Film: Endgame

Andrzej Wajda chronicled some of the most turbulent moments in 20th-century Polish history. Now, the great auteur has lost his audience to Hollywood. By Geoffrey Macnab
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The Independent Culture
There is an unforgettable moment in Andrzej Wajda's Ashes and Diamonds that seems with hindsight to encapsulate his preoccupations as a film-maker. The fatalistic hero Maciek Chelmicki (played by Zbigniew Cybulksi) is drinking with a friend at a bar. Growing maudlin, he strikes a match and begins to light glass after glass of vodka with the flame. As he does so, he murmurs names of fallen comrades from the anti-Nazi and anti-Communist resistance. A banal incident is suddenly invested with a strange, ritualistic pathos. Chelmicki is expressing his sorrow and patriotism, but, above all, he is bearing witness; acknowledging the part that his old colleagues played during a seismic moment in Polish history.

Polish history has had more than its fair share of such moments. From the Warsaw uprising to the Solidarity strikes, Wajda recorded them all. Whether or not he set out self-consciously to make political films, it was inevitable that reverberations from events around him would echo through his work. In 1997, however, such echoes grow ever fainter. "I no longer regard myself as a political film-maker," Wajda says with a sigh. "The situation is completely different now - the audience is not at all interested in political subjects." From him - the maker of the great "war" trilogy, the cinematic chronicler of the rise and fall of Solidarity - this is an astonishing confession. He sounds almost like a lapsed priest as he makes it.

Now 70, a small grey-haired man in a silver suit, Wajda is something of an anachronism: one of the grand old auteurs of European political cinema still active at a time when the onus is increasingly on youth and entertainment. He acknowledges that his own influence on the new generation of Polish directors is waning. "They're so much occupied with their own business, they do not pay much attention to their old peers."

Last year, he was given a Lifetime Achievement Award at the Berlin Film Festival, the kind of valedictory pat-on-the-head reserved for film-makers whose best work is behind them. He may still be busy (he made two new features in 1996 alone) but there is a dispiriting sense that he is merely adding a few belated footnotes to a career that is already all but over.

Wajda's films abound in martyrs, young idealists like Cybulski in his trademark dark glasses, the "James Dean of the East", dying for the cause in Ashes and Diamonds (1958) or Gerard Depardieu's French revolutionary hero, trundling off in a tumbrel to be guillotined in Danton (1982). Back in the Communist era, there were never any shortages of injustices for such characters to fight against.

Nowadays, matters are much less clear-cut. Wajda's new film, Miss Nobody, highlights the confusion. It is a contemporary story about an adolescent girl from the countryside who moves with her family to Warsaw. In the big city, she makes two new school friends - one a mystical, rebellious sort, the other a proto-Westerner who hankers after all the glamour that capitalism can offer. The very title hints at the symbolic theme - Miss Nobody clearly stands for Poland-in-miniature, skewered on the horns of an all-too-familiar dilemma, but Wajda downplays the politics. Instead, he aims for a lyrical, introspective style, reminiscent of the work of the late Krzysztof Kieslowski.

Wajda and Kieslowski, who died last March, were never especially close ("although I did convince him to take a more active part in our Polish Film-Makers' Association"). Still, Wajda admired the younger man's work. "When we were all lost and confused during martial law, he alone knew which path to follow. To me, his greatest achievement is slightly paradoxical. He actually went against the mainstream of the Polish film-making tradition. Most of our films were in one way or another political - we were trying to relate to society and history. He chose a completely different way - a psychological, metaphysical way - of dealing with contemporary life. As events have shown, it was the right way."

During the early 1970s, Wajda himself made a series of films less directly concerned with political questions, often with a wistful, lyrical tone that revealed his painterly eye. (As a young man, he trained as an artist.) Among these was The Birchwood (1970), the story of a forester living in the woods with his daughter and tubercular brother, and The Wedding (1973), his adaptation of Wyspianski's magical but baffling play about the wedding of a country girl and a Cracow poet. Miss Nobody, a rites-of-passage story with a strong pastoral vein, harks back to these earlier works as much as it imitates Kieslowski. Wajda hopes it will attract a younger audience than his recent, historically-based films like The Holy Week (1996) and Korczak (1990), both set in the Warsaw Ghetto during the Nazi occupation. "It seems to me that audiences have changed. A new generation of viewers have come to cinema, and I thought it would be interesting for myself to try to meet this audience."

Wajda's own wry, gloomy analysis of current Polish cinema-going habits doesn't encourage confidence in the likely box-office success of Miss Nobody. As he sees it, while the old people stay at home watching TV, young Poles turn up at the movies in search of spectacle and entertainment. "They're so accustomed to seeing big-budget American movies that, when they watch a Polish film, they can't understand why the effects are so modest; why the overall impression of the film is so low-key."

Nowadays, Hollywood, not "the Party", sets the agenda in Polish film culture. Wajda points out that the country has only 800 cinemas, serving a population of 38 million. "They're screening more than 250 films a year and over 200 are US films! Practically speaking, it is very difficult to find any room for European or specifically Polish productions - especially as the distributors are getting the American movies almost for free." The Americans, he points out, spend as much or more in publicising films than the Poles do in making them.

Early on in our interview, Wajda spills a cup of coffee on his immaculately laundered shirt. He pulls over the lapel of his jacket, trying to conceal the mark, but his annoyance is evident. When he begins to rail against the effects of Hollywood hegemony on his nation's film culture, he keeps on glancing down at the stain as it seeps ever outward.

"One group of young Polish film-makers believes the only way to win audiences is to try by all means possible to imitate Hollywood. To some extent, they are successful: films which follow American patterns are the only ones that make any money at the box-office. But another group of young film-makers have come to the opposite conclusion: if the only way they can win an audience is to follow the American model, they forget about the audience altogether."

Wajda isn't especially interested in either alternative. He doesn't want to make ersatz Hollywood movies but nor does he have any desire to retreat into some obscure, hermetic world of his own. He sounds almost nostalgic as he compares his predicament more than 40 years ago with the choices facing the new generation. "Our choices were primarily political. Starting out as a film-maker, I had to choose whether or not to be in the Communist Party. Of course, it would have made my life much easier to join, but it was a very dangerous move from the political point of view, and those who chose it have paid a high price for it." His greatest achievement, he believes, was to remain independent.

The day after I spoke to Wajda, I attended a small press conference given by Jack Valenti, one-time press secretary to John F Kennedy and now Chairman of the Motion Picture Association of America. An energetic, flamboyant man who proselytises on behalf of Hollywood with all the fervour of a religious revivalist or Mark Twain-style mountebank, Valenti refused to accept that the American film industry could be held responsible for the problems faced by European film-makers. "Don't blame us!" he trumpeted before sharing a few favourite old pieties. "The business is still the same as when I came in. We are in the story-telling medium. If you make movies a lot of people want to see, you'll do very well. I'm a great respecter of audiences. They're the heart and soul of the business. Audiences are all that counts. Why has William Shakespeare lasted for 500 years?" Valenti scanned the room, pretending to look for an answer to his rhetorical question before pronouncing triumphantly, "Audiences!"

As audiences are precisely what Wajda's recent films are failing to find, it doesn't really come as a surprise that the grand old man of Polish cinema is slowly beating a retreat from the medium that made him famous. "My plans are more connected now with theatre than with cinema," he admits. "There's a stage in Cracow where I used to work and where I'm dying to do something soon."

In other words, it looks as if yet another of the great European auteurs is going to be allowed to end his film-making career not with a bang but with the proverbial whimper n