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An Interview with Andrzej Wajda

Interviewer: Aleksandra Ziólkowska-Boehm

Translated by J. B.

AZ-B: What is your opinion of the United States?

AW: Like most Poles, throughout my life I listened carefully to voices coming from America. Before the Second World War, Poles credited their newly won freedom largely to American help. When the Second World War broke out, we watched what America would do and we waited for it to declare war on the Germans. Then, during the fifty years of "People's Poland," the United States was enemy number one of the Soviet Union and consequently, all Poles were America's friends. Today, my feeling is that of all the nations, the Poles trust the Americans before all others.

AZ-B: Has America been present in your work?

AW: I began my theatrical career by directing two American plays, A Hatful of Rain by M. V. Gazzo and Two for the Seesaw by William Gibson. Citizen Kane stimulated my interest in movie making. When I was doing Ashes and Diamonds, I often thought of Asphalt Jungle and gangster films of the 1950s. Had Ashes and Diamonds been nominated for the Oscar, I might have moved to America. However, such a nomination was impossible for political reasons; indeed, this film has never been presented at any film festival.

AZ-B: So you stayed in Poland and became Poland's best-known movie director, and in 2000 Americans awarded you an Oscar, the most coveted award in film.

AW: I can say without any hesitation that I was lucky to have stayed in Poland. I belong here, and I reached my international position while working here. I believe in my mission of creating the Polish school in film.

AZ-B: And what were your impressions of America when you visited here in the past?

AW: As a country, the United States is wonderful. There is no other place on earth where an abundance of space creates so well the illusion of freedom. I crossed the state of Texas by car and went all the way to the Grand Canyon and then to Las Vegas. I am certain that the Grand Canyon is closer to God than any other place on earth. New York is a remarkable place with so many must-sees. In the 1960s and Ď70s it was permeated with the spirit of modernism which had finally moved out of Paris for good. The spirit of modern art abandoned Paris for New York and that is why it is so hard for Europe to rebuild its artistic prestige.

AZ-B: Do you think that when Poles enter the European Union, they will continue to see New York as the art center of the world?

AW: Personally, I am hopeful about the new Berlin. Berlin may become the capital of united Europe for two reasons: Europe must keep developing eastward, and the Germans are trying to redefine themselves in the world. Thus Berlin may become a point where eastern and western Europe unite; by eastern Europe, I have in mind our own country. Few places in Poland are situated farther than 130 miles from Berlin, whereas Paris is ten times more remote geographically. This will become significant when we begin to play the role of facilitators to countries located east of us in their efforts to join Europe.

AZ-B: Do you think that the 9/11 tragedy will change the image of America?

AW: Yes, but Americans are pragmatic and rational, and they will seek new ways and solutions to the difficult situation that came about. This will not be easy because the United States will have to become a police state and will have to "supervise" more than their own society.

AZ-B: Many years ago, you gave a beginning actor Roman Polanski a role in your film The Generation [Pokolenie]; recently, the now-famous Polanski played Papkin in your newest film, Vengeance [Zemsta]. As a director, Polanski is surrounded by legends and scandals here in America, and I think that American viewers would like to see him acting in your recent film. He has certainly earned his fame.

AW: When I observed his talent and energy as a beginning actor and later, as a student in our School of Film and director of his first movies, I saw in him an American director: I believe Polanski was born to live and direct in the United States. I was truly moved that after so many years he agreed to play Papkin in Alexander Fredro's Vengeance, a role that has a long and illustrious tradition in Polish theater, one that had been played by great actors in the past. The most moving of all was his decision to return to his native language and the film school which gave him a start. This was a beautiful and magnificent gesture on his part. In the role of Papkin, Polanski is a newcomer to [our present] screen and to our filmmaking industry which is under considerable stress--mostly financial--not unlike the entire European cinematography. AZ-B: It is largely thanks to your talent and magic that in spite of competition from American films, Polish audiences show up in large numbers at Polish-made films. Probably this is a pleasant surprise for all malcontents. What are the weaknesses of Polish cinematography at present?

AW: Polish films withstood the competitions with the so-called multiplexes, or movie theaters with multiple viewing halls. In 1975 there were 3,500 movie screens [viewing halls], in 1989, only 700; at present, we probably have about 1,300 screens. In the last few years, Polish films returned to movie theaters: With Fire and Sword was viewed by seven million people, Pan Tadeusz, by six million, and Vengeance has so far drawn two million people. This is far more than any of the American movies, which indicates that Poles need and appreciate their own national film industry. The greatest weakness of this industry is the shortage of screenplay writers. Few movies are produced, and therefore few people choose to write screenplays. In the past we relied on Polish literature. It produced novels and stories with well-delineated characters, brisk plots, and dialogues touching upon social and political matters. Contemporary Polish writers prefer introspection and self-contemplation, thus leaving the business of writing screenplays to producers who are not always able to deliver a good product.

