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Andrej Wajda
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Matthew Paris

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Post Fri Jan 30, 2004 6:01 pm - Andrej Wajda
Although Andrej Wajda is known mostly in the United States as a maker of Ashes and Diamonds, a sort of Antonioni influenced movie done in the 60s that put the contemporary Polish film industry on the Western psychic map as a franchise, Wajda made all kinds of film over a half century, many of which were at least to me much more interesting than that very atmospheric, beautiful shot and cut but not notably original flick for which he became instantly famous quite a few decades ago. Itís actually rather atypical of Wajda in its brooding eroticism.
Wajda has lately been awarded an honorary Oscar in Hollywood for his total achievement though I would guess very few people there had seen his films. He was associated at all times with the integral Polish movent for freedom and liberty from censorship. Yet, impeccable as his politics is, he is also a great major film maker.
His stance has never been merely that imperial forces of all kinds have subjugated the innocent Polish folk culture and its impeccable religious cults; his view is one of the urbane and worldly sophisticate who find both the empires that have sat on Poland and its sometimes rather undeveloped culture that resulted from that wicked subjugation are both not amenable to his view of life.
Since the Polish nobles, cavalry, priesthood and other colorful but ineffectual institutions failed to protect his own people over innumerable aeons Wajda definitely isnít going to portray the victims of empire after empire as the good guys. He was alive if a toddler when the Polish cavalry faced the Third Reich phalanxes of tanks on horseback.
My feeling is that he was feted as a young genius for that movie; it had a brooding decadence that Westerners often confuse with intelligence and sensitivity. It reminds people in the Western Europe and America of other such movies about which the audience is supposed to feel a sense of a high cognitive collegium by World War Two survivors.
It had a kind of then fashionable lack of action, as if any scurvy sign of narrative might be less sophisticated than nearly vegetative souls doing nothing at all beyond casual coitus, beautiful use of black and white visual values, an suitable middle class educated degenerates for whom nothing really matters in an existential way quite au courant if suicidal about a half century ago.
Europe was indeed in many places then suffering though an age of ontological exhaustion, lack of direction beyond maps to spas of pleasure and general suspicion and disdain for any culture, authority or connection with a community of any kind much as it does now. Wajda has made all kinds of movies, the two I want to talk about hardly known here at all, Korschak and Danton, are vigorous, not decadent.
Yet before I take them up Iíd like to suggest that like Fritz Lang, he is one director who has quite a range, doesn't ever same to have made a bad movie; everyone Iíve seen of his large quantity of films has something unique and singular, often unforgettable. I canít get out of my mind the film he made of Polish resistance fighters living in the sewers of Warsaw for example; as a sheer visual concoction it took the sewer sequences of Carol Reedís The Third Man and a brilliant Richard Basehart noir move, I think the first one about a serial killer, He Walks By Night; nobody has driven these nightmare environments thorough an hour and a half of seem of the most terrifying catastrophic narrative sequences on is every going to see.
The sense of being trapped in a labyrinth which Reed showed so well in this Orson Welles denouement itself probably had its genesis in the chase in Victor Hugoís Les Miserables; the genius of film is to offer instant compel detail for the eyes in a way novels can never do if its weakness is to only be able to imply inner lives through the masks of actors while novels can move in and out of inner life with a suave facility. Nothing does a chase like a movie.
Wajda was like Hugo, Reed and the Baseheart flick using the sewers as a metaphor for an inner condition of the spirit but Wajda unlike all of them was presenting it as a mirror of a world nothing like anything weíve known in America or in too many places in the West, a Poland that had been ravaged, conquered and sacked by everyone from Nazis to the quisling apparatus the Russians appointed to run Poland when the Soviet Union defeated the Third Reich.
In fact Poland wasnít even a country a while ago; it was a sort of nameless province of the Austria-Hungarian empire before that; its very language has old Norse words in it from prior Viking invasions. It has signs of the imperial designs once of Grater Lithuania, the Mongol hordes and the huger for swag of innumerable other buccaneers probably going back before the Flood. Itís at a remote polarity from the United States, which has never suffered a military occupation by anybody unless we include the Northís invasion of the Confederacy; it hasnít been anybodyís colony since 1776.
