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I just can't stand aside

Barbara Hollender speaks with Andrzej Wajda on the director's eightieth birthday

Published in "Rzeczpospolita" daily on 6 March 2006

Barbara Hollender: So, how do you feel on your birthday?

Andrzej Wajda: I don't know. I don't think I planned it all like this. I'm growing older, which is inevitable. My problem is that a director must be healthy and in great shape so he is available to his crew at any moment. And with each passing year these crews grow larger and larger. So, I'm trying, because I want to make one or two more films, maybe more. I've got so many projects planned.

Is today's cinema still worth the effort? Silly romantic comedies tend to dominate our market...

It's true that in Poland commercial films are beginning to dominate. Audience preferences indicate that pre-war cinema is making a return. This is the cinema we despised so deeply and fought against as the Polish school of film after the war. There's nothing to be done; such silly films are being produced throughout Europe. The key is whether or not the great ideals will return, those ideals which our generation fought for. This is when we were full of hope that we could say something important on screen. To ourselves and the world. I am deeply convinced that the most beautiful cinema is born of this need. Precisely of this need, and not calculation. One has to make films for one's audience, but one has to do it with such belief that later this film can be our voice in the world. Today, films like these are being made in Asia.

Not only. The winner of the last Berlin festival was the Bosnian film by Jasmila Žbanic about Sarajevo, which can't shake off it's war-time trauma. But the Bosnians live in a country that is trying to heal horrific wounds and its filmmakers - Zbanic, Denis Tanovic, Vinco Bresan - know the stories they want to tell. What can we tell the world?

Precisely... if I knew, I'd be making that film and I wouldn't be sitting here talking with you. Profound changes are happening in our country, but they are not making it to the screen.

Why not?

My generation's constant companion has always been literature. It is more disinterested and independent. Screenplays are created for particular directors, for particular actors. Somebody commissions it, and somebody pays for it. The writer is free of such responsibilities. And we've always taken advantage of this. Certainly, contemporary literature is interesting, but today's artists deal with themselves and have turned away from social issues. This is why I feel slightly isolated. I do think, though, that sooner or later the novels we are anticipating will appear since we continuously ask ourselves what is going on in this country.

In Berlin Robert Altman showed the film A Prairie Home Companion, which presents portraits of people that are very nearly from another world - united, friendly, able to understand each other. He said that all films are political in that they reflect who we are, what sustains our lives, what are desires are. Perhaps we are unnecessarily anticipating these political manifests?

We in Poland are in a different situation. We have to declare distinctly on which side we stand, what we intend to do. I know people say that times have changed, that this is one of the reasons we fought for freedom so that artists are not forced into anything. But freedom also has to be learned; unresolved societal issues and the difficulties of emerging from the communist epoch are greater than they first appeared and will haunt us for a long time to come.

Do filmmakers really have to turn to literature? Films based on original screenplays that address political and social issues are produced the world over.

Here, unfortunately, there is a lack of professional screenwriter groups. Most groups have moved to television because that's where the jobs and pay are.

So, without the support of the likes of Iwaszkiewicz, Andrzejewski, Kijowski, and Zulawski you feel helpless today ?

When I reach for topics from the past, I feel utterly helpless. But the lack of literary support is not my sole worry. The past is very difficult to translate into cinema. That world has gone and in order to speak to today's society these stories must be told in a language that it understands. Simultaneously, one has to remain faithful to the truth, to one's self, one's memory and experience. This is why I reflect on how to revive this time. Films like this are made, such as Kolya and Good bye, Lenin to The Downfall and Sophie Scholl: The Final Days. Audiences want to look at the past in order to understand the present. So, I don't give up, I have hope.

Since you also have the expectation of making a film about now, I'd like to ask if you'll be able to find a place in today's reality? Many artists of your generation have stepped aside. Tadeusz Konwicki says openly that this is not his time, while you make efforts to cultivate an understanding of this time.

Absolutely yes. I wouldn't feel good standing aside. For me as a man of the cinema, not being able to communicate with the audience would signify a farewell to film. The film you mentioned by Altman was a real comfort to me. I observed the energy it had been made with. My heart beat stronger, as it was apparent that the artistic temperament can sustain the lives of those who aren't afraid to still make films.

