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Leading Polish film-maker Andrzej Wajda dies at 90

Published 10/10/2016

Andrzej Wajda pictured in 2013 (AP)
Andrzej Wajda pictured in 2013 (AP)

Poland's leading film-maker Andrzej Wajda, whose career manoeuvring between a repressive communist government and an audience yearning for freedom won him international recognition and an honorary Oscar, has died at 90.

Film director Jacek Bromski, head of the Association of Polish Filmmakers, who described Wajda as "our mentor, our teacher, a model not to be matched".

Though physically frail, Wajda worked until the end of his life. Using a walking aid, he appeared at last month's Film Festival in Gdynia, for the premiere of his latest film Afterimage, based on the life of Polish avant-garde artist Wladyslaw Strzeminski who was persecuted for refusing to follow the communist party line during the Stalinist era,

Poland's Oscar Commission, which selected the as Poland's official entry for an Oscar in the best foreign language film category, called the film "a touching universal story about the destruction of an individual by a totalitarian system".

Wajda told the Polish news agency PAP that he wanted to "warn against the state intervention into art".

He received an honorary lifetime achievement Oscar in 2000. He was cited as "a man whose films have given audiences around the world an artist's view of history, democracy and freedom, and who in so doing has himself become a symbol of courage and hope for millions of people in post-war Europe".

The director trod on ground controlled by communist-era censors with Man Of Marble (1977), which looked at the roots of worker discontent in communist Poland in the 1950s, and Man Of Iron (1981) on the rise of the Solidarity union movement, which eventually led to the demise of communism in Poland. That movie featured Solidarity leader Lech Walesa, who later became Poland's president.

It won the Cannes Film Festival's top Palme d'Or prize in 1981 and was one of four Wajda movies to be nominated for the best foreign-language Oscar, although Poland's communist leaders unsuccessfully tried to withdraw it from Oscar consideration.

Under martial law in Poland in the early 1980s, Man Of Iron was banned and shown only at private and church screenings.

Wajda once said that "my Polish films were always images of a fate in which I myself had also participated".

"We have lost someone who was larger than life," actor and theatre director Jan Englert said. "He was not only a great artist, but at the same a true authority."

Actor Daniel Olbrychski, who was in 13 of Wajda's films, including The Promised Land and The Maids Of Wilko, said he had never met another director who knew so well how to work with actors.

"We could feel the love of our audience through him. But when he frowned just a little, I knew I had to try and do it better," he said.

Wajda made more than 40 films in all. Also nominated for Academy Awards were The Promised Land (1975) - a tale of ideals lost in the rush to get rich - and The Maids Of Wilko (1979) about the demise of love, as well as Katyn in 2007.

He said Katyn, in which he turned his spotlight on the 1940 massacre in the Katyn forest and elsewhere of some 22,000 Polish officers by the Soviet secret police, was his most personal movie. His father, Lt Jakub Wajda, was among the victims.

Wajda also noted that he could never have tackled that painful moment in Polish history before the collapse of communist rule in 1989, given that Moscow refused to acknowledge Soviet responsibility and the topic was taboo.

"I never thought I would live to see the moment when Poland would be a free country," Wajda said in a 2007 interview. "I thought I would die in that system. It was so surprising and so extraordinary that I lived to see freedom."

Wajda was born in the north-eastern Polish town of Suwalki.

In 1946 he joined the Fine Arts Academy in Krakow, but quit after three years and moved to the newly opened film school in Lodz - which also trained directors Roman Polanski and the late Krzysztof Kieslowski. Wajda also worked in Germany and France.

His 1955 debut Generation; the 1957 Kanal, a winner in Cannes; and Ashes And Diamonds the following year, drew on his generation's experience of surviving the brutal Nazi occupation and then falling under Soviet domination.

Wajda never joined the Communist Party, but his standing abroad protected him from repression. "All my life I was determined to have a kind of independence," he said.

As the conflict between the democratic opposition and the communist regime intensified toward the end of the 1970s, the director wrote in defence of dissidents and later in support of Solidarity. In the 1980s he signed petitions urging free elections and talks between the communist authorities and Solidarity.

In Poland's first free elections in 1989, Wajda was elected to the senate and served for two years.

His film career, however, went into a lull in the early 1990s as he was seeking the right perspective to reflect the radical changes in Poland after the fall of communism, while Hollywood imports became popular and state subsidies dried up.

Wajda considered quitting, but came back in 1998 with the hit Pan Tadeusz, based on a 19th-century Polish epic poem of love and intrigue among the nobility. Nine years later, Katyn was a national catharsis, breaking silence over a tragedy that affected thousands of families in Poland.

National history remained his theme and his 2013 biopic Walesa: Man Of Hope, depicted the life of the Nobel Peace Prize winner who founded the free trade union that was pivotal in ending communist rule in Poland.

Wajda is survived by his fourth wife, actress and stage designer Krystyna Zachwatowicz, and his daughter Karolina.

AP

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