WARSAW, Poland — Poland’s leading filmmaker Andrzej Wajda, whose career maneuvering between a repressive communist government and an audience yearning for freedom won him international recognition and an honorary Oscar, has died. He was 90.
Wajda had recently been hospitalized and died Sunday night, said film director Jacek Bromski, head of the Association of Polish Filmmakers, on the private television station TVN24. The filmmakers association confirmed his death on its website.
Bromski called Wajda “our mentor, our teacher, a model not to be matched.”
Though physically frail, Wajda worked until the end of his life. Using a walking aid, he appeared at last month’s Film Festival in Gdynia, for the premiere of his latest film “Afterimage,” based on the life of Polish avant-garde artist Wladyslaw Strzeminski who was persecuted for refusing to follow the communist party line during the Stalinist era,
Poland’s Oscar Commission, which selected the as Poland’s official entry for an Oscar in the best foreign language film category, called the film “a touching universal story about the destruction of an individual by a totalitarian system.”
Wajda told the Polish news agency PAP that he wanted to “warn against the state intervention into art.” The film was seen as yet another veiled political statement from the director, coming at a time when Poland’s current conservative government has been accused of interfering with the arts and media.
Wajda received an honorary Oscar for lifetime achievement in 2000. He was cited as “a man whose films have given audiences around the world an artist’s view of history, democracy and freedom, and who in so doing has himself become a symbol of courage and hope for millions of people in postwar Europe.”
The director trod on ground controlled by communist-era censors with “Man of Marble” (1977), which looked at the roots of worker discontent in communist Poland in the 1950s; and “Man of Iron” (1981) on the rise of the Solidarity labor union movement, which eventually led to the demise of communism in Poland. That movie featured Solidarity leader Lech Walesa, who later became Poland’s president. It won the Cannes Film Festival’s top Palme d’Or prize in 1981 and was one of four Wajda movies to be nominated for the best foreign-language Oscar, although Poland’s communist leaders unsuccessfully tried to withdraw it from Oscar consideration.
Under martial law in Poland in the early 1980s, “Man of Iron” was banned and shown only at private and church screenings.
Wajda once said that “my Polish films were always images of a fate in which I myself had also participated.”
“We have lost someone who was larger than life,” actor and theater director Jan Englert told TVN24. “He was not only a great artist, but at the same a true authority.”
Actor Daniel Olbrychski, who played in 13 of Wajda’s movies, including “The Promised Land” and “The Maids of Wilko,” said he had never met another director who knew so well how to work with actors.
“We could feel the love of our audience through him. But when he frowned just a little, I knew I had to try and do it better,” Olbrychski told TVN24.
Wajda made more than 40 films in all. Also nominated for Academy Awards were “The Promised Land” (1975) — a tale of ideals lost in the rush to get rich — and “The Maids of Wilko” (1979) about the demise of love, as well as “Katyn” in 2007.
Wajda said “Katyn,” in which he turned his spotlight on the 1940 massacre in the Katyn forest and elsewhere of some 22,000 Polish officers by the Soviet secret police, was his most personal movie. The director’s father, Lt. Jakub Wajda, was among the victims.
Wajda also noted that he could never have tackled that painful moment in Polish history before the collapse of communist rule in 1989, given that Moscow refused to acknowledge Soviet responsibility and the topic was taboo.
“I never thought I would live to see the moment when Poland would be a free country,” Wajda said in a 2007 interview with The Associated Press. “I thought I would die in that system. It was so surprising and so extraordinary that I lived to see freedom.”
Wajda was born March 6, 1926, in the northeastern Polish town of Suwalki.
In 1946, he joined the Fine Arts Academy in Krakow, but quit after three years and moved to the newly opened film school in Lodz — which also trained directors Roman Polanski and the late Krzysztof Kieslowski. Wajda also worked in Germany and France.
His 1955 debut “Generation”; the 1957 “Kanal,” a winner in Cannes; and “Ashes and Diamonds” the following year, drew on his generation’s experience of surviving the brutal Nazi occupation during World War II and then falling under Soviet domination.
Wajda never joined the communist party, but his standing abroad protected him from repression. “All my life I was determined to have a kind of independence,” he said.
As the conflict between the democratic opposition and the communist regime intensified toward the end of the 1970s, the director wrote in defense of dissidents and later in support of Solidarity. In the 1980s, he signed petitions urging free elections and talks between the communist authorities and Solidarity.
In Poland’s first free elections in 1989, Wajda was elected to the Senate and served for two years.
His film career, however, went into a lull in the early 1990s as he was seeking the right perspective to reflect the radical changes in Poland after the fall of communism, while Hollywood imports became popular and state subsidies dried up.
Two films looking at the World War II past — “Korczak” (1990), about a Polish Jewish teacher who tried to protect Jewish orphans in the Warsaw Ghetto and died in the Nazi gas chambers, and “Holy Week” about Polish attitudes toward the 1943 Warsaw Ghetto uprising — received relatively little attention.
Wajda considered quitting, but came back in 1998 with the hit “Pan Tadeusz,” based on a 19th-century Polish epic poem of love and intrigue among the nobility. Nine years later, “Katyn” was a national catharsis, breaking silence over a tragedy that affected thousands of families in Poland.
National history remained his theme and his 2013 biopic, “Walesa: Man of Hope,” depicted the life of the Nobel Peace Prize winner who founded the free trade union that was pivotal in ending communist rule in Poland.
Wajda also received lifetime achievement awards from the film festivals in Venice in 1998 and Berlin in 2006.
As well as directing movies, he also worked as a theater director, saying that he was deeply drawn to the “transitory and ephemeral character of the theater.”
Wajda is survived by his fourth wife, actress and stage designer Krystyna Zachwatowicz, and his daughter, Karolina.