Not so long ago, you proved this with Pan Tadeusz. However, a few films that you have offered up since the transformation period have failed to capture the notice of audiences. How do you yourself evaluate these attempts?

I though that when freedom came I would be able to make films that had been impossible to make previously due to censorship rules. I thought that the public was waiting for them. I didn't realize that my audience had long since left the cinema. A new audience had arrived, and what I had to say was not of interest. This was my experience with The Crowned-Eagle Ring and Holy Week. The latter was a film I had wanted to make with Jerzy Andrzejewski and Andrzej Zulawski in the 1970s. Then it would have been an important thing, profoundly moving.

Today you are preparing to make a film about Katyn.

I have to make this film, as it's missing from my panorama of Polish misfortunes. The film will be ready this year. I want to tell the story of the Katyn tragedy, but also that of the Katyn lie which was fed to us for many years.

You are not the only artist who wants to return to the past. Recently, there has been much discussion about how, financing permitting, films should be made of the Warsaw Uprising and the battle of Monte Cassino.

I see a certain danger here. The desire to show our most recent history to better advantage than we have done to date. I don't think this is a good idea. Does this mean that we won the Battle of Monte Cassino? During the Warsaw Uprising our young people fought bravely to the last drop of blood; does this mean we won? I can't agree with this. Everything we know about society, we learned from our disasters. And it wouldn't be right to persuade our young people that the Warsaw Uprising was a success. Why did the Home Army command make the decision to start the uprising with so little information about their chances of success? The commanders were counting on something, why didn't it come through? These are the questions we need. Years ago I made Canal with a very critical eye of these events. The experiences of the uprising provided us with another way of perceiving the decisions which we were to witness later. Maybe this was why Poles were able to emerge from martial law and move into a new reality peacefully; it had been etched into the consciousness of the Solidarnosc leaders that they could not afford to do anything that might threaten our country with armed conflict.

As an artist, you have made political films that have filled in the blank spaces in our history. But there have also been moments when you were politically active. Why did you decide to do this?

If I called for change in my films, I couldn't desert my country when it needed me and my vote in parliament. This is, after all, the Polish tradition. Artists that take part in the life of their country must, at certain moments, take action.

This tradition has cost us several eminent poets. And you lost several years as an artist. Do you not regret this?

No. When Tadeusz Mazowiecki's government was being created, I had the feeling that I needed to participate in these events. Solidarnosc had no access to television, and it was easier for them to win votes when people appeared whose name said something to the voters. I went to Suwalki and they knew me there. I had the opportunity to campaign against local notables for a senate seat, which was necessary for us. This is how I voted in favor of the transformations initiated by Walesa, Mazowiecki, and Balcerowicz. At the time, this was certainly of more significance than if I had made films.

You don't feel embittered today?

No, we simply thought that the mental transformation in society would happen faster. We thought that there were more people who were as anxious for these changes as we were. On the other hand, we didn't realize that a large portion of our industry would collapse without contracts from the Soviets. It was impossible to adapt giant, antiquated enterprises to market needs while maintaining high employment levels. Walesa needed a Marshall Plan, but the West didn't support us. When subsequent factories and steel mills shut down, it turned out that those who had done the most for Solidarnosc gained the least.

In the cinema the same question keeps surfacing; the same question you answered in Berlin at the press conference: Why were such fantastic films made during the communist years in Poland, and now that everything is free, Polish films are so weak?

In a totalitarian state, in one where fictional elections mean that people have no political representation, artists become their voice. For years and as far as our capabilities, talent, and political situations permitted, we tried to be the voice of Poles. Political cinema requires a large audience. The artist cannot lean out the window and call out to society. How many people will hear? During communism we didn't fight to make political films, we fought only to have them released. Because a whole system of safeguards had been created; this film was released only to arthouse cinemas, and this one was thought up for release only in larger cities. Luckily, cinema workers wanted to have audiences, and so interests were at cross purposes. This worked in our favor, and we found opportunities in the cracks in this system. However, only when speaking to a vast audience could we shape opinion. After Man of Iron had been shown for the first time at a screening in Gdynia, the audience stood and sang the Polish national anthem (Poland has not yet perished). Whatever anyone says about the exaltation of those people, it was an unforgettable experience for the director. Today, this would be unthinkable. Even if there is political tension, much of it is dissipated by television.

