Herito: In your autobiography you recall that you were among the first alumni of the Łódź Film School, which was established in 1948, and invested similar money in educating would-be film artists to be spent on training fighter pilots. Yet this was not a “forge for young blades”, but an institution producing directors who violated all kinds of historical and political taboos. How was this possible?
Andrzej Wajda: I was one of the second year of graduates. Andrzej Munk was in the first year. Two things set the school apart: directors and camera operators (later known as directors of photography) studied together, and not at two separate directing and technical schools or departments. And the films made at the school were financed out of its budget and made in exactly the same way as professional feature films at the time.
We owe the fact that we were never a hothouse for “party personnel” or a “forge moulding young blades” to two circumstances: firstly, from the rector down, all our teachers had studied in the West; and secondly, we had the war behind us, which had accelerated our progression towards adulthood. The only Soviet lecturer at the department taught photography, but not camera operation; that was taken by Stanisław Wohl, who had studied in Paris.
In 1950, the period of aggressive Socialist Realism, we were watching French avant-garde and German expressionist cinema. This was possible thanks to the personal friendship of the rector, Jerzy Toeplitz, with the Paris Film Institute.
H: It cannot have been easy under the conditions of a communist state to transpose inner freedom into the reality of filmmaking.
A.W.: All decisions were not even taken at the Ministry of Culture and Art, but directly by the party leadership. Having said that, the situation in our sector was paradoxically untypical in that film crews were not saddled with delegates whose job it was to monitor the faithfulness of particular scenes made to the approved screenplay. All the more curious was the paradox that film production would never have been possible without a person in that particular capacity anywhere else in the Eastern Bloc – or even in the West, where there is such a person who represents the interests of the producer and monitors the production process from that angle. How was it possible here? Perhaps because the people who laid the foundations of Polish cinematography had come from the Soviet Union with the 1st Polish Army, where they had attained quite high ranks. Aleksander Ford, for instance, was addressed as “colonel”. We filmmakers addressed him as “director”, but everyone else addressed him as colonel. Thus, as it was people of this rank which made up the first film crews, they were not keen to be monitored further. Their party membership cards and the stars on their epaulettes were useful inasmuch as they allowed us to decide many matters for ourselves. And I have to admit that this saved our cinematography from having a servile role in respect to the Party.
H: Was this relative freedom reflected in the artistic expression of the films?
A.W.: The film image not only reflected the plot and the acting, but also the process, and the atmosphere and spirit in which it was made. We were able to modify our screenplays and make changes as we worked on the production, which heralded something that soon came to be known as the Polish Film School. These films were palpably more than simply a reproduction of a screenplay; their expression was shaped by what went on during the production process. Without an “editor” looking over our shoulders, working by ourselves, we were able to concentrate not just on the actors and the dialogues, but on releasing and sharing the energy of our youth. This was what made our feeling of artistic freedom such a visible element of these films. And it was noticed abroad, and lent our films a similarity to those made beyond the Berlin Wall.
H: Could it be said that confrontation with censorship, in fact, contributed to the creation of the contemporary, deliberate language of the cinema and current of the Polish Film School, by forcing directors to use double encryption or to seek meta-textual forms of expression?
A.W.: Censorship targeted the word; cinema is the art of images. In creating visual cinema, we gained both the engagement of Polish viewers, who understood our clandestine illustrative language, and audiences beyond the Berlin Wall, who saw my films as cinematic art.
H: But the censors did score victories, as we can see not least from the list of films that were never made.
A.W.: Generations of first secretaries, so to speak, followed on from each other, although some themes remained in limbo. The first screenplay for a film adaptation of The Coming Spring was written for me way back in 1960 by Antoni Słonimski. Nothing came of it, but what is really surprising is that even after 1989, after the restoration of freedom, I was still unable to get the project off the ground. The Spring to Come was made for Polish television by somebody else.
I waited 12 years for the chance to make Man of Marble. It was the best screenplay I ever had, which is why I was so tireless in seeking permission to make it. I argued that it was a real film, a committed film, a film about our problems. But for 12 years no minister was bold enough to back my efforts. It looked as if it would never get through. The stock answer to the question: “What are you doing at the moment?” was “I’m trying to get a film through.”
H: You came up against the idea that politics impinged on art many times.
A.W.: Let me answer with an anecdote. In the 1960s, as one of the first directors to make theatre for television, I was making a version of Dostoyevsky’s short story Another Man’s Wife and a Husband under the Bed. It’s a funny story, and the actors were hamming it up. All of a sudden, the editor came up to me and said: “No, don’t do that scene.” “Why not?” I asked. “He doesn’t like it,” she answered. “Who are you talking about?” I asked, bemused, and she mentioned the name of a certain comrade from the Central Committee. And I suddenly realised that she knew who in Warsaw had a television set!
