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Andrzej Wajda, Art and the Struggle for Freedom

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Still from “Afterimage.”

“Afterimage” will open theatrically in NYC at the Lincoln Plaza Cinemas on May 19th and in LA at Laemmle Theaters on May 26th. Made in 2016 by Polish director Andrzej Wajda in his ninetieth year and just before his death, it incorporates the dominant theme in a filmmaking career going back to 1955—namely the Polish national struggle that has been defined by its relationship to Russia for hundreds of years.

“Afterimage” is based on historical events surrounding the Stalinist persecution of Władysław Strzemiński, an abstract artist who paid dearly for speaking out against Socialist Realism in 1950, just as the Polish United Workers’ Party was consolidating its grip on the nation. Strzemiński, who lost an arm and a leg as an officer in WWI, never let that disability stand in the way. In 1918, he attended classes at the First Free State Workshops (SVOMAS) in Moscow, where he first made contact with Casimir Malevich and Vladimir Tatlin. He became Poland’s most passionate advocate of Russian futurism and returned to his country in full support of the Russian Revolution and the bold artistic experimentation of the Communist nation’s heroic early years.

In 1945 he co-founded the State Higher School of the Visual Arts (SHSVA) in Lodz, where he lectured on art theory and history. The school created a Neo-Visual Room that displayed a collection of his work that was based on the theory of Unism that was a synthesis of 20th century modernist trends, including Constructivism. This was a movement initiated by Vladimir Tatlin in 1913 for which art and revolution were mutually reinforcing. The Constructivists sought to make art accessible to the public and frequently created works for public festivals and street designs in the 1920s. For Strzemiński, this aspect of Constructivism was less attractive—no doubt a function of the USSR having turned into a Stalinist nightmare for workers and artists alike.

Unism stressed the complete unity of paintings based on internal laws emerging from visual affinities regardless of their origins. The title of the film originates from the importance of afterimages in this theory. As Strzemiński tells his students in the early moments of the film, they are what is left in the imagination after you close your eyes. Indeed, one of his experiments was to record optical impressions caused by looking at the sun such as the 1948 painting “Sun’s Aftersight. Woman at the window”.

The film begins brilliantly with Strzemiński customarily sitting on the floor of his apartment on the upper floor of a drab building in Lodz while he works on his latest canvas. All of a sudden a massive red sheet as tall is the building is draped across the edifice and covers his windows, robbing him of the necessary sunlight the “afterimages” artist relies on. He rises himself clumsily upon his one good leg, takes up his crutches and opens the windows. Without bothering to see what the red fabric was all about, he takes a kitchen knife and cuts large holes in order to continue with his work. Seconds later, we see what he took a knife to—a monumental portrait of Stalin. That was just the beginning of his clash with the New Order.

Days later, as someone used to speaking his mind, Strzemiński (played by acclaimed veteran actor Boguslaw Linda) stood up at a meeting to confront the new Minister of Culture who was making a speech to students and faculty in Lodz’s art school that laid down the law: only Socialist Realism would be permitted henceforth. Strzemiński told the bureaucrat that “art and politics did not mix” and declared his intention to continue painting according to his own aesthetic principles, not the state’s.

For making his opinions known and for his having created a body of work now deemed degenerate and pro-imperialist, Strzemiński was fired from his post at the university and blackballed from gainful employment. “Afterimages” becomes a modern day Book of Job, with the Stalinist bureaucrats standing in for a capricious Yahweh. It does not matter to the arbiters of Socialist Realism that Strzemiński is missing an arm and a leg or that he is Poland’s most respected artist or that his students cherish him. He stands in the way of their “revolutionary” transformation of Poland that like all the other post-WWII buffer states was sowing the seeds of its own destruction. When you put a straight-jacket on artists, you inevitably treat workers the same way.

