Andrzej Wajda

Ashes and Diamonds: Andrzej Wajda on Directing

Ashes and Diamonds (1958) is the third among director Andrzej Wajda’s trilogy of war films – the first, A Generation (1955), and the second, Kanal (1957), which won the Special Jury Prize at Cannes. Ashes and Diamonds won the film critics award at the Venice Film Festival.

These were among a number of Wajda’s films that spurred Steven Spielberg to write a passionate letter to the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences recommending him for an Honorary Academy Award (Lezenska, 1999).

Film lovers honor him as one of the most acclaimed directors in the history of film, one whose artistry has repeatedly brought the world’s attention to European cinema. By striving to show both the loftiest heights and the darkest depths of the European soul, he has inspired all of us to re-examine the strength of our common humanity.

Jane Fonda presented that Oscar to Wajda in March 2000 (Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, 2000).

Born in Poland in 1926, events leading to World War II — and the war itself — shaped Wajda’s formative years. Then, the aftermath of the War heavily influenced his career in filmmaking, as he worked under a Communist regime where censorship limited all creative production. However, since censors paid more attention to dialog than images, Wajda cleverly used imagery instead of words to communicate meaning in his movies.

Hero Ending on “a Rubbish Heap of History”

Maciek Chelmicki dying on a trash heap
Maciek Chelmicki dying on a trash heap

As an example, the end of Ashes and Diamonds shows the hero dying at a waste disposal landfill. To explain this, Wajda informed the censors that this scene could be interpreted as, “whoever raises his hand against People’s Poland will end up on the rubbish heap of history” (Schmidlin, 2014).[1] However, thanks to Wajda’s insightfulness, Polish audiences understood the scene in a different light.

According to Oleszczyk (2010), Wajda intentionally cast the handsome Zbigniew Cybulski as Maciek Chelmicki to draw the audience’s sympathy discreetly away from Communism and towards what authorities recognized as its ideological enemy.

Maciek’s cause was as unacceptable for the Communist party in 1958 as it was at any given moment in the history of regime, which is the reason his character needed to die at the end. Still, by casting the Communist Szczuka with a fuddy-duddy stage actor [Waclaw] Zastrezynski, and pitting him against the emotional fireball of Cybulski, Wajda made sure the audience rooted for the losing side of the equation.

And even though he [Cybulski] died at the end, the viewers were identifying with his lost cause rather than with the winning one. They knew the latter all too well from their everyday lives to cheer it.

A workaholic, Wajda was prolific in making films, TV programs, and stage productions in an active career that has spanned from the 1950’s to his most recent film, Walesa, A Man of Hope, released in 2012.[2]

The Director’s Eyes in Filmmaking

These are Wajda’s own words on directing movies (1998):

The good Lord provided the director with two eyes – one to look into the camera, the other to observe intently everything that is going on around him. It is a skill which you should develop and endlessly improve, until you stop making movies (in the case of those trying to make political films this might happen at any moment, so time is running out!) For example: when the camera starts running, the director should watch and see simultaneously:

  • how the actors are playing;
  • what the crew members are doing: are they watching the take so that later they will be able to draw conclusions who’s responsible for what?
  • whether the lights haven’t been moved: do they illumine the actors as agreed? (basically this is the operator’s job, but it is worth taking note of)
  • the sky: can the take be completed before the clouds obscure the sun?
  • that actor walking over the rails; is he going to brush his sleeve against a priceless Chinese vase? the microphone, already dangerously low; is it going to get into the frame? and many, many other things, happening on location.

This seems not only difficult but almost impossible; but do you recall your first, terrifying experience when driving a car? Many years ago my friend, the known film critic Boleslaw Michalek, bought his first automobile. He wasn’t too sure of himself behind the driving wheel, so he asked somebody to help him drive the car from the factory. But when they went out of the gate and into the street, the driver said with a tremor in his voice: ‘I’ll concentrate on the engine and you just watch the road’ – because he too was a beginner. After a few minutes they landed in a ditch.

Many years ago, at the start of my career as a director, I used to ask my assistants to take note for me of some things during a take. This inevitably led to misunderstandings, and the evaluated material usually turned out to be disastrous. Unfortunately, this is a job the director cannot share. The members of the crew must know that at any given moment he is in control and has an eye on absolutely everything; only then will they accept his wishes and work really effectively.

For a comprehensive and thorough study on Wajda and his works, read Michael Brooke’s[3] well-written piece entitled, “Andrzej Wajda – An Introduction” (2008).

Footnotes

[1] According to Safire (1983), “the phrase was popularized by Leon Trotsky, who told the Mensheviks departing from the 1917 Congress of Soviets, ‘Go to the place where you belong from now on – the dustbin of history!’”
[2] Andrzej Wajda died in October 2016, at the age of 90 (Wikipedia contributors, 2019).
[3] Michael Brooke is regular contributor to Sight & Sound magazine, spent nearly a decade at the BFI (BFI Editors, 2016).

REFERENCES

Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. (Producer). (2000, Mar 26). Jane Fonda presents an honorary Oscar® to Andrzej Wajda. [Video]. YouTube. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rImCpUzwGx0

British Film Institute Editors. (2016). Michael Brooke. BFI. Retrieved from https://www.bfi.org.uk/people/michael-brooke

Brooke, M.  (2008, May 6).  Andrzej Wajda – An introduction. Michael Brooke. Retrieved from https://michaelbrooke.wordpress.com/andrzej-wajda-an-introduction/

Lezenska, K. (1999). Steven Spielberg’s letter to American Academy of Motion Picture Art and Sciences. Retrieved from http://www.wajda.pl/en/list.html

Merleau-Ponty, M. (1964). Sense and non-sense (H. L. Dreyfus & P. A. Dreyfus, Trans.). Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press.

Oleszczyk, M. (2012, Oct 13). Ashes are forever. Roger Ebert. Retrieved from https://www.rogerebert.com/far-flung-correspondents/ashes-are-for-ever

Wajda, A. (1998). The director’s two eyes. Retrieved from http://www.wajda.pl/en/filmy2.html

Yakir, D. (1984, Nov/Dec). Interview: Andrzej Wajda. Film Comment: Film at Lincoln Center. Retrieved from https://www.filmcomment.com/article/interview-andrzej-wajda/

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