Still from “The Promised Land.”
When Andrzej Wajda died last year at the age of 90 after having just completed “Afterimage”, he was one of the last of the great auteurs of the 60s and 70s, leaving only Jean-Luc Godard (now 86) the sole survivor. Demonstrating their appreciation of his role in this golden age of cinema, the European Film Academy presented Wajda with a lifetime achievement award, only the third director to be so honored after Federico Fellini and Ingmar Bergman. His body of work would be a topic in itself worthy of consideration by CounterPunch readers but beyond his achievements as a filmmaker there is something else that recommends his films, namely their focus on one of the big political questions of our epoch–especially after a full century. What was the impact of the USSR on its own people and those like the Poles living under its control? Widely recognized as an anti-Communist director, he might be a polarizing figure to many who see the geopolitical divide as demanding alignment with the Kremlin—either pre or post-Communism. As such, his work demands attention, however you stand on this question insofar as his reputation and influence will persist long after his death. Was Wajda an enemy of communism or was his mission to create films that transcended narrow ideological considerations?
The films under consideration below are not only some of his most highly-regarded works, but ones still available through Youtube, Amazon DVDs, Fandor or Filmstruck, a new streaming service that contains the TCM and Criterion library. As I have suggested in previous CounterPunch articles about Wajda, it is worth a trial subscription to Fandor or Filmstruck if you are motivated to see some film masterpieces and even a permanent membership considering how low Netflix has sunk.
1/ The Promised Land (1974)
This film is a corrosive study of the take-off of industrial capitalism in Lodz in the late 19th century that will remind you of Bertolucci’s “1900” but without that film’s clear socialist message.
Based on Nobel Prize winning Władysław Stanisław Reymont’s 1898 novel, it is a tale about three friends seeking to enter the ranks of the bourgeoisie by starting a textile factory. Around that time, Poland was becoming a powerhouse of textile manufacturing and Lodz was like Manchester with all of its degradations as described by Engels in “The Condition of the Working Class in England”. A textile mill owner himself, Engels had little in common with the three ambitious friends in “The Promised Land” who had no other interests except in enriching themselves, at the expense of friends, lovers, the working class and each other.
The film begins with Karol, the Polish son of a downwardly mobile aristocrat, Max, the German son of the owner of an antiquated handicraft textile mill, and Moritz, a wheeler-dealer Jewish investor, toasting each other with champagne in the countryside near Lodz where they plan to open their new factory. Their social origins reflect the dominant ethnic groups in Lodz at that time as well as much of Poland.
There is not a single soul depicted in Wajda’s film that has managed to escape the oppressive social relations that make Lodz look like a fetid, money-hungry swamp. One of the successful capitalists, a German ethnically, has built a mansion that is filled with furniture that makes Donald Trump’s penthouse in NY look like an Amish household by comparison. However, he does not live there. He only built it to show it off to people like Karol, who he takes on a tour.
The film speaks to a criticism of Wajda’s work that I have even heard from a Polish Marxist friend on Facebook. The anti-capitalism is not based on a belief that a new social system can take its place but on a rejection of modernity tout suite. Like the feudal socialists decried in chapter three of The Communist Manifesto, “The Promised Land” looked backwards to an idealized vision of pre-capitalist society. Marx writes:
In this way arose feudal Socialism: half lamentation, half lampoon; half an echo of the past, half menace of the future; at times, by its bitter, witty and incisive criticism, striking the bourgeoisie to the very heart’s core; but always ludicrous in its effect, through total incapacity to comprehend the march of modern history.
Accustomed to Stalinist censorship, Wajda ran into new obstacles when the film was pending release in the USA. Since the Jewish businessmen in “The Promised Land” were uniformly venal, Wajda was accused of promoting anti-Semitism and the film faced considerable problems being released in the 70s. It did not ever enter the mind of its censors that every ethnic group in the film was depicted negatively.
When released, the ﬁlm was hailed as an anti-capitalist masterpiece by the Polish bureaucracy and especially for its graphic depiction of the misery of factory workers. When making his own case for the film, Wajda told a French film journal:
It is this ethnic diversity that gave the society of days gone by its colorfulness, its incommensurable riches, its beauty. All these Poles, Jews, Russians, and Germans who were living together, they were creating something—ah! This really attracts me! I found this mix of several traditions and religions fascinating, including what each of them brings in terms of nobleness and pettiness, beauty and ugliness. This is, in my opinion, what gave rise to the spiritual and economical power of a city like Lodz in 1900.
