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We Needed Victory, Not Heroism

Andrzej Wajda, an Oscar and Palme d’Or-winning Polish film director, passed away on October 9th 2016. New Eastern Europe interviewed the director for issue 2/2014 “Putin’s Powers”.

October 10, 2016 - Grzegorz Nurek - Articles and Commentary

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GRZEGORZ NUREK: From your biography, we learn that you were born and raised in Suwałki, a small town near the Lithuanian border. Can you talk a little bit about your childhood experiences in Poland?  

ANDRZEJ WAJDA: When I was a little boy, my family lived in Suwałki. However, we would rarely leave the city. My father was an officer with the Polish army and his salary was quite modest. He had to support his two school-aged sons and a non-working wife. My mother, even though she was a teacher, could not find employment for a simple reason: back then, both parents could not receive a state salary. In fact, my father postponed the decision to get married until he became a colonel and could afford to start his own family.

The years of our youth were limited to life on a military base. We were fascinated by the army and the parades, the cavalry and summer and winter manoeuvres, such as when the entire 41st infantry division skied in formation. Those are unforgettable images. However, the base was situated quite far away from the city and I wasn’t particularly happy that I had to leave home every day at seven in the morning to get to school by eight. In 1935, our family moved to Radom. There, I attended school but also learned how one street, Malczewski Street, divided two separate worlds. On one side, there was a base and the officers’ house, while on the other there was the Jewish district. Its inhabitants spoke a different language, as before the Second World War, 80 per cent of Polish Jews listed Yiddish or Hebrew as their first language; they had different customs and traditions. I did not see boys from this district in our school. My friendships with Jews, such as with Jerzy Lipman, a fantastic cameraman, started only when I was in film school.   

What is it like when you were interrogated by the NKVD (secret police) in Kraków in 1946?

Pomorska Street was the office for the secret police at that time. It was inhabited by “advisors”, or NKVD officials. In the hallways, we heard the voices of Soviet officers. It wasn’t until Communist Party First Secretary Władysław Gomułka guaranteed order in Poland to the Soviets that the Soviet advisors and specialists were removed.

I was arrested in 1945 in the flat of Wiktor Langer, an officer in the anti-Nazi, anti-Soviet Home Army, (Armia Krajowa). A trap was set up and everyone who knocked on his door was arrested. I did not realise that this officer was deeply involved in blocking communists from Kraków’s city council and that he was under permanent surveillance by the secret police. This is how I got caught into the claws of the secret police. Thankfully, they had nothing on me, apart from the fact that during the war I was a soldier with the Home Army. I was released thanks to a bribe that my uncle, Gustaw Wajda, had paid, something that I learned about 30 years later.

You also learned much about your life from a book recently published in Poland titled Andrzej Wajda. Podejrzany (Andrzej Wajda: Suspect). The book describes many years of your invigilation by the secret police, and its scale indeed was very large. Altogether 22 secret agents were delegated to spy on you and their work was supervised by 30 officers, your wife’s apartment was bugged and attempts were made to discredit you. Your first files were prepared in 1950, but since 1977, activities aimed at discrediting you were intensified. What surprised you the most in this book?

What surprised me the most was the fact that in the free and independent Poland when the Law and Justice (Prawo i Sprawiedliwość) party came to power, the first step that was taken by some politicians was to check out my files. At that time I wasn’t a senator anymore, nor did I play an important role in politics. I was just making films.

What’s interesting here is how the extreme right is capable of going after anybody. Under communism, Polish secret agents were paid to fill up these files, often with forged data. Today, however, nobody attempts to check the credibility of the content of those files, whether the information included is factual or made-up. Instead, an a priori assumption is made that whatever is in the file must be true. Based on the files, people were accused of cooperating with the communist state, whether it was true or not. Such was the state at that time and anybody who wanted to make films had to make them in the context for which the political situation allowed. It is difficult to comprehend that the Law and Justice Party is going after people using such files. The rest that was in the book, meaning the communists’ surveillance, did not surprise me at all.

In Russia, the screening of your film Katyń on public television became an important event. Russian human rights defenders, invited by then-Polish Ambassador Jerzy Bahr, watched it at the Polish Embassy in Moscow. It was then when the former Soviet dissident Sergei Kovalev said: “Poles, please forgive us”. There was also a letter prepared and signed by Polish intellectuals and addressed to the Russian nation asking for reconciliation.  Despite these and other gestures, Polish-Russian relations are constantly being spoiled by hooliganism or political games of nationalistic politicians on both sides. What should be done to change and improve these relations and marginalise these acts of hostility?

It’s difficult to answer this question as there are historical grievances that all political groups, whenever they see their own interest, can reference. I know many Russian artists and I know that the difficulties they faced when dealing with the authorities were incomparably greater than ours. I was happy that Katyń was screened on the Kultura TV station and later on the national programme of Russian television and that the message that the murder of Polish soldiers was a Stalinist crime reached a wide audience. This film was seen by several million Russians.

