would have been!), and Małgorzata Braunek is excellent in the role of an insane mythomaniac. It is a great pleasure to see the future Olenka from The Deluge in such a bold role. The form of Hunting Flies is once again a romance with New Wave influences – fragmented editing, lots of improvisation, and a rough composition. Viewers practically ignored the film, as did critics, who generally considered it a failure in the filmography of the already renowned director. [Rafał Oświeciński]

Landscape After Battle (1970)

krajobraz po bitwie landscape after battle

Starring: Daniel Olbrychski, Stanisława Celińska, Jerzy Zelnik, Stefan Friedmann, Małgorzata Braunek

Major Awards: Cannes (nominated for the Palme d’Or), Golden Duck (Best Polish Film)

In Landscape After Battle, Wajda tackles the texts of Tadeusz Borowski, particularly the short story Battle of Grunwald. The merciless realism of Borowski’s vision is not fully reflected in Wajda’s cinematic world. Literature serves only as a starting point for creating a film that – despite a clear critique of the national flaws of Poles – mainly focuses on a delicately conducted, almost melodramatic love story between Tadeusz (Daniel Olbrychski) and a young Jewish woman, Nina (Stanisława Celińska). The couple meets in a German concentration camp liberated by Allied forces. Freedom is within reach, but Wajda makes it clear that the real bars and boundaries are not made of mesh, metal, and concrete.

Landscape After Battle does not present a very cheerful vision to the viewer. Liberated Poles do not behave like angels freed from the yoke of oppressors. It turns out that national myths still prevent them from looking at reality soberly, and a full stomach is more important than freedom and ideas. On one hand, it’s understandable, as Borowski’s prose is literal, far from romantic exaltations. On the other hand, especially in contrast to Samosiuk’s excellent cinematography and the subtly conducted love story, such a diagnosis hurts and is uncomfortable. Landscape After Battle is, in my opinion, one of Wajda’s best films. [Filip Jalowski]



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