AZ-B: Are you a member of the European chorus that laments the low artistic level of American movies?

AW: American cinema is treated as a mere industry, but within that industry masterpieces are being created. This industry sometimes produces films that reflect deeply upon reality not only in the American context but in the world context as well. The remainder belongs to the entertainment industry and it has a wide audience, thus producing trends in fashion, entertainment music, and lifestyle. But the masterpieces of American cinema weigh more than comparable films made in Europe because, in addition to addressing the most complex and difficult problems, they discover a form of expression that has universal appeal. These beautiful and ambitious films are strikingly simple when it comes to means and forms of expression. American producers seem to possess this precious conviction that it is possible to find ways to address any topic whatsoever, and that audiences will respond generously if such ways are found. In contrast, European cinema is created for a narrow circle of viewers. Such was the case with the French "New Wave" movies: they were produced for the Quartier Latin audiences [the Latin Quarter, a district in Paris]. One can certainly produce a film cheaply and with a small audience in mind: such a situation allows the producer great artistic freedom. The problem starts when one begins to think that the smaller the audience, the better the film; that films made for elite viewers are better than those made for broad audiences. But often these elites consist mainly of one's relatives and friends. Elitist thinking turned out to be disastrous for the European cinema. It seems to me that at this point, European filmmakers are reversing this trend mainly thanks to the European-born directors who are now returning to Europe, e.g., Jean-Pierre Jeunet, the director of Amelia.

AZ-B: What difficulties await European cinema when Europe will finally unite?

AW: Language difficulties first of all. Lingistically speaking, Europe is a veritable babel of languages. Years ago, those whom we regard as fathers of united Europe had the idea that Latin should be the European language. Until the Second World War and afterwards, Latin was the language of the Church. It could have become the language of politics as well. In the past, all European treaties were written in Latin. I am amused by the fact that the bureaucrats in Brussels strive to speak their own tongues and use dozens of translators, and then at night, meeting for drinks in the bar, they speak English to each other.

AZ-B: Could we talk about your 1990 movie dedicated to Janusz Korczak, with Agnieszka Holland's screenplay and Wojciech Pszoniak playing Korczak? This film received little publicity even though its audience at Cannes gave you a standing ovation. Concerning this film I found the following statement by you on the internet: "My good intentions turned out to be useless." In the United States no one knows about this film and its fate. How do you look at this matter from the perspective of over a dozen years?

AW: Indeed at Cannes during a special show the audience was enthusiastic and the film received a standing ovation. Next day, Le Monde published a review that opined that Korczak was anti-Semitic. The last scene in particular was criticized as an alleged falsification of history. It was painful to read this, but I was aware that France preferred to lecture Poles on anti-Semitism rather than deal with cases of French anti-Semitism. The French have long sought ways to avoid facing up to the fact that it was the French authorities and the French police that dispatched Jews to Auschwitz [and not the Nazi authorities and Nazi police as was the case in Poland]. Some years earlier, when my film The Promised Land [Ziemia Obiecana] received the Oscar nomination, a press conference was held and one of the critics attacked the film as anti-Semitic. After the press conference I asked him where he viewed the movie. He answered, "I do not have to view the movie to know that it is anti-Semitic: it is enough to know that it comes from Poland." This was the reason why the film was not shown in American movie theaters. It was a great pity, for The Promised Land is the kind of movie that could have been a success in America because its plot and the problems it deals with are understandable to American audiences. This turn of events was for me a great and undeserved blow.

AZ-B: You and Mrs. Krystyna Zachwatowicz are seriously interested in Japan. I read your statement about hiding in Kraków [during the German occupation in the Second World War]. Once you came out of your hiding and saw an exhibit of Japanese art in Sukiennice [a shopping mall in the center of Kraków]. Japan was Germany's ally in the Second World War, hence the exhibit in Kraków sponsored by the military governor, General Hans Frank. Many years later, when you were a famous producer, you received the Kyoto Prize, a Japanese equivalent of the Nobel. Owing to your efforts and those of your wife Krystyna Zachwatowicz, Kraków now has a Japanese art center called Manggha. You have started an extraordinary tradition.

