Andrzej Wajda March 6, 1926 – October 9, 2016. Filmmaker.
Genius. Every Polonian and every lover of cinematic art owes him a debt of
Below, my reviews of two of his films, The Promised Land and Katyn.
If I had all day, I'd write about more of his films, all
day. I'd write about how they changed my life.
I don't have all day. So just the two reviews, below, which
I hope you will read.
The Promised Land is a visual feast, fast-paced, and
every bit as ruthless as the cutthroat characters it depicts. The topic – the
Industrial Revolution, and the characters – immoral greedy monsters – are ugly
and mean, but Wajda's filmmaking is so virtuosic you watch just for the sheer
craft, splendor, and runaway train of a plot. I find it hard to sit through
movies where there are no sympathetic main characters and no possibility of a
happy ending, but The Promised Land is
addictively watchable. There's an orgy, a tiger, several mutilated bodies,
fires, riots, history, and Wojciech Kilar's driving, award-winning score.
Anyone interested in the Industrial Revolution should see
this movie. Fans of Dickens' "Oliver Twist" and Gaskell's "North
and South" really must see it. I wish I could require my students to watch
it. Wajda was determined to get every detail correct. In the DVD's extra
features, an assistant director discusses a scene of indigent paupers receiving
charity food. Wajda's team discovered that the indigent were fed from long,
metal tables with bowls built right into them. They rebuilt such a table just
for this scene, lasting a few minutes. They had special wooden spoons made, and
then weathered them by soaking them in oil. The paupers' rags were similarly
weathered. There is a lengthy scene where Anna (Anna Nehrebecka), a country
aristocrat, travels to the city. The camera follows Anna and lays out Lodz
before her in all its gritty, noxious detail: smoking chimneys, workers'
funerals, fighting men, the Jewish quarter. The scene looks like documentary
footage of a late nineteenth-century industrial city.
The Promised Land also takes the viewer into the mansions
of Lodz, almost ridiculous in their sumptuousness, plunked down in so much filth,
squalor, and despair. Ornate winding staircases, gilt-encrusted columns and
ceiling murals lure on industrialists willing to wring every last penny from
their desperate employees.
The Promised Land depicts Lodz's emergence as a textile
manufacturing hub. Three friends, one a Polish aristocrat, one a Jew, and one a
German, strive to build their own factory. They have few resources and must do
dirty things to make their dreams of unlimited wealth a reality. Blond Karol (Daniel
Olbrychski) has the face of a cherub and the soul of a serial killer. His
entire being is omnivorous greed. Moryc (Wojciech Pszoniak) cheats another Jew
to get his stake. After doing so, he practically collapses from the strain, and
then breaks the fourth wall, winking at the audience. He's just an actor
playing a part, he reminds us, as they all are, playing any part they want to
get their highest ideal: cash.
The film also depicts workers and their plight. A dewy
young mill hand is lured into prostitution. Others are consumed by the machines
they work. Scenes of mutilated flesh are quite graphic, and yet not
sensationalistic. This is the price poor people pay for bread, the film shows
us. The camera does not linger. It keeps moving. Just like Lodz, just like men
chasing cash, just like history.
There are a few characters who aren't utterly despicable.
They appear, make small squeaks of decency, self-respect, and dignity, and are
crushed by the inevitable. There is a stunning scene that is quite different
from anything else in the film. The film moves quickly and purposefully, but in
this scene men meet in a small room to play classical music. The scene is not
at all essential to the plot. It moves with atypical languor. The scene seems
to say, "Yes, people in Lodz had souls." That reminder makes the
surrounding greed-induced frenzy all the more disturbing.
