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  • Don't Look to the East:National Sentiments in Andrzej Wajda's Contemporary Film Epics
  • Anna Misiak (bio)

Patriotism has always been high on Andrzej Wajda's agenda. Already in the 1950s, in Kanał (1957) and Popiół i Diament [Ashes and Diamonds] (1958), he chronicled stories of heroism and national loyalty set against the war-scarred Polish landscape. Because of heavy government censorship, back then Wajda's criticism of the Soviet-instigated political system in Poland could only be symbolically inserted into his film plots. Later, with Człowiek z marmuru [Man of Marble] (1977) and Człowiek z zżelaza [Man of Iron] (1981), the director was able to reveal his political opinions with much more confidence. For obvious reasons, even those films never contained any candid anticommunist or anti-Soviet views. Only since the 1990s have Wajda's political convictions become more conspicuous, as he looks at Polish history through the lens of his half-romanticizing, half-revisionist camera, most evidently in his two national epics, Pan Tadeusz [The Last Foray in Lithuania] (1999) and Katyń (2007). With no censors keeping him at bay, the director now freely expresses his nonconformist national sentiments, where resistance to political influence from Russia sits at the center of Polish national characteristics.

On the ideological level, both of Wajda's contemporary epics set out an imaginary meridian borderline that helps define the identity of his nation. Whatever lies to the west is marked as positive, whereas the eastern side is certainly associated with negative Russian abuse. The line does not literally match geographical borders of the country; it is a symbolic division between the good us and the evil them. This imaginary boundary is in no way the director's invention but rather an integral part of Polish political and cultural discourse, deeply rooted in the national tradition. Wajda's attachment to similar binary national divisions appears rather dated to Western cinema viewers in the globalized world. Likewise, younger Polish film critics tend to dismiss them as simple stereotypes. These critics also often negatively comment on the elevated tones of Wajda's recent epics. However, such voices of disapproval, even if undoubtedly present in Poland, do not have the power to halt the production of film epics, which—usually made by older-generation directors, including Jerzy Hoffman, Jerzy Kawalerowicz, and Andrzej Wajda—have now promoted lofty national ideals for more than a decade.

Since the 1989 systemic transformation from communism to capitalism, Polish viewers have witnessed a renaissance of historical and heritage epics. These monumental productions saturate cinema screens with myths of national loyalty and frequently propagate Catholic values, which for many Poles are at the core of their new European identity. Starting the epic trend at the end of the 1990s, along with Jerzy Hoffman's Ogniem i mieczem [With Fire and Sword] (1999), Andrzej Wajda's Pan Tadeusz proved immensely popular among domestic audiences. This highly fictionalized [End Page 26] heritage film was adapted from an obligatory school reading under the same title. The original, which had been written in verse back in the nineteenth century by Polish national bard and émigré poet Adam Mickiewicz, presented a nostalgic vision of an independent national gentry culture that at the time had already been disappearing.

Wajda's film adaptation closely replicates the idyllic world from Mickiewicz's book. It offers almost the same stylized look at the Polish-Lithuanian gentry allying with Napoleon to fight their Russian oppressors. By adapting the text, with which almost every Pole is familiar, the director managed to draw a huge number of viewers. Pan Tadeusz, which opened in October 1999, overall attracted more than six million domestic cinemagoers in the following year ("Przeboje kasowe 2000 w polskich kinach"). This immense popularity of Wajda's first epic resulted from the fact that he translated the well-known but now slightly dated Pan Tadeusz for the needs of the more visually oriented turn-of-the-century audience yet never really moved far from the original.

Wajda's script is developed around two storylines, the romantic and the patriotic. At first, the viewers follow the eponymous Tadeusz in his innocent and many times comically erratic search for a perfect...


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