Just four years after Strzemiński’s death in 1952, the workers in Poznan organized massive strikes for better wages and working conditions that was suppressed by a force consisting of 400 army tanks and 10,000 soldiers. As was the case with similar movements across Eastern Europe throughout the 50s and 60s until the present day in Ukraine, they were regarded by supporters of the Kremlin as a CIA plot. That the workers sang The Internationale when demonstrating and that their slogans were “We want bread” rather than “We want capitalism” mattered little to the apologists for Stalinist control.

While much of “Afterimages” is painful to watch, there are many inspiring moments as Strzemiński continues to meet with his students who are determined to continue painting according to their own aesthetic dictates rather than officialdom’s. As is the case in nearly all biopics, we can assume that many liberties are taken. In this instance, we see Strzemiński troubled relationship to his teen daughter Nika (Bronislawa Zamachowska), who admires her father for his principled stand but cannot tolerate his indifference to family obligations. She is forced to live in an orphanage after his income has dried up. Did this really happen? It doesn’t matter when you are creating a higher truth.

In 1965, when I first ran into a self-described “Marxist-Leninist” at the New School, where I was studying philosophy to avoid the draft (a wise philosophical choice in its way), I paid close attention to his analysis of the Vietnam War but bristled at the idea that there was anything progressive about the USSR. As someone educated in the modernism that was integral to late 50s and early 60s bohemianism, the idea of forcing artists to paint tractors and happy peasants was appalling. A year or so later, as my resistance to socialist ideas began to dissipate, largely under the impact of the Cuban revolution. I embraced Fidel Castro’s declaration that “The Revolution cannot attempt to stifle art or culture when the development of art and culture is one of the goals and one of the basic objectives of the Revolution, precisely in order that art and culture will come to be a genuine patrimony of the people.”

This seemed to be the idea that Strzemiński adopted when he studied in Russia in the 1920s and that he never fully gave up on. Indeed, there is a telling scene in “Afterimages” that perhaps might be a biopic invention but one still to be taken seriously as a reflection of Wajda’s politics. No longer able to get new jobs as a painter after being expelled by the artists union, Strzemiński hopes to get paid for a mural on the wall of a café depicting African figures in a neo-Cubist style. When he arrives, he is appalled to see Stalinist thugs in the process of destroying the work. He reminds them to no avail that the painting was meant to condemn colonialism. That mattered little to them since their “revolutionary duty” was only to eradicate Strzemiński from the public sphere and drive him into penury.

Has there ever been a film as great as “Afterimages” made by a nonagenarian? I doubt it. Indeed, I doubt that any “foreign” film will rank higher than Wajda’s swan song when I fill out my ballot for NYFCO awards in December.

After watching it, however, I wondered why I had avoided seeing any of his films from the 70s and 80s that made it to the art houses in New York such as “Man of Iron”, “Danton” and “Man of Marble”. Upon reflection, I realized it had a lot to do with my knee-jerk “anti-imperialism”. If Wajda was being hailed as a fearless anti-Communist in the New York Review of Books, I was not sure that I wanted to sit through what sounded like pro-Western propaganda.

I should have known better since long before I became a radical, I was a big Wajda fan. In the early 60s at Bard College, I saw “Kanal” and “Ashes and Diamonds”, two of the films in Wajda’s “War Trilogy” that I decided to watch again to help me put him into political context. At the time I was totally apolitical and was mostly impressed by Wajda in the same way I was smitten with Akira Kurosawa, Ingmar Bergman and Satyajit Ray who were his artistic peers. If you were thirsting for narrative and cinematographic proficiency back then, those were the masters whatever your politics. It is only after spending the past two days watching the entire “War Trilogy” that I got a better sense of Wajda’s politics and how the Polish struggle fits into the bigger picture of the historical struggle for a better world.