Perhaps the audience has had enough? Maybe they feel disillusioned? Maybe they don't want to look at dirt or at politicians posturing for position and power and not for the future of Poland?

Let's remember that society has chosen these politicians, thus, they have the representatives they deserve. Perhaps they fear others? Our role is also to speak of these matters . Still, I continuously doubt whether today people are waiting to hear what artists have to say.

Does it pain you that we have lost such a receptive audience, one that knew how to interpret the most subtle allusions? Today's audiences don't get excited until a shapely, well-known soap starlet runs across the screen in a thong in Ja wam pokaze! (I'll Show You!).

Tickets to the cineplex cost 18 to 20 zloties, and recently cinema has become entertainment for the rich. And the rich don't have such problems. They are not a group of discontents. What can rouse them? Persuade them? They need to relax after a hard day's work. And not only here in Poland. Italian neorealism, French cinema vérité, American dark cinema of the 1950s - these were periods when the cinema held sway over souls. And today?

So, who exactly are you making the film about Katyn for?

I've already told you, I am making it because this event was lacking in my panorama of Polish misfortunes. Sometimes I am surprised just how many people are anticipating this film from me. Neither producers nor distributors are anxious about this topic. Maybe we realize that a society without a past is just a crowd of onlookers. Perhaps the time has come for us to join together?

Yes, but how can the public be persuaded to come to the cinema?

It's not even a problem of entreating the audience to come to the cinema. The difficulty lies in separating the good films from the bad. There are simply too many films. Once we knew that this year Bunuel, Bergman, and Kurosawa would finish films, and that next year Godard's new film would come out.

Perhaps there are no more great masters?

There are masters. It's just that the films get drowned in the flood of titles and the advertising that tempts everyone.

Have there been any films you've seen in recent years that have made you exclaim, "Too bad that's not mine?"

I was thrilled with Almodovar's Talk to Her. But I did ask myself, "Could I have made this film?" No, because we didn't have Bunuel in Poland. And this kind of cinema is born of a different relationship with reality. A wonderful thing. A paradoxical idea, surprising, astounding. I watched that film with the greatest admiration.

And in Poland? Do you envy anyone's film?

No, I don't think so... Maybe I'll switch the question around. There was a moment when I thought, "Thank God, I didn't make that film". Gunter Grass proposed that I film the Tin Drum. Somehow, it didn't work out, then Schloendorff filmed it. When I saw his film, I thought how lucky Grass had been that I hadn't made the film; I wouldn't have found a girl like Katharina Thalbach, or have had the courage to make such erotic scenes.

And you're not envious that Schlöndorff is making a film based on the life of Anna Walentynowicz?

No, I myself encouraged him to undertake this topic. It's good when someone looks at us from a different angle. But in the history of Solidarnosc, Walentynowicz was rather a standard, but not the motor driving events. Anna was a symbol, who enlivened Walesa and a few other Solidarnosc activists who knew what was happening in Poland.

Mr. Wajda, for several years you have been running the Master School of Film Directing in Warsaw. You have an opportunity to observe the youngest generation of filmmakers. What are they like?

They are very interesting people who are very at ease with the camera. We read books, and we thought in literary terms. They are constantly watching the television or the computer screen. While the image is their medium, it is difficult for them give their films a dramatic form. Our education led us to answer questions such as: Who is the hero of my story? Where is he going? What's he about? Unfortunately, they sometimes forget about these questions.

What kind of advice do you give them when you award them their diplomas each year?

It's alway the same advice, "If you are working in Poland, make Polish films, the likes of which they won't make for you in Hollywood. Speak to your public and tell them what is important, but speak in a language of film that they understand."

© Rzeczpospolita 2006

We thank editors and publishers of "Rzeczpospolitej" for permission to quote this interview.

Page translated by Jennifer Zielinska

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