Some viewers protest The
Promised Land as an anti-Semitic film, because of unpleasant Jewish
characters. Indeed, there are unpleasant Jewish characters in the film. Virtually
*every* character in the film is unpleasant – even the pretty, innocent child
lured into prostitution. The film does not allow you to pity her, but implies
that she was complicit in her own downfall. Further, every character is
unpleasant in an ethnically- gender-, and socioeconomic-class-coded way. That
is, the Polish peasants are unpleasant in a stereotypical way associated with
peasants, the one priest is unpleasant in a way associated with priests. The
men are bad men, the women are bad women. The priest is onscreen for minutes
only, but he leers at a pretty factory hand. Anna has a big heart, but she is
ineffectual and not smart enough to see through Karol. Other women are whores
or idiots. The Polish aristocrat aggressively sells out every high ideal his
ancestors held dear. He desecrates an image of Poland's icon, the Black Madonna
of Czestochowa. The Germans are either sadistic and autocratic or lumpen and
dull. The Polish peasant who manages to rise above his station is an
insufferable, loud-mouthed boor. This film isn't anti-Semitic; it is brutally misanthropic.
It depicts people at their worst.
Again, it is Wajda's virtuosic filmmaking that makes all
this endurable. At a key moment, a rock flies through a window. That rock means
much – the inevitable march of history that has brought industrialists high and
might also bring them very, very low. Any other filmmaker would probably have
handled the rock through a window as a crashing sound followed by a thud. Wajda
films this scene with such skill and poetry that the rock becomes a character
in the film. It demands, and gets, the viewer's full attention. Subsequent
action is filmed *from the rock's point of view.* Poland is a small, distant,
and much contested country. It's filmmaking like that that amply earned Wajda
his honorary Academy Award.
I watched Katyn
on a home computer screen. Even in that limited format, Katyn had an impact on me comparable to such cinematic greats as
"Lawrence of Arabia." I cried throughout most of the film. I resolved
that many of my relationships would be different. I remembered people I had
known who reminded me of characters in the movie. After the film ended, I felt
that I could not listen to the radio or read the newspaper or listen to anyone
speak. I just needed to allow the film to sink into me.
Naysayers have critiqued Katyn as boring and dull. If you need a film to depict war,
occupation, and atrocity as shiny, compact, and compelling as a sports car,
then you should listen to those naysayers; don't watch "Katyn,"
rather, watch the very silly, teen fanboy-friendly Quentin Tarantino flic,
"Inglorious Bastards." If you've seen enough Hollywood productions
jam-packed with sexy Nazis and happy endings, and you want to take in a film
that dares to depict, in eyeblinks, what war, atrocity, and occupation looked
like and felt like to real people, then by all means see "Katyn." One
of the many features that I admired: Katyn's
Nazis are not sexy. They are not Tom Cruise, Liam Neeson, Christoph Waltz. Katyn's Nazis are brutal, repugnant
I respect this movie. There are too few movies about which
I'd say that. It shows the courage not to attempt to weave an uplifting,
feel-good atrocity narrative that leaves the viewer with a smile. This isn't
"Schindler's List." "Schindler's List" is a very good
movie, but this isn't that. It is, rather, very much like what World War Two
and the subsequent Soviet occupation sounded like to me when I listened to my
own older friends and relatives, who lived through both. This is disjointed
narrative, stories that seem headed for redemption or even ecstasy but that end
in random death, that end in aborted normalcy, aborted joy, aborted meaning. I
felt, in watching these cold, pale, stoic characters, as if I were, once again,
sitting across the table from older Eastern European friends and relatives.
Yes, that's what they looked like. Yes, those are the facial expressions they
assumed when they talked about the uncle who was rounded up and never heard
from again, the daring, handsome lad who ended up in a mass grave – or when
they pointedly did *not* talk about these people. The gravestone whose
inscription dares to tell the truth; the tearing down of a propaganda poster;
the Red Army soldier who struggles to do the right thing by a widow, who won't
yet admit that she is a widow; the singing of exactly the right Christmas carol
at exactly the right moment: those are exactly the heroic gestures that no one
ever saw, that went unrecorded, that only one person lived to tell about, to
tell me. Here they are, onscreen.
When a movie is named Katyn
the viewer knows how it will end; it's kind of like a movie named
"Auschwitz" or "Kolyma" or "Wounded Knee." There
isn't going to be a surprise ending. I was still surprised by the ending, by
how courageous and moving I found it. Once again, Andrzej Wajda managed to wow
the filmgoer in me. And he managed to move the human in me.
See "Katyn." See a movie you can respect, a movie
that is worth your time.