Like a Rorschach test, “The Promised Land” offers different interpretations of its intent. However you judge the inkblot, you will likely be left with the impression that it compares favorably to Bertolucci’s “1900”.
(Available on Fandor)
2/ Man of Marble (1977)
I consider this to be Wajda’s masterpiece. It tells the story of a Stakhanovite worker named Mateusz who worked as a bricklayer in Nowa Huta, which means the new steel mill, in the early years of Polish Communism. The original Stakhanov was a Soviet factory worker of the 1930s whose ability to meet breakneck speed-up conditions during the rapid industrialization of the USSR turned him into an official hero even if his fellow workers resented him for forcing them to live up to his impossible standards.
Mateusz was the subject of a documentary made by a Stalinist filmmaker on the occasion of his attempt to break a record for laying bricks in Nowa Huta. At the very end of his John Henry like feat, he picked up a final brick to put on the top level of a new building under construction only to find that it left a terrible burn on both of his hands. It was likely the result of a resentful fellow worker heating it up beforehand to punish a Polish Stakhanovite.
The long-forgotten documentary was dredged up by a young woman named Agnieszka, who was attempting to satisfy her requirements for graduating film school. Her goal was to uncover the real story of the “man of marble”, a reference to the ghastly socialist realism statues made in his honor.
That story includes Mateusz’s fall from grace. After his hands failed to recover fully from the burns, he was fortunate enough to land a job as a travelling spokesman for the Communist Party’s labor union, which unlike unions in capitalist countries was designed to enforce labor discipline. Not long after he begins going out on tour, he discovers that the secret police have arrested his best friend who worked on the bricklaying documentary alongside him. They have made him a scapegoat for the Mateusz’s burns, charging him with being a Western spy even though he fought in Spain against Franco. When Mateusz attempts to defend his friend before an audience of trade unionists, he is shouted down.
Of genuine interest is how this film was ever capable of being made in Poland. As it happens, the script for the film was written in 1962 and it only got the stamp of approval 15 years later. In 1977, Edward Gierek was the President of Poland in 1977 who had introduced liberalization “reforms” that initially led to an economic uptick but before long led to rising prices and stagnant wages that sparked Solidarity. Gierek, however, was not nearly so dictatorial as the regime of the post-WWII period that adopted repressive measures against artists as depicted in “Afterimage”. Indeed, Gierek styled himself as an intermediary between the Kremlin and the Western Eurocommunists. As we shall see in the next film review, when the Kremlin directed its supporters in Poland to crack down on Solidarity, Gierek had no other recourse except to support the USSR.
(Amazon DVD, $15.99)
3/ Man of Iron (1981)
Like “Man of Marble”, a media figure plays a key role. The film takes place against the backdrop of the rise of Solidarity, which Wajda embraced enthusiastically.
A radio journalist named Winkiel has been instructed by party bosses to prepare a damaging report on MaciekTomczyk, the son of the “man of marble” who is a leader of the shipyard workers in Gdansk (Jerzy Radziwiłowicz, who also played the father in “Man of Marble”). Maciek has married Agnieszka, who he met in the final moments of “Man of Marble” when she was collecting information on his father. Both Maciek and Agnieszka have become targets of the secret police but remain unwilling to sacrifice their beliefs in freedom and economic rights for working people.
The film has a documentary-like quality with footage of Solidarity protests and Lech Walesa speaking to large crowds of workers. When the Polish government cracked down on Solidarity in 1981, the film was banned. Nominated for best foreign film that year in the Academy Awards, it was much more openly propagandistic than any other film ever made by Wajda. The Polish bureaucrats are depicted as sadistic bullies who will stop at nothing to achieve their aims, even forcing Winkiel to produce a radio show that violates his own journalistic standards. If he refuses to follow their orders, they will release a report on how his drunk-driving killed a pedestrian. Throughout the film, Winkiel is shown as a hopeless alcoholic until he begins to identify with the workers struggle.
A Polish critic named Pawel Jedrzejewski wrote, “In Man of Iron reality is cold and autumnal. Security agents are dressed in leather jackets or have their hats pulled down over their eyes. The so-called decision makers and VIPs are repulsive and unrecognizable from one hundred meters away. The world is unequivocal. The appearance of normalcy, so characteristic of earlier Wajda’s films, were missing.”
Although I agree with this assessment, I encourage readers to see “Man of Iron” to get a flavor of the spirit of rebellion that pulsed through Poland in 1980. Like the Arab Spring, it was a moment of great hope that was never realized for reasons I will try to explain in a subsequent article.
