Theater and Film Reviews

Andrzej Wajda's Pan Tadeusz

(shown in the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston, 19 February 2000, English subtitles, poetic text in Polish)

Aleksandra Ziólkowska-Boehm

In "An Epic Return for Polish Filmmaking" (Philadelphia Inquirer, 25 December 1999) Peter Finn describes Pan Tadeusz as a combination of Gone with the Wind and the poetry of Walt Whitman. This is an apt description. For historical reasons, poetry has occupied a special place in Polish culture. The Romantic notion that poets were spiritual leaders has enjoyed a long half-life in Poland. The heritage of poetry, of its metaphors and symbols, has often imparted a special flavor to Polish cinema, and it has also served as a means to convey messages forbidden by censors in Soviet-occupied Poland. As a film director, Andrzej Wajda mastered the art of combining cinematography, painting, and poetry. The addition of painting resulted from the fact that before attending the Film School in Lodz, Wajda studied painting at the Academy of Fine Arts in Krakow.

By his own admission, Wajda has always been fascinated with the complications of Polish history. He has confessed to having a great admiration for Polish people, their Sarmatian roots and traditions. At the same time, he knew that these good characteristics have often been overcome by reckless bravado, a lack of prudence and long-term planning, and an inability to master emotions. His films reflect these attitudes.

Pan Tadeusz is based on a lengthy epic poem by Poland's most cherished Romantic poet, Adam Mickiewicz (1798-1855). Its goal is to inspire the Polish viewer to look at the poem from the perspective of a now-free country. The film tries to make Polish and non-Polish viewers ask, "Where do I come from?" It is universal enough to inspire such questions in anyone, and to make viewers reflect on their identity and roots.

The acting is impeccably professional. Andrzej Seweryn is wonderful as Narrator, Michal Zebrowski skillfully plays Tadeusz, while the late Jerzy Binczycki beautifully portrays the country bumpkin Maciek Dobrzynski. Other prominent cast members: Boguslaw Linda, Daniel Olbrychski, Marek Kondrat, Grazyna Szapolowska are up to the task. Wojciech Kilar's music is exquisite.

The serenity of the Polish zascianek (a village inhabited by petty nobility) and dworek (a small nobleman's mansion) recalls well known illustrations to the printed version of Pan Tadeusz by Michal Elwiro Andriolli. Wajda's ability to handle light effects is remarkable. The movie abounds in landscapes, dawns, working peasants, swampland and storks in the fields; it is nostalgic and melancholic like old watercolor paintings. The wonderful colors of the countryside, the dworek in the village of Soplicowo in Polish-speaking Lithuania are contrasted with the darkness and noisiness of Paris streets and the special sadness of Polish emigre life in France.

During the first three months of the film's showing in Poland, almost four million people, or some ten percent of the population, saw it. The film's popularity surpassed the American hits Titanic and Star Wars. It is to be hoped that the Oscar Andrzej Wajda received on 26 March 2000 will bring closer to American audiences his talent and his special gifts as a moviemaker.

Back to the April 2000 issue
The Sarmatian Review
Last updated 7/15/00