H: These days everyone has a television, a phone, a video camera and who knows what else – it’s gone beyond controlling. Once upon a time all that equipment was rationed.
A.W.: One’s chance to do anything at all in those days was equivalent to one’s access to equipment, which was, of course, very basic, and there was very little of it, but most importantly, it was all completely controlled by the state. Roman Polański found this out for himself – he and some friends shot a shot film called Mammals in the mountains once. As it turned out rather snappy and witty, he approached Film Polski with a request to have it sent off to a festival. The film was watched, the consensus was reached that it was not bad at all, and no political allusions were noted. “Only where are the receipts for the materials?” came the question at the end. “Where was the film reel from?” And since the film had been bought for him by a certain rather richer friend – illegally, on the side, from some grips who always managed to keep a bit back from the allotted materials… Well, it turned out that buying the film reel “on the side” could have cost him the whole venture.
But I will set the record straight by saying that some generous soul stepped in and took responsibility for the film reel gaffe in order to sell a Polish film and have it shown abroad, where it could really be noticed.
H: Making a film is one thing, but getting it onto the cinema screens is quite another.
A.W.: The film production process had to be monitored by a film unit; these were friends. But the real problems started after production finished: would the film be released at all? Only to studio cinemas? (One in every 100 cinemas) Or would it come out on general release? (To the 3,000 cinemas operating in Poland).
The decision to release a film to be sold abroad came in two variants: within the Eastern Bloc, or to the West. (I might add that this sale was a lucrative business for the state, as the director and crew were paid a pittance, according to fixed national rates. When I made Ashes and Diamonds, I was in the second category of directors’ pay rates. My pay was 37,000 zloty, while the used car I bought cost 100,000. I should think every producer in the West dreamed of having such a cheap director).
H: But you were quite fortunate in your presence at festivals.
A.W.: At the end of the list of distribution questions were these two: Can it be sent to a festival, and if so, which one? And can we put it forward for an Oscar?
With Man of Iron the minister said categorically that we would not be sending the film to any festivals. But over just three days the cinematography minister received telegram after telegram: from the Lenin Shipyards, from the Warsaw Foundry, each supported by between 10,000 to 20,000 signatures – that the workers in those plants, the undersigned, demanded that the film be shown in cinemas, and that it be put forward for the festival in Cannes without any cuts or alterations. This was the first time I felt that someone – the working class – was behind me. For in that system, the voice of the working class was only heard by us, the future allies of Solidarity.
H: Your films have received a wide response in Europe and across the world, something which you treat as a great responsibility.
A.W.: I saw the Berlin Wall go up, and its creation seemed like a turning point to me. What’s more, paradoxically, it helped us, because it aroused the curiosity of those who found themselves on the other, more fortunate side. We who were imprisoned behind the wall realised that it was our responsibility to talk about that. More or less political films made with more or less freedom were our testimony at foreign festivals. For us, this was a chance to show what we were made of in artistic terms, and what we were capable of.
H: The breakthrough that was 1989 and the fall of the wall brought you, amongst other things, the opportunity to make the film Korczak. Filming began in September 1989 and the film was completed in 1990. The subject had been “waiting” to be addressed by Polish cinema almost since the end of the Second World War. One might have thought that at last, now the former restrictions were gone, it could resonate in all its strength. This was supported by impressions from the first screenings – the premiere in Krakow, and shortly thereafter the screening in Cannes. But huge damage was done to this film by the later hostile campaign launched in the French press by Claude Lanzmann, who as the author of Shoah considered the subject of the Holocaust his own domain. How do you assess this censorship after the end of censorship – the cultural barriers you came up against?
A.W.: Lanzmann’s objection was rooted in the fact that I was a Pole, and therefore addressing a theme that was not mine to address. At a press conference in Los Angeles during the Oscar ceremony, an Israeli journalist told me that he didn’t have to watch Korczak; the very fact that it was made by Poles meant that it was obviously anti-Semitic.
The only error I made was the ending: in the fairytale scene of the disembarkation from the train to Treblinka with the standard of the orphanage unfurled, there is no sound of the buffers or shout of “Raus!” from the Germans. We return from the world of childhood imagination to the reality of the Holocaust, and the children hounded from the goods wagons go with the Doctor towards the crematoria in Majdanek.
It is possible that had Korczak been Catholic, he would have been beatified, which would have defended both the film and me from the charge of untruth, the more so that Wojciech Pszoniak created Korczak’s screen persona in all the fullness of his ambiguities.
