What Andrzej Wajda’s War Films Tell us About Nationality

Andrzej Wajda has been called the national director; his movies concerned not only Poland, its history and people, but also the idea of Poland. He explored history and human interaction. His cinema was one of search, a search for identity and meaning. He was strongly influenced by the 19th century Romantic movement and did not lose that influence no matter what themes he was exploring. Yet his patriotism could turn to sharp critique and he was not afraid to explore painful issues and dissected the question of national identity with a surgeon’s precision. In terms of explorations of human interaction, he was perhaps only second to Kieślowski in Polish cinema, if only because the latter had little interest exploring these topics through national questions. Those explorations led to accusations of nationalism as well as anti-Polish nihilism. These contradictions make sense however for a director who, while found the idea of Poland important, did not mythologize it to wash away past errors.

Wajda’s first cinematic success was the war trilogy Generation (1954), Kanał (1956) and Ashes and Diamonds (1958), each set during, or right at the end of the Second World War. Wajda filmed Generation while still a student at the Łódz film school. The resulting work was a compromise between an exploration of wartime heroism and Soviet-imposed censorship. Kanał, a positively claustrophobic movie follows a group of Home Army soldiers through the Warsaw sewers. The question the characters face is not about how they can win the fight; their fates are sealed and they have no possible way to come out victorious. The humanization of the characters transcends national questions and instead deals with the responses to extreme situations, depression, sense of defeat and loss of hope.

Wajda on the set of Katyn
Wajda on the set of Katyn
Transcending the national questions, Katyń (2007), a film Wajda made towards the end of his life, deals with the army officers, members of the intelligentsia, priests, lawyers, etc. Wajda not only deals with the situation of the prisoners and their stoic and rather heroic approach to their situation, yet also explores the avenues and responses to the massacre of civilians and family members of the victims. Soviet authorities and the Polish puppet government blamed the Nazis for the crime and any mention of Soviet guilt was met with swift reprisal. Thus, the population faced decisions of how to react to the Katyń massacre and Wajda explored each of those responses and their consequences. Some could not accept the official lie and paid for holding on to the truth with their careers and even lives. Yet others went along with the official story because there was still a country to be fought for, if only not on the battlefield. The cities had to be rebuilt, economy restructured and lives to be lived, if only for the next generations. Thus, Wajda sees each of these as a response, yet makes little judgement as to whether any of them are preferable or “right.” After all, do not each of them seek to preserve the idea of Polishness?

Prisoners recreating Matejko's Battle of Grunwald
Prisoners recreating Matejko’s Battle of Grunwald
Wajda explored the question of how to move on in other films as well. Landscape after Battle (1970), set in a just-liberated concentration camp and sometimes critiqued for portraying a camp devoid of Jews (later a convoy joins the Gentile Poles), the film explores the value of living after the Holocaust. Based on an autobiographical story by Tadeusz Borowski who survived Auschwitz and Dachau only to commit suicide in 1951, the film shows the intellectual Tadeusz traumatized by his experience of the war. He turns cynical, asocial and unfriendly towards everyone. He prefers to be locked up in isolation and read books. When he interacts with others, he is confrontational. Nina, a Jewess attempts to persuade Tadeusz to run away with her but he is unable to raise himself from the stupor the war put him in. He is passive, incapable of leaving Poland, and erasing his Polishness; as he states: “a country is not just a landscape; it is a people, traditions, language.”

Landscape After Battle tells a story of trauma and of the complex relations between Poles and Jews as represented by the two main characters. The trauma shows that the two had to relearn basic activities and feelings like compassion and love which the war stifled in them. Borowski asserted that “the living are always right against the dead,” a statement which can be interpreted to mean that humanity must survive and a person cannot be alive without empathy.

Jakub Gold with his mother in the Warsaw Ghetto
Jakub Gold with his mother in the Warsaw Ghetto
The question of Polish-Jewish relations was one that Wajda brought up in other films, such as Samson (1960) and Korczak (1990). Each set during the war, Samson tells the story of Jakub Gold, a young Polish Jew who spends his life in multiple prisons, both physical and emotional. The fact that no Polish actor could be found to portray the titular role attests to the reality of the tragedy that was the Holocaust. Serge Merlin, the French actor who eventually portrayed Jakub, is the physical opposite of the biblical character; short and diminutive, he could only portray Samson by contradiction, and performed masterfully. Torn by guilt and tormented by the souls of Jews who suffered and died while he survived, Jakub was paralyzed and unable to take action since he would be shot as soon as he was discovered. He asserts he is prepared to die but not because of the face he has; he is prepared to die for a cause but not because of how he is perceived. He is not similar to the Romantic heroes and instead embodies the Jewish people living in complete alienation and abandonment by the world yet finds strength to survive and sacrifice his life for a just cause.

Korczak leading "his" children to the trains.
Korczak leading “his” children to the trains.
Korczak, a film about the well-celebrated pedagogue Janusz Korczak, transcends the national division of a Polish and/or Jewish hero to become a universal paragon. Completely devoted to the care of orphans, the real life Korczak surprised his friends when in prewar Palestine he accepted Arab children in his orphanage. The Korczak of the movie did much the same; when asked what he will do when the war is over, he answered that, naturally, he will become a director of an orphanage for German children.

Much like the characters in his films, Wajda, despite a strong Romantic tie and love of the country of his birth, did not succumb to a simple definition of his identity and saw it as a complex interworking of many, sometimes conflicting histories. This can be seen in the closing scene of Landscape after Battle, when the soldiers in the camp perform a live recreation of Jan Matejko’s Battle of Grunwald. Prisoners, dressed in Polish and Teutonic clothes, stand still in poses, then change them as if participating in a photoshoot, all of it playing out as we hear the music of Chopin’s Polonaise op. 53, perhaps the most majestic of polonaises but which only makes the scene even more ridiculous. Wajda points to the absurdity of obsession with national mythology and instead views people for their humanity. “His” Poland was one that was home of good and bad people who lived together and interacted for centuries whether they were heroes or cowards, good or evil. He was a national director who never forgot nationality, only preferred to see it through the prism of human interaction.