In communist Poland, we used to say that a person’s attitude towards the Katyń massacre was a measure of his attitude towards the People’s Republic of Poland. In other words, when somebody believed that the murder had been committed by the Soviets, it meant that this person was not accepting communist rule in Poland. This is how the communists presented it. The Katyń case was surrounded by a public lie. Indeed, the screening of the film in Russia gave great hope for improving Polish-Russian relations. In Poland, on the other hand, I was subject to many attacks, mainly for presenting a character who was a good Russian. But the scene with the Soviet officer was based on authentic facts, on the memories of the widow of a murdered Polish officer. What’s more, among the soldiers of the Red Army there were people like Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. I was intrigued and thought how would he have behaved if he had found himself in the situation of that officer? One righteous person is enough. But a Christian has to notice that and show it on the screen.

We also need to remember that the Katyń forest is a site where, next to the hundreds of thousands of murdered Polish officers, other victims of the NKVD are buried, such as members of the Russian intelligentsia. When I visited the site with the Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk and President of the Russian Federation Vladimir Putin, we walked from the Polish officers’ tombs to the Orthodox church built there to commemorate the murdered Russians. I thought that there was something symbolic in the fact that the Poles gave an example how to commemorate the memory of the victims of the Soviet system. 

The first years after communism are a topic of your most recent film Wałęsa: Man of Hope (Wałęsa. Człowiek z nadziei). The script for this film was written by Janusz Głowacki, who has written for you in the past. Głowacki admitted that many scenes were not included in the film. What proportion of the material was cut out from the final version of the film? Is this something you do with every film?

The problem was how to present the protagonist’s life in a flashback. Janusz and I agreed that the film would finish with two scenes, the first showing Wałęsa leaving his home on the first day of the strikes and the second would showing him jumping over the wall of the Gdańsk Shipyard. But this version did not fit. Now, the film starts with the failure of the 1970 workers’ protests and finishes with Wałęsa’s speech to the United States Congress. When I started working on the film, I first filmed the scenes that in the script I liked the most. However, in the beginning I also had a feeling that I was lacking a comprehensive and cohesive vision for the film. We had two scenes of Oriana Fallaci’s interview with Wałęsa. However, when filming these scenes I noticed how Robert Więckiewicz (the actor playing Wałęsa – editor’s note) was playing with Wałęsa’s words. I thought that we could do more of that and make a few more scenes with Fallaci. Evidently, every man (a politician or an actor) starts to behave differently when in the company of a woman. He starts acting, wants to make a good impression and get her attention to what he is talking about. That’s why this interview also revealed Wałęsa’s true personality.  

Between the scenes of the interview, we showed the political events that depict Lech Wałęsa as being much wiser than many of our opposition politicians. He used common sense and the instinct of a simple man; he knew that bloodshed would mean tragedy and that we needed victory, not heroism. All in all, what I wanted to show in the film was how people who were around the Solidarity leader wanted to push him towards more radical positions, while thanks to his common sense he knew how to deal with the communist authorities.

In Poland, Lech Wałęsa generates political emotions. But many also would argue that as a character he is not a typical figure. Can we find in Polish literature a figure that would be a comparable character? In other words, had Adam Mickiewicz, Juliusz Słowacki or Stanisław Witkiewicz envisioned a Pole similar to Lech Wałęsa?

I would prefer not to make such comparisons to the writers you mentioned, as they often use negative characters. We’ve decided to present Wałęsa starting from the 1970s. For Wałęsa, the fact that the communist authorities massacred workers was an unforgettable lesson. The authorities officially representing the working class were ready to sacrifice the workers’ blood. In 1980, Wałęsa was richer in these experiences and would abstain from violence. In the interview with Fallaci, he refuses to accept the suggestion that the Russians would enter Poland with a military intervention. Many of us were convinced that this could happen but Wałęsa insisted: “No, they won’t enter”. How did he know? That’s what amazed me, his understanding and good sense of the political situation.

The film ends with the scene of the address the US Congress in which Wałęsa says “We, the people…” Now, years after that speech, at the screening of the film organised for American Congressmen in Washington, DC, which was attended both by Lech Wałęsa and Robert Więckiewicz, Wałęsa bitterly added: “Today I would have to say: ‘We the divided people!’”

Let me ask you about the 21 demands of the Interfactory Strike Committee. Is it true that you were ordered to remove them from your film Man of Iron?    

I was called by the then-head of Polish cinematography and ordered to cut out not one but 21 scenes from the film. My wife Krystyna Zachwatowicz and the production manager Barbara Ślesicka told me then: “This is like the 21 strike demands; don’t agree to it and don’t cut out anything.” Solidarity supported me. I have to say this was the only moment in my life as a film director when someone defended my film like that. People from all over Poland wrote letters, their reaction was so effective that the film was not only saved from the censors’ cuts, but also screened during the film festival in Cannes and I received the Palm d’Or. Today, the award can be seen in Kraków at the Jagiellonian University Museum. I owe it to Solidarity.

Translated by Iwona Reichardt

Andrzej Wajda is a Polish film director. He received an honorary Oscar in 2000 and a Palme d’Or in 1981. Four of his films were nominated for the Best Foreign Language Oscar. He is known especially for such films as Kanal(1956) Ashes and Diamonds(1958), Man of Marble (1976), Man of Iron(1981), and Katyń (2007) and his most recent film Walęsa. Man of Hope (2013).

Grzegorz Nurek is a freelance Polish journalist. 

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