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Andrzej Wajda, Poland's Dissident Director, Dies At 90

  • Charles Recknagel

Polish film director Andrzej Wajda in 2013 -- Wajda was not only hailed in the West. He was also critically acclaimed in the Eastern Bloc even as his films contained criticisms of communist Poland and by extension, Moscow.

Polish film director Andrzej Wajda in 2013 -- Wajda was not only hailed in the West. He was also critically acclaimed in the Eastern Bloc even as his films contained criticisms of communist Poland and by extension, Moscow.

Poland's Andrzej Wajda was something rare in the world of Soviet-era filmmaking: a dissident director famous enough to be allowed to make major films yet also free enough to include anticommunist statements in them.

Wajda, whose death at age 90 was announced by the Polish media on October 10, is perhaps most familiar to Western audiences for his 1981 film Man Of Iron, which focused on the rise of Poland's Solidarity labor union as it threatened the Communist Party's monopoly on power.

The film won the Palme d'Or at Cannes and solidified an international reputation that would eventually lead in 2000 to an honorary Oscar for lifetime achievement.

WATCH: A clip from Man Of Iron

But Wajda was not only hailed in the West. He was also critically acclaimed in the Eastern Bloc even as his films contained criticisms of communist Poland and by extension, Moscow.

"People in the Soviet Union in the 1970s and 1980s regarded Wajda as a strange phenomenon," recalls Prague-based journalist and film critic Ostap Karmodi. "The Soviet intelligentsia tried to see his films because it was very unusual to have such a free director in the Soviet bloc making anticommunist statement in his movies."

How Wajda was able to have such freedom is a story of how he successfully walked a thin line between being a dissident and a state-supported filmmaker within a totalitarian system.

In an interview with RFE/RL's Russian Service in 2005, Wajda said he chose to resist the communist authorities of Poland early in his artistic career. He noted there were two paths dissidents could take. The first was to resist by refusing to take any part in state-sponsored projects, the second was to try to work within the system.

"Some chose the first way, and I admired and understood them as they chose the path of resistance," he said. "However, by doing so they condemned themselves to being totally absent from the cinema, the theater, or the literary world. There was another way, the path of those who use even the most limited possibilities to try to do something, to act."

Choosing the second path, Wajda made films that initially won the approval of the Polish government by exploring subjects that did not challenge its values. His first film, A Generation, made in 1955, focused on the story of an adolescent who joins a resistance group in Warsaw fighting the Nazis.

WATCH: A Generation, directed by Andrzej Wajda

He followed that in 1956 with a second film about resistance, Kanal, also focusing on the efforts of Warsaw citizens to free themselves from Nazi occupation.

Attacking The System

But after Kanal won the jury special prize at the 1957 Cannes film festival, Wajda used the greater artistic freedom he was accorded by the Polish government to make Ashes And Diamonds, in 1958. The film, today considered a masterpiece of Polish cinema, amazed Soviet-era audiences because the protagonist is a member of Poland's patriotic Home Army who tries to kill a newly appointed socialist official arriving to take control of a provincial town.

WATCH: A clip from Ashes And Diamonds

"The protagonist is portrayed as a good person who is himself killed at the end of the film by the socialist police and the audience feels pity for him," says Karmodi, who saw the film himself as a boy in Moscow, where the distribution was limited to the Polish Cultural Center and a few theaters that showed art films.

He suggests that Wajda was probably able to make the film only because the clash of values it explored was couched in terms of a tragic conflict resulting from each of the main characters following his own truth.

But it was Wajda's 1981 film Man Of Iron about Solidarity that most directly challenged Poland's communist government. The director received the 1981 Palme d'Or for the film even as Warsaw was cracking down on the movement and imposing martial law.

Wajda's international prestige saved him from being jailed -- a fate that befell many other dissidents and Solidarity leader Lech Walesa at the time. But for the next four years, the Polish government failed to approve Wajda's film projects and he had to relocate to France and Germany to keep working. He did not make films again in Poland until 1985, four years before communism finally collapsed in Eastern Europe in 1989.

Looking back at his experience working as a dissident in a totalitarian system, Wajda said in an interview in 2007 that "I never thought I would live to see the moment when Poland would be a free country."

"I thought I would die in that system," he told AP. "It was so surprising and so extraordinary that I lived to see freedom."

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