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

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

Arts and Entertainment
Art on their sleeves: before downloads and streaming, enthusiasts used to flick through racks of albums in their local record shops
musicFor Lois Pryce, working in a record shop was a dream job - until the bean counters ruined it
Arts and Entertainment
Serial suspect: the property heir charged with first-degree murder, Robert Durst
TV review
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Igarashi in her

Art Megumi Igarashi criticises Japan's 'backwards' attitude to women's sexual expression

Arts and Entertainment
Could Ed Sheeran conquer the Seven Kingdoms? He could easily pass for a Greyjoy like Alfie Allen's character (right)

tv Singer could become the most unlikely star of Westeros

Arts and Entertainment
Beyonce, Boris Johnson, Putin, Nigel Farage, Russell Brand and Andy Murray all get the Spitting Image treatment from Newzoids
tvReview: The sketches need to be very short and very sharp as puppets are not intrinsically funny
Arts and Entertainment
Despite the controversy it caused, Mile Cyrus' 'Wrecking Ball' video won multiple awards
musicPoll reveals over 70% of the British public believe sexually explicit music videos should get ratings
Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister and Ian Beattie as Meryn Trant in the fifth season of Game of Thrones

TV
Arts and Entertainment

book review
Arts and Entertainment
It's all in the genes: John Simm working in tandem with David Threlfall in 'Code of a Killer'

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Far Right and Proud: Reggies Yates' Extreme Russia

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Kanye West was mobbed in Armenia after jumping into a lake

music
Arts and Entertainment
The show suffers from its own appeal, being so good as to create an appetite in its viewers that is difficult to sate in a ten episode series

Game of Thrones reviewFirst look at season five contains some spoilers
Arts and Entertainment
Judi Dench and Kevin Spacey on the Red Carpet for 2015's Olivier Awards

Ray Davies' Sunny Afternoon scoops the most awards

Theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Proving his metal: Ross Poldark (played by Aidan Turner in the BBC series) epitomises the risk-taking spirit of 18th-century mine owners

Poldark review
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne is reportedly favourite to play Newt Scamander in Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

film
Arts and Entertainment
Tom Hardy stars in dystopian action thriller Mad Max: Fury Road

film
Arts and Entertainment
Josh, 22, made his first million from the game MinoMonsters

Grace Dent

Channel 4 show proves there's no app for happiness
News
Disgraced Top Gear presenter Jeremy Clarkson
people
Arts and Entertainment
Game face: Zoë Kravitz, Bruce Greenwood and Ethan Hawke in ‘Good Kill’

film review

Arts and Entertainment
Living like there’s no tomorrow: Jon Hamm as Don Draper in the final season of ‘Mad Men’

TV review

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Revealed: Why Mohammed Emwazi chose the 'safe option' of fighting for Isis, rather than following his friends to al-Shabaab in Somalia

    Why Mohammed Emwazi chose Isis

    His friends were betrayed and killed by al-Shabaab
    'The solution can never be to impassively watch on while desperate people drown'
An open letter to David Cameron: Building fortress Europe has had deadly results

    Open letter to David Cameron

    Building the walls of fortress Europe has had deadly results
    Tory candidates' tweets not as 'spontaneous' as they seem - you don't say!

    You don't say!

    Tory candidates' election tweets not as 'spontaneous' as they appear
    Mubi: Netflix for people who want to stop just watching trash

    So what is Mubi?

    Netflix for people who want to stop just watching trash all the time
    The impossible job: how to follow Kevin Spacey?

    The hardest job in theatre?

    How to follow Kevin Spacey
    Armenian genocide: To continue to deny the truth of this mass human cruelty is close to a criminal lie

    Armenian genocide and the 'good Turks'

    To continue to deny the truth of this mass human cruelty is close to a criminal lie
    Lou Reed: The truth about the singer's upbringing beyond the biographers' and memoirists' myths

    'Lou needed care, but what he got was ECT'

    The truth about the singer's upbringing beyond
    Migrant boat disaster: This human tragedy has been brewing for four years and EU states can't say they were not warned

    This human tragedy has been brewing for years

    EU states can't say they were not warned
    Women's sportswear: From tackling a marathon to a jog in the park, the right kit can help

    Women's sportswear

    From tackling a marathon to a jog in the park, the right kit can help
    Hillary Clinton's outfits will be as important as her policies in her presidential bid

    Clinton's clothes

    Like it or not, her outfits will be as important as her policies
    NHS struggling to monitor the safety and efficacy of its services outsourced to private providers

    Who's monitoring the outsourced NHS services?

    A report finds that private firms are not being properly assessed for their quality of care
    Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

    Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

    The Tory MP said he did not want to stand again unless his party's manifesto ruled out a third runway. But he's doing so. Watch this space
    How do Greek voters feel about Syriza's backtracking on its anti-austerity pledge?

    How do Greeks feel about Syriza?

    Five voters from different backgrounds tell us what they expect from Syriza's charismatic leader Alexis Tsipras
    From Iraq to Libya and Syria: The wars that come back to haunt us

    The wars that come back to haunt us

    David Cameron should not escape blame for his role in conflicts that are still raging, argues Patrick Cockburn
    Sam Baker and Lauren Laverne: Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

    Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

    A new website is trying to declutter the internet to help busy women. Holly Williams meets the founders