Yet Wajda shares the broad humanism of Communist ideals if not practice if the very occupiers of Poland during most of his career; some of his faith in our species mirrors the hopes the very socialist movement that ran Poland with perhaps Monroe emphasis on stifling Poland than nurturing it. It ran much of East Europe unit the whole Russian empire collapsed bit by bit in the last decades of the 20th century.
Americans are always startled by cultures they visit or saver in a film that have presumptions that the past has by stealth o overt ceremony merged like a foul mist into the present. Our culture thinks of the past as something one throws into the landfill or a car cemetery at the noysome edge of town to rust and rot like worms in the sun. The notion that even what happened a year ago might have a utility for us is never as easily acceptable much less presumptive as it is in Europe.
Itís hard for us here to imagine a country like England or France where a history of 2500 years is internalized by everybody who goes to school there as their legacy. We in the United States think events that occurred thirty years ago are remote to irrelevant. The history of successive losses that Poland has endured might tell us something about ourselves that we arenít going to discover as easily from our own culture, often lacking both the equivocal harvests of known and acknowledged irreparable loss, death and suffering as well as a general absence of memory as if a Cambodia itself could have Alzheimerís disease in its south Patagonian form of extreme contagion.
In any case none of Wajdaís movies has the kind of resonance that looks back to the past as one finds in England, Fence, Germany or Inlay; for Poles the past is fairly dismal and may not have any troves of wisdom in it beyond how to mourn like a banshee after being consistency pillaged, the names changing of the rapists and predators from century to century. Like our own humanism in the United States, Polish spiritual regard for humanity has to rest on an almost purely biological high regard for the potential in our species.
It can't be rooted in unsteadiness that have any tack record of protecting or nurturing the integrity and security of the Polish community; there werenít any in the past and probably still arenít any now.
Our American humanism is at least centered in a ceremonial homage to a successful revolution from a colonial power, a Constitution written by the countryís moral founders, a democratic process that no matter how flawed or corrupt pays some passing homage to a scrambling Jacksonian populism .
Poland doesn't have anything lie that. Itís been instead the hapless village punchboard of Europe for as long as anybody can remember. Its humanism has to rest in practice on the soil of private life, of a virility inherent in our biology, not on its politics or any part of its institutional life or traditions, past or present.
The two films I admire most by the very prolific Wajda, Korschak and Danton, aside form being ichthyotic masterpieces, are in their political discourse very different approaches to protecting what humanism and self respect one can in a pulverizing world. As one might expect in most Wajda movies the characters in it are destroyed by some eternal or internal imperium; how they fight for their lives and die is the subject film after film as it has been the nub of Polish life for a very long time.
One should add that Poland had until the Second World War a very large Jewish population, a third of the count, which was the one of the doubles centers of the elliptical Yiddish Renaissance of the late 19th and early 20th century along with America.
The feeling of camaraderie of two groups in the same piteous political dilemma went both ways. Most Jews in Poland were Polish parrots, particularly its artists. Arthur Rubinstein for example was the principal champion of the greatest Polish composer of his time: Karol Szymonowski. One should say that Symonowski like Chopin spent most of his adult life out of Poland. It was tough being a Pole in Poland with the sort of provinciality the invaders of the day imposed upon it from all sides as well as within.
Although the countrified Poles sometimes didnít like Jews much, the Jewish and Polish culture merged veer amiably in the big cities; Polandís most famous poet was a notable and vocal Judeophile. Poland probably lost half its population to the Nazis, the other half living like prisoners on parole under the Russians; before that, though Poland did becoming independent for a brief time, scrambling in the shadows away from the Austrian empire. As one might except Wajdaís film often touch on Jewish themes; more than occasionally they are central to him.
