By coincidence, Andrzej Wajda turned 87 last week, becoming the first living director we have included in this series, at least to the best of my recollection. (We did show Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven, but that was taken out of chronological sequence to honor the publication of Mary Lea Bandy and Kevin Stoehr’s Ride, Boldly Ride.) Today’s film, Popiol I Diament (Ashes and Diamonds), is 56 years old, which places it just past the midpoint of movie history so far. So happy birthday and many more, Mr. Wajda.
We, of course, have been West-centric in our journey through the cinema since even before its beginnings. We have included a few Soviet and postwar Japanese and Indian classics, but recognition for Eastern Europe and the rest of Asia, Africa, and Latin America has been lacking, largely due to my ignorance. It is not really an excuse to say that this neglect is as much societal as personal, but it is a failing of which I am well aware. I did make a small gesture in my postwar animation programs by including several directors from Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia, but largely beginning with Wajda, there is no question that Eastern Europe and its Cold War regimes have contributed a great deal to film, and I will attempt to remedy this neglect in forthcoming weeks and months. We are very much in Wajda’s debt, not just for his own substantial body of work, but also for protégés like Roman Polanski and Agnieszka Holland, whose MoMA retrospectives I am particularly proud to have organized.
Wajda’s personal history has been heroic, first fighting the Nazis on behalf of the Polish government in exile and then repeatedly riling the Soviets during the Russian occupation. (His recent masterpiece, Katyn, about a Soviet massacre of Polish officers and intelligentsia that was blamed on the Nazis, tells a story Poles have long wanted told.) I know little about Polish cultural history, but I would venture a guess that Wajda is perhaps the most prominent Pole since the transplanted Englishman, Joseph Conrad, to stride the world artistic stage.Ashes and Diamonds was Wajda’s seventh film, although he had already achieved some international recognition with A Generation (featuring a young Polanski) and Kanal. Because of Poland’s tragic history and Soviet domination, Wajda’s films, like those of his contemporaries, could not hope to escape the burdens of politics and an oppressive reality. Major American directors (John Ford, Frank Capra, Alfred Hitchcock, Charles Chaplin) could touch on these subjects, but there was little room in Poland for screwball comedies or frothy musicals. Like Fritz Lang, even after he left Hitler behind geographically, Polish filmmakers could not escape the paranoia and presence of totalitarianism. To Wajda’s credit, and to Poland’s, there was also a major effort to confront the legacy of anti-Semitism and the country’s role in the Holocaust. (Long before Alain Resnais’s masterful documentary Night and Fog  and Gillo Pontecorvo’s Kapo , Wanda Jakubowska had made her extraordinary film on the concentration camps, The Last Stop, in 1948.) All of these factors conditioned Wajda’s style, which is essentially starkly realistic and based in actuality, but also heavily dependent on symbolism.
For the lead in Ashes and Diamonds, Wajda chose Zbigniew Cybulski (1927–1967), known as the Polish James Dean as much for his performances as for his offscreen rebellious image and tragically premature accidental death. Unlike Dean, he was able to make three-dozen films and was posthumously chosen as “Best Polish Film Actor of All Time.” In a recent interview, Wajda claimed that he and Cybulski had consciously patterned the actor’s performance after the style of Dean. Laszlo Benedek’s The Wild One (1953), starring the young Marlon Brando, has also been cited as an even clearer influence on Ashes and Diamonds. (Benedek, a Hungarian Jew who was brought to Hollywood by Louis B. Mayer, curiously came within one day of sharing Wajda’s birthday). Wajda has not come to Hollywood (thus far), but he continues to make films and administer his acclaimed film school.