Four years of reading about Ukrainian history in the aftermath of Euromaidan reminded me that self-determination for “lesser nationalities” is sacrosanct for Marxists. Consider what Lenin wrote in his 1916 “The Socialist Revolution and the Right of Nations to Self-Determination”: “Russian Socialists who fail to demand freedom of secession for Finland, Poland, the Ukraine, etc., etc.—are behaving like chauvinists, like lackeys of the blood-and-mud-stained imperialist monarchies and the imperialist bourgeoisie.”

These three nations did become independent after 1917 but it was only Finland that remained free. While formally independent, Ukraine remained under Russia’s thumb until 1991 and remains so to a degree. Poland’s path was far more torturous, lurching between subordination to the West and to Russia. As a “borderline” state, it has suffered an identity crisis for the past century with the current nativist, homophobic, right-populist government the latest manifestation of this malaise.

The War Trilogy consists of three films: A Generation (1955); Kanal (1957); Ashes and Diamonds (1958).

Currently, they are only available as DVD’s from Amazon or The Criterion Collection website and at the premium prices you would expect to pay. My advice is to do what I did, namely take out a trial subscription to www.filmstruck.com, a website that incorporates the TCM channel library and the Criterion Collection. You are allowed 14 days to watch for free, but for those of you looking for alternatives to the increasingly sterile Netflix, it might be worth your while at $10.99 per month.

All three films involve major characters who were part of Poland’s Home Army, the force that conducted a guerrilla war against the Nazis during WWII and that was one of the three most powerful Resistance movements that helped to defeat Hitler. Ultimately, the Home Army was less about changing property relations than it was about national liberation. As such, it was bound to become a rival to the Polish United Workers’ Party.

A Generation

“A Generation”, that I saw for the first time, is an unabashedly pro-Communist film in which the Home Army is depicted as opportunist and dominated by bourgeois elements, including the owner of a small furniture-making factory that the main character Stach works in. Stach is played by Tadeusz Łomnicki, a young actor with the same kind of James Dean charisma seen in the star of “Ashes and Diamonds”. While Wajda was clearly making art films, he very likely had an eye on the bankable stars of Hollywood in this period.

In the opening scene of the film, Stach is seen with two friends freight-hopping a Nazi train in order to steal coal that could be used in their Warsaw slum, a form of primitive resistance. Not long after he becomes a factory worker, he comes under the influence of an older Communist fellow worker who explains to him how the Home Army-supporting boss is extracting surplus value from them, a form of exploitation discovered by that “wise man with a beard” Karl Marx.

The light bulb goes on over Stach’s head and he decides to join the Communist militia that is led by a beautiful and assertive young woman that he falls for. He also recruits his close train-robbing friends, including Mundek who is played by a 22-year old Roman Polanski. (Polanski credits Wajda as a major influence on his own career as a director.)

The film combines the sort of neo-realism current in Italy at the time with raw leftist politics that some detractors of Wajda considered an opportunist attempt to assuage the Stalinist bosses who were making Strzemiński’s life miserable. In an interview, Wajda discounts this explanation. He says that he was a worker during WWII and knew exactly what Stach had to put up with.

It should also be noted that Wajda showed an amazing amount of generosity to the Communists who were responsible for his father’s death in the Katyn Massacre of 1940. His father, a cavalry officer, was one among thousands arrested by the Russians during the time of the Stalin-Hitler Non-Aggression Pact. The Polish soldiers, mostly officers, were seen as a threat to future Soviet control of Poland and had to be eliminated. For those who might consider this to be a slander against the USSR’s Communist leadership, keep in mind that someone as trustworthy on questions of imperialist complicity as CounterPunch contributor Peter Lee had this to say:

Now, under Putin, Russia is pitching its moral and political debts to eastern Europe in the wastebasket.  Instead of acknowledging and atoning for the abuses to which it subjected its neighbors—including hideous crimes like the Katyn massacre, the slaughter of over 20,000 Polish military officers as part of Stalin’s effort to extinguish Poland as a meaningful force and national identity; Stalin’s brutal collectivization campaign that killed hundreds of thousands in Ukraine; and, even more recently, the Chernobyl disaster—Putin is headed in the opposite direction.

