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Film Society Mounts the Most Complete Retrospective of Polish Filmmaker's Work
Man of Marble / Czlowiek z marmuru. Directed by Andrzej Wajda, Poland, 1977; 165m. Photo: Film Society of Lincoln Center / Polish National Film Archive.
NEW YORK, NY.- With Truth or Dare: The Films of Andrzej Wajda, the Film Society of Lincoln Center presents the most complete retrospective ever mounted in the United States of the work of one of cinema’s most revered figures, at the Walter Reade Theater, Oct. 17 – Nov. 13. Wajda, recipient of several of filmmaking’s highest accolades including the Cannes Palme d’Or and an honorary Academy Award “for five decades of extraordinary film direction” in 2000, will attend several screenings during the series’ first weekend.

The 37-film showcase includes all of Wajda’s features, beginning with his first three films, which make up his acclaimed war trilogy. As a result, Truth or Dare will present a variety of little-known or rarely screened masterworks, as well as Wajda’s most recent film, “Katyn,” a long-awaited and deeply personal meditation on the 15,000 Polish Army soldiers—including Wajda’s father—who were massacred by the Soviet Red Army in Katyn Forest.

“Growing up with the knowledge that his father had been murdered yet forbidden from speaking openly about the circumstances had a profound impact on Wajda,” says Richard Peña, program director at the Film Society and curator of the series, of a filmmaking career he characterizes as one of world cinema’s great legacies. “Wajda’s films served as alternative or counter-histories to the officially sanctioned versions of events. As we move away from the fog of the Cold War, his films seem less dependent on the specifics of the political or historical issues they address, becoming meditations on concepts such as the price of individualism, one’s duty towards others, and the meaning of freedom.”

In a 2006 interview in Sight & Sound, Wajda praised his contemporaries in saying, “When asked, ‘What is behind the Berlin Wall?’, the Polish directors of the 1950s gave the truest answers of anyone.” Yet few Polish filmmakers make that statement ring truer than Wajda himself: within five years of graduating from film school, Wajda’s feature debut “A Generation” (1955)—featuring a young Roman Polanski—and its two follow-ups, “Kanal” (1957) and “Ashes and Diamonds” (1958), boldly captured the tenor of Polish life and resistance during the final months of the war, formed one of the most enduring trilogies in film history, introduced Wajda as the vanguard leader of a new generation of European filmmakers, and established the “Polish School” of filmmaking to challenge the themes of heroism and bravery prescribed by Poland’s Soviet-backed regime.

Wajda’s motives at the time were hardly so expansive. “We only wanted to expand a little the limits of freedom, the limits of censorship,” he says in the biographical film “Credit and Debit,” also included in the series, “so that films such as ‘Popiol I diament’ [‘Ashes and Diamonds’] could be made. We never hoped to live to see the fall of the Soviet Union, to see Poland as a free country. We thought that all we could do was to expand this limit, so that the party wouldn’t rule by itself but would have to admit the voice of the society it was ruling.”

Over the next decade, Wajda would expand on the remarkable social vision he had established so early in his career. He turned his attention on the early days of the war in “Lotna” (1959) and “Samson” (1961); created dynamic explorations of the confines of freedom in the jazz-infused “Innocent Sorcerers” (1960) and the concentration camp-set “Landscape After Battle” (1970); developed a rare comedy in the sci-fi curio “Roly Poly” (1968); and adapted three major literary works into bold historical perspectives in “Siberian Lady Macbeth” (1962) and “Ashes” (1965), an ambitious and highly controversial chronicle of Polish involvement in the Napoleonic wars that again confronted familiar or official Polish narratives.

“My first reaction was fear,” wrote Andrzej Jarecki of “Ashes” in 1965. “I felt a shudder at the realization that I too belonged to the nation whose conduct was shown on the screen.”

With “The Birch Wood” (1970) and the previous year’s “Everything for Sale,” an introspective film written by Wajda based on the death of actor Zbigniew Cybulski, Wajda’s films began turning toward more personal stories of intimate human relationships, though not without the filmmaker’s now-familiar variety of style. The German production “Pilate and Others” (1972) is “a startling rendition of the story of the Crucifixion told from the point of view of Pontius Pilate,” says Peña. “The Wedding” (1973) captures Stanislaw Wyspianski’s beloved theatrical evocation of Poland as seen through a rural marriage and foreshadows Wajda’s recent success in the comic send-up “The Revenge” (2002), based on Aleksander Fredros’s 19th-century play. Wajda earned his first of four Oscar nominations for Best Foreign Language film with “The Promised Land” (1975), a vibrant and influential tale of three brothers confronted by surprising modern success, a film now considered one of Wajda’s greatest achievements. And “The Shadow Line” (1976) turns Joseph Conrad’s popular novel into the gripping, river-bound emergence of an inexperienced ship captain.

A particular interest for Wajda was how notoriety and fame played out in political movements. “Man of Marble” (1977) and the Palme d’Or-winning sequel “Man of Iron” (1981), combined with the parallel rise of the workers union Solidarity, launched the trend by dissecting the life of a discredited labor hero of the 1950s. He took the theme up again in “The Conductor” (1980) and “Danton” (1983), starring John Gielgud and Gerard Depardieu respectively. In recent years, Wajda has returned to the subject of war, including the biographical “Korczak” (1990), an influence on “Schindler’s List”; “The Ring with a Crowned Eagle” (1993); “Pan Tadeusz” (1999), an epic drama based on the Napoleonic wars and Wajda’s biggest box office success; and his personal take on one of Poland’s most tragic incidents in “Katyn” (2007).

Andrzej Wajda was born in Suwalki, Poland, in 1926, studied at the Academy of Fine Arts in Cracow from 1946-’49 and graduated from the National Higher School of Film in Lodz in 1953. His career as a director also includes numerous theater productions, beginning in 1959 with “A Hatful of Rain” and including longstanding relationships with Cracow’s Stary Theater and Warsaw’s Ateneum Theater. Among several awards, he has received career recognition honors from the Berlin and Venice film festivals and an honorary Academy Award.

“By striving to show both the loftiest heights and the darkest depths of the European soul,” wrote Steven Spielberg in his 1999 letter recommending Wajda for his honorary Oscar, “he has inspired all of us to re-examine the strength of our common humanity. Wajda belongs to Poland, but his films are part of the cultural treasure of all mankind.”

Coinciding with the Film Society’s series, Anthology Film Archives is presenting a retrospective of Andrzej Wajda’s theatrical television works, many of which are being shown in the U.S. for the first time. Andrzej Wajda and Polish Television Theater runs Oct. 24-28.




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