The helpless and enfranchised Jewish Poles arenít much of aa stretch for him as a world sophisticate with a past not too dissimilarly politically dismal, a flimsy or negligible franchise for existence in his natal land except to be a slave or cattle. Nearly every film of Wajdaís is haunted by that ordinary terror.
Korschak is a fairly straightforward movie about a Polish Jewish psychologist of great eminence in Warsaw who started an orphanage he set up to be run on high principles of charity, self respect and humanism. As the Nazis take over warsaw and gradually strangle Jewish life in the ghetto Korschak does everything he can to protect his charges from the world outside their refuge.
Korschak is because of his fame as a psychologist even to the Germans a privileged character not subject to the strictures on other Jews. Wajda quite intelligently explorers the level of exemption that some rich or otherwise connected Jews had for a time in Warsaw at first under the Germans. At the end of the movie Korschak accompanies his children into the concentration camp to be killed when he could have escaped easily because his bonded mission is to do whatever he can to protect these abandoned waifs in their final stages of the neglect and contempt by the adeste world for them that led to their extermination. Bruno Bettleheim, writing at length on the same subject, thinks Korschak was an intelligent loon. In fact Bettleheim sees Korschak as a kind of amateur magician taking refuge in perception and subjectivity, embracing honor when it led him and his charges to death as if life were a classical tragedy, that exemplified everything that was worn with the Jewish resistance to the Germans.
Wajda is simultaneously admiring to awed by Korschakís ethics in the face of the upside down Nazi morals, impressed by his practical resourcefulness in the service of humanism; yet we are reminded by Wajda, echoing Bettleheim, that the only oneís who escaped the Nazis were the ones who hid in the halls and lived like wild animals until the Third Reich was defeated.
We donít have to be Jewish or Polish to resonance with this story. It is both historically true and a parable on how all of us attempt in a world that treats us as adults and children often with something less than the civility and hospitality one is supposed to show to strangers. Korschak stands for the human race in the face of the physical reality of an occupying merciless and wicked force that with all the power of arms is immortally out to enslave and destroy us.
For Wajda as a Pole the situation isnít confined to the Nazi occupation and what happened to Korschak and the children he had pledged to protect. It goes back within the Polish context many millennia, perhaps seemingly forever.
Itís not hard to see why producers and distributors havenít flocked to mount these masterpieces in American theaters nor to promote them with enthusiasm in video stores. Though all Wajdaís movies are straightforward narrative with great visual beauty, no murkiness or lack of coherence, the characters almost always virtuous and well rounded, even the less appetizing ones touched by some redeeming humanity.
Wajdaís norma Polish sensibility is absolutely terrifying as Orwellís 1984 for an American public. Itís fascinating to watch a master film maker show how characters of the most elevated order are destroyed by external forces so that nobody is left but we donít have that kind of genre in American films in the same dour way. We can made a warrior film of extermination of virtuous soldiers like Sands Of Iwo Jima, Lifeboat or Predator; pitting people without weapons against overwhelming evil force and watching them die well is generally too much for us.
We in America donít mind killing off nearly everybody in a movie; to knock of all the good guys and leave the implacable bad guys standing at the end of the film in power and with all the resources of legitimacy is something we arenít up to yet as Wajda commonly does; it is in fact absolutely frightening to our public.
We think of ourselves as people who are decent and neighborly but will bring whatever force we deem necessary to produce justice when reason and charity fails. Tactís why are revolution was about. Thatís why we like Westerns. They donít have that opinion of their resources in Poland.
The most epic and ambitious politically of Wajdaís movers is Danton, a film he made in France in color with a famous star, Gerard Depardeieu and a larger budget than his other movies, but which one has to search today for in the stacks of some large repository of film arcana like the Donnell Library in New York even to view at all.
Like the rest of Wajdaís movies it is visually stunning, composed with virtuosic craft, yet made as it was outside Eastern Europe, has a much more polemical caste to its narrative that separates it from his other more inferential work. Its main action is clear and well defined as any tragedy by a Hellene.