(Amazon DVD, $15.99)
4/ Danton (1983)
Frequently regarded as a commentary on the Polish bureaucracy with the cold and repressive Robespierre pitted against the effusive and charismatic Danton (Gérard Depardieu in the typecasting vein?), the film had Polish actors playing Robespierre and his supporters while French actors were used for the Danton camp. Clearly, Robespierre symbolized General Jaruzelski and Danton was a stand-in for Walesa.
The main parallel was with the hardships faced by Polish workers in the late 70s as Poland’s mixture of neoliberalism and a command economy began to crash and burn. When Danton returns to Paris to confront an every-increasingly despotic Robespierre, he is embraced by crowds of workers who have been standing on a bread line.
The film is based on a 1929 play by Stanisława Przybyszewska who wrote obsessively about the French Revolution. Unlike Wajda, she was a Communist and looked upon Robespierre favorably, considering him an early opponent of capitalism.
As head of the Committee for Public Safety, Wajda’s Robespierre was determined to silence Danton and his supporters for the sake of the revolution. Fully understanding Danton’s commitment to the original goals of the revolution but seeing the need for order, Robespierre agonized over the decision to have him sent to the guillotine.
Robespierre was played by Wojciech Pszoniak, a veteran actor who also played the Jew Moritz in “The Promised Land”. His performance is outstanding. In the repression against Solidarity, Pszoniak was forced to flee Poland and take political asylum in France.
In the trial of Danton that is dramatized in the film, the prosecution refers briefly to his corruption that in the eyes of French historians, particularly of the left, might have been regarded as a kid gloves treatment. When Mitterand attended the film, he walked out apparently outraged over the representation of Robespierre. In an interview with Wajda, Marcel Ophuls seems to have understood Wajda what was driving at by asking, “Admittedly, both (heroes of the French Revolution) had a great deal of blood on their hands. But should the virtuous, the incorruptible side of Robespierre be considered as nothing more than an infirmity, a psychoanalytic quirk, to be held up to ridicule?”
In posing this question, Ophuls reflected the mainstream leftist take on Robespierre that prompted Mitterand to walk out on the film but he was also wise enough to put Wajda’s revisionism into context:
For some reason, most of us expect artists and intellectuals from Eastern Europe, who have made their reputations behind what used to be known as the iron curtain, to remain sympathetic to the ideals of revolution, no matter how disenchanted and disillusioned they might have become with revolutions in their own time and their own countries… If after thirty years of Stalinist oppression, Nomenklatura corruption, broken promises and Pravda “truths,” a man like Wajda decides to make Robespierre and Saint-Just into what some of us might consider to be caricatures, that’s his privilege.
(“Danton” is available on FilmStruck”.)
5/ Katyn (2007)
As mentioned in my previous article on Polish history, Andrzej Wajda’s father was murdered by Soviet troops in the Katyn forest in 1940. His crime was serving as an officer in the Polish cavalry, an act in and of itself considered counter-revolutionary by Stalin and worthy of a death sentence.
The film depicts a cross-section of Polish society that is affected by Soviet colonization of eastern Poland after 1939. A young Polish captain named Andrzej keeps a detailed diary of his captivity and through whose eyes we see the senselessness and brutality of the treatment of Polish officers up until their execution in the USSR that is depicted most graphically by Wajda.
Like “Man of Iron”, the film makes extensive use of footage from the period including both Soviet and Nazi spokesmen accusing each other of the mass murder. Among all the films under review here, this one is the most easily accessible on Youtube and one that would be a challenge to any leftist in the West who instinctively condemns Poles, Ukrainians or citizens of any other country in the former Soviet bloc as counter-revolutionaries for resisting Soviet domination.
While it is undeniable that ultraright and fascist elements supported by the West gained a foothold at different times and different places, the soil for such growth was fertilized by the Stalinist rulers of the USSR who would condemn more than 20,000 Polish officers to be killed for the offense of being Polish officers or who would cause the death of more than two million Ukrainians in an ill-conceived forced collectivization.
The fact that such cruelty was carried out in the name of communism or socialism does not excuse it. Indeed, it condemns it. Unless the left begins to support a universal standard of human rights irrespective of geopolitical considerations, it will not be capable of providing the leadership for a new world order based on the abolition of class society and its replacement by one that respects each human being as having inviolable rights including the right to live securely and in dignity. Whatever Andrzej Wadja’s ideological flaws, his films are a cri de coeur for the rights of the Polish people. Viewed as untermenschen by the Nazis and the butt of racist “Polish jokes” in the 1960s, Wajda’s films are a necessary corrective as well as some of the greatest filmmaking of the past half-century.