AW: Before the Second World War, Polish collector Feliks Jasienski gathered over ten thousand works of old Japanese art. In 1926, he offered his collection to the Kraków National Museum. Over half a century later, there arose a need to erect a building to display this collection. Indeed I received the Kyoto Prize and that created an additional obligation. Together with my wife I decided to build a Center of Japanese Art. The Japanese responded. Japanese architect Arata Isosaki produced a blueprint for the building and offered it to our Kyoto-Kraków Foundation. The Japanese government offered two million dollars. As a gesture of solidarity with the Polish Solidarity movement, Japanese railway workers collected another million. A special collection was held in Japan, and that added two and a half million. Altogether, we collected five and a half million dollars and this allowed us to build Centrum Manggha within fifteen months. Now the magnificent Japanese art is available for viewing. Poland is a country where it is hard to preserve entrepreneurial continuity because of such objective obstacles as war or systemic change. So much greater has been our satisfaction that our initiative fell on fertile soil and that Kraków now has a Center of Japanese Art and Technology, and that this Center has become a dynamic and active institution, one of the most dynamic in the city. In 2002, the Center hosted His Excellency Emperor Akihito and his wife. AZB: Please tell us something about the role of your wife, Krystyna Zachwatowicz, in your life and work. She started as an actress in the cabaret "Pod Baranami" and is also a remarkable scenographer. She acted in your films, among others in The Girls from Wilk (Panny z Wilka), in Man of Marble, in A Love Chronicle (Kronika wypadków milosnych). You dedicated to her your book Double Vision: My Life in Film (1998). What is the secret of the successful marriage of two well-known and creative people?

AW: We respect the artist in each other. The artist who creates his or her own world and is active in his or her artistic genre. We also work together in the theater. Krystyna also acted in my films, and she has taught scenography at the Academy of Fine Arts in Kraków for several years now. She also teaches young movie directors in the Theater Academy. Such contacts keep us young.

AZ-B: Please tell me something about the Warsaw Film School that bears your name.

AW: The Master's School of Film exists since January 2002. Wojciech Marczewski is President of the School. We meet eight to ten times a year for two weeks at a time. We selected thirteen students out of 250-strong pool of applicants. Five of them are graduates of film schools, others have several independent films to their names. If it were not for businessman Ryszard Krauze, owner of the Optimus Company, the school could not have arisen. He has financed the first five years of our existence. The study period is one year. During that time, the young men and women prepare their project. They start with the idea and end with the screenplay. Together we film some scenes of the future movie and we do the casting. At this point, the work can be presented to producers as a ready-to-go project.

AZ-B: In Double Vision you write about the role of music in film. In your movie Pan Tadeusz you used a solemn and triumphant Polonaise by Wojciech Kilar. This Polonaise is very different from the Oginski Polonaise so popular in Poland. In the years to come, will it acquire the nickname of "Polonaise from Wajda's Pan Tadeusz?"

AW: Kilar is not the only composer with whom I have worked, but I regard his film music very highly. It is always coordinated with the plot and it adds greatly to the rhythm of the picture.

AZ-B: In a book published in Torun in 2000, The Slavic Pope: a Messenger of Hope (Papiež Slowian: Zwiastun nadziei), there is a passage by you. You speak of the moment when you first heard that Cardinal Karol Wojtyla was elected Pope. You were working on Chelmska Street and you were approached by some electricians who told you that they heard this message on the radio. You did not believe them and scolded them rather harshly. Later you reflected on that sequence of events and wondered whether it was a failure of imagination or some other reason that made you reject this good news. You write: "Could it be possible that we [Poles] got used to belittling ourselves and belittling all that was going on around us? Have we internalized being small, provincial, and insignificant?" I must say that your words touched me deeply.

AW: The strength of the Polish Church lies in its consistency: it behaved the same way during the Nazi occupation when thousands of Catholics priests were murdered, and under the Stalinist system when it had to measure up to an extremely difficult political situation. The decisions about the Church, however, were and are taken in Rome, and this independence [from local authorities] saved the Church's religious and social prestige. It is true that I did not hope to see the fall of communism. I was certain that it would survive for many more years, and that its corrosive influence would continue for decades.

AZ-B: Have the times changed? Are we different now? To what extent has the Polish Pope, the Nobel Prize awarded to Czeslaw Milosz and Wislawa Szymborska, or your own Oscar changed the opinion of Poles about themselves?

AW: I am sure Poles are proud and happy of these successes, but in order to reach true happiness, they still need to win the Mundial soccer match.

AZ-B: In the United States the promotion of sports begins at school. It is taken for granted that team games teach one how to act in a group. In order to win it is necessary to develop a team spirit. A loss likewise affects the group rather than the individual.

AW: Poles often lack the ability to work as a team. I am a great promoter of sports, and I think that if Poland is to advance civilizationally, it has to focus more on team sports. I still remember with admiration the team spirit in the Japanese theater where I worked. A similar situation exists in the American theater.

AZ-B: You have created great works, and many of them significantly influenced Polish life. The Promised Land is regarded as the greatest Polish film ever. What are your plans for the future?

AW: While putting my Kraków archives in order I stopped at project no.196 among those that I put aside. In other words, I have more unfinished projects that finished ones. I have many movie ideas. At this moment, I cannot say which of them I will work on next.

The interview was conducted in Fall 2002. A large selection of Andrzej Wajda's movies can be rented from the Blockbusters. A large selection of films can be purchased on (videos and DVDs).

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The Sarmatian Review
Last updated 4/30/03