Probably Wajda was thinking of Dantonís Death by Georg Buechner, also the author of Wozzeck, when Wajda made this film, but Wajdaís treatment not only has another level of political discourse but an economy and lack of operatic speeches one would not find in Buechner.
Danton, a rich man and champion of the populace who was a central founder of the French Revolution, finds himself like most Wajda heros gradually closed down by the impeccable and greyly austere Robbespierre, one without the tastes in pleasure from feasts to mistresses of Danton. Robbespierre is dyspeptic, sick, leads a life without any savor. He probably hates humanity beneath his seeming humanistic piety. We know as we watch this film that not to soon afterwards Robbespierre will go to the block as well as Danton; nobody is spared in this movie.
As in his other movies there arenít any twists or reversals in the plot; the line of action is remorseless though slow and measured. The interest centers on how Danton responds to his destruction, what resources he brings to events which most lead to his annihilation. Danton makes no effort to escape Paris or his fate anymore than other Wajda characters could or do; he does make some fine speeches like the historical Danton defending himself but he is a clever man who knows where hie life is heading.
There is a wonderful speech at its denouement at the bock where Danton coolly and amusingly assesses his life as a short but intense and meaningful one. He is truly a hero who remains as did Socrates faithful to his nature and humanistic sanity in death as well as in life. In a way he is a model for what Wajda finds in the best of all his characters.
In a world that all regard as a severe and revolutionary departure from the past Danton wants to keep Fence free and diverse in its internal habits; Robbespierre in the name of virtue probably is as sincere about wanting to impose a restrictive tyranny on the same country, on humanity itself. Wajda honors the vision of Robbespierre but sees it as fatigued, sick, and wan, lacking virility, aiming for something less than an alliance with nature and ultimately at war with it.
Robbespierre isnít really personally milkiest as much as secretly anti-humanistic. He underwinds and even admires Danton; he can't do anything about what he is and where his life is going either. He is just as clever as Danton; he knows that his destruction of dissent in the name of revolutionary virtue is going to be a demon loosed that will knock on his own door one day.
At one point in this unique and remarkable movie, Robbespierre visits Danton but is civilly but visibly not amused by Dantonís expensive feats and mistresses. Danton is also a little drunk; the carnality of Danton is repugnant to Robbespierre even when Danton is sober. Danton says to Robbespierre that for a revolutionary claiming to be the champion of the populace Robbespierre has no understanding with his medieval notions of sin held in by measure what the common people really want.
They hunger to live materially classically like the rich, Danton says. They want prodigal opulence, flamboyant feasts, revels of erotic excess and gaudy material wealth if they can get it. The populace really isnít any different than the nobles were except under the Bourbons they simply cannot live out the common and inevitable direction that life lays out potential for everyone in the species as least as a jejune episode.
They are more moral than any noble because if they can be revelers in a broad class they arenít depriving anybody else of doing the same thing. Virtue lies not in oneís qualities but in ones choice in the murk of action and thought not to injure the potential of oneís neighbor. Itís a very intriguing argument for freedom most beautiful orchestrated by Wajda in Danton as he never has done in any other film.
This wonderful moment even for Wajdaís very reflective work that should stick in the mind of anyone who has been lucky enough to see this film. I believe it is Wajdaís very sage response to received modern ideas he has wrestled with on revolution, progress, Bolshevism and the supposed gap in philosophy banyan classes, all notions he was brought up to embrace during his adult life in Poland and found to be an illusion.
Such a commentary seems obvious enough to us in the United Sates where we have set Wajdaís depiction of Dantonís ideas not merely as our established church but our national presumptive if unspoken faith in consumerism and consumerists. Of course, ever direction in nature has its excesses and follies, donít it? Robbespierre, frugal, austere, measured and of Puritanical morals though of course he and Danton were both atheists, finds this inebriated speech of Dantonís repugnant. Yet in a painful way he honors it too. To Americans Dantonís epiphanies are almost banal.
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