H: What types of censorship is Polish cinema – or perhaps contemporary culture altogether – exposed to today? Which types do you find most onerous?
A.W.: As I see it, there is only one institution in Poland today that has designs on controlling everything else: the Catholic Church; which was our unfailing support during both the Nazi occupation and the time of the Soviet Polish People’s Republic.
H: These new times have cast you in a new role, not only that of director, but also that of an inspirer, founder and patron of important cultural initiatives. One of the first important museums, and unquestionably one of the finest – the Manggha Museum in Krakow – is the work of yourself and your wife, Krystyna Zachwatowicz. I will not be exaggerating if I say that you and your wife were the pioneers of an attitude that is the subject of much discussion today: citizens of culture. Could you share your thoughts and experiences from this perspective?
A.W.: I firmly believe that truly important initiatives should be civic in origin, as they are the product of the reality which surrounds each one of us.
When I was honoured with the Kyoto Prize of 500,000 dollars, my wife and I decided that we would spend it on building a museum for Feliks Manggha Jasieński’s Japanese collection. The Japanese were so moved by this idea that when we met one of Tokyo’s most famous architects, Arata Isozaki, he undertook to donate his design for our future museum as a gift. His declaration naturally drew the attention of the Japanese government, which from that point on started to take our plans seriously. I must admit that initially the attitude in Tokyo to the kind of Japanese art some guy called Jasieński had collected in some place called Krakow was one of scepticism, and judgements on the artistic value of the collection were cautious, but when it went on display in Kyoto and Tokyo, all doubts were allayed. We were given two million dollars by the Japanese state. Japanese railways added more. Buoyed up both spiritually and financially, we returned to Poland, where the incumbent minister of culture and art informed us that our funds would be going to the National Museum in Krakow, which was in urgent need of new ventilation. Our generosity would, of course, be commemorated with a suitable plaque. Fortunately, Solidarity was by then victorious, and Józef Lassota, the mayor of Krakow, was on our side, although some city councillors could not conceive of another building being erected opposite the Wawel. But it was, and after 17 months of construction works, “Manggha” opened its doors. And this year it is to begin work on its Europe-far East Gallery.
H: Although we grumble at the lack of cultural policy, we are proud of having made up lost ground in cultural infrastructure. How do you rate this work?
A.W.: I have the impression that the activity of the administration – the local authorities and the national government – does not always produce good solutions. It’s a bit like this: let’s build something, and then we’ll see what to put in it. How else am I to treat the idea for a Museum of Polish History, for instance? Someone had the idea that this “museum” could be different. A printed map of Poland could be made available to anyone who wanted it: “Show your kids the history of Poland”, designed so the history of the country would be “inscribed” into it – Biskupin, Gniezno, Wawel, Wieliczka, and so on. Car-based tourism is the future. Parents could set off with this map and their kids and see Poland. Visit authentic places, visit the historic sights, take a look at local museums. For many institutions this would be really something, and the interest might encourage the people who run them to be creative; it would convince them that history and heritage are not only to be taken care of, but are also worth looking for different ways of talking about. I would be pleased if local initiatives like this began to sprout inns and guesthouses, if they helped people start to prosper.
H: So what should the role of the state and its patronage be?
A.W.: I’ll give two examples: one that pleases me, the other that worries me.
I find it worrying, or at least unsettling, that the objective and impartial name of the “Ministry of Culture and Art” has been expanded to include “national heritage”. Culture and art are always the same – they attempt to understand and express what is going on. Sometimes better, sometimes worse, sometimes on one side, sometimes on the other, but always striving for their ideal. Why should it be politics that decides what heritage is national? This I don’t understand. I remember political ministries like these all too well. We’ve been there before. Nowadays, everyone has the right to their own past, and the right, for instance, to interfere in it.
But I am pleased that Poland produces some 50 films every year. The Polish Institute of Film Art has assumed responsibility for cinema – although we should note that any form of national cinema exists because it is made in the national language, and this is the only reason the state should support it.
We have a problem with distribution, which backs commercial cinema, even though recently it has been our films attracting audiences around the million-people mark. Regardless of the successes, Polish film art needs a network of studio cinemas spread evenly across the country.
H: I sense that you miss them.
A.W.: They used to play a very important role. They were a meeting-place for the local elite. They showed Polish films slightly ahead of ordinary cinemas as a way of gauging opinion. They also screened foreign films that never played at ordinary cinemas. Studio cinemas produced communities of people wanting to participate with awareness in culture. That’s what I miss. And I miss it not only as someone who experienced it, but as someone who feels responsible for what happened next, when we so blithely sold off all those cinemas across the country.
Copyright © Herito 2020