Kanal

One can understand why the film is always referred to in the original Polish since in this instance it is not referring to how ships make their way through Panama but to Warsaw’s sewers—kanal means sewer in Polish.

Like “Afterimages”, this is a grueling hour and a half. Set in 1944 during the Warsaw Uprising, the film depicts the trudge through the city’s sewers by 43 Home Army fighters to rejoin the main forces in the city’s center. This uprising, it should be stressed, was not the one mounted by Jews in the Warsaw Ghetto. Although Wajda’s screenplay does not touch on this, some believe the Home Army was decimated by Hitler’s military because Stalin refused to provide air support. Although the Non-Aggression pact had obviously ended, Stalin apparently still sought to decapitate the Polish officer corps to facilitate Soviet rule over Poland after WWII ended.

“Kanal” dispenses with the neo-realism of “A Generation” and uses a film vocabulary much more in tune with something like “Wages of Fear” in which Yves Montand transports TNT up a rocky mountain road. We sit on the edge of our seats waiting for the truck to blow up, just as we follow the 43 Home Army fighters on their way to a certain doom either by asphyxiation or Nazi bullets. One of their fighters, a composer named Michal, recites lines from Dante’s Inferno as they descend into the sewer.

Heavy-going but essential.

Ashes and Diamonds

If Wajda made only one film in his entire career, this one would establish him as one of the greats. Indeed, Martin Scorsese and Francis Ford Coppola consider it one of their favorites. The film begins on May 8th, 1945 just as the Nazis have surrendered.

The war with the Nazis has ended but the one between the Home Army and the Communists is just beginning. In the opening scene of the film, a three-man assassination squad fires on a jeep that is on its way from a Communist-dominated cement factory to a nearby town. They kill two men thinking that they were a CP trade union official and his driver, when in fact they were mere factory workers.

One of the hit-men is named Maciek, a young and very handsome Home Army soldier who looks like James Dean but has more in common with a noir villain like Richard Widmark in “Kiss of Death”. Like Widmark’s Tommy Udo, Maciek always wears a broad but sinister grin. He also wears dark glasses but not because he wants to look “cool”. He wears them because his eyesight was damaged when he trudged through the sewers as a Home Army combatant a year earlier.

When Maciek and his commanding officer learn that the Communist leader they meant to assassinate is staying at the hotel where a banquet co-catered by Communists and the local Home Army is being held, they decide to finish the job.

However, when Maciek spends the night with a barmaid at the hotel, he realizes that his life has consisted of nothing but nihilistic killing. By no means sympathetic to the Communists, he begins to consider the possibility of a normal life with the barmaid.

The final 15 minutes of “Ashes and Diamonds” are must-viewing if you are at all serious about film art. I consider it to be on a par with the best of Kurosawa or Fellini and a good introduction to one of the greatest directors of the past 50 years.

As is the case with the War Trilogy, Poland’s history since the end of WWII has had unresolved contradictions. Veering between capitalist and Stalinist misrule, it is likely to stagger along just like the rest of the world until a new revolutionary wave begins.

Some had high hopes that the Polish Solidarity movement might have been the beginning of a new period but it failed like just about everything else has failed. Wajda made “Man of Iron” in 1981, a narrative film celebrating Solidarity whose main character is intended to represent Lech Walesa. I may write something about it, “Man of Marble” (an anti-Stalinist film like “Afterimages” focused on a Stakhanovite worker) and “Danton” when I get a chance.

Whether or not Wajda’s politics in these three films mesh with my own is not that important. I will always treasure his work for its story-telling power and its cinematography. I am for political art but above all, like Strzemiński, I am for art.

More articles by:

Louis Proyect blogs at http://louisproyect.org and is the moderator of the Marxism mailing list. In his spare time, he reviews films for CounterPunch.

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