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Polish filmmaker Andrzej Wajda influenced Scorsese, Coppola, and Polanski. His masterpiece, Ashes and Diamonds, shows why.

Wajda, who died on Sunday, made the political personal.

Polish director Andrzej Wajda, who died on Sunday.
Polish director Andrzej Wajda died on Sunday. /
Alissa Wilkinson covers film and culture for Vox. Alissa is a member of the New York Film Critics Circle and the National Society of Film Critics.

On Sunday, October 9, director Andrzej Wajda died at the age of 90. Over the course of his 60-year filmmaking career, Wajda became known for drawing on political subjects in his native Poland to make humanistic movies focusing on ordinary people's lives that were also, somehow, a political call to action.

Wajda’s sphere of influence is vast, including Martin Scorsese, Roman Polanski, and Francis Ford Coppola, and he received most of the prizes major filmmakers can receive, including a Lifetime Achievement award from the Academy in 2000. Last month, his final film, Afterimage — a biopic about the avant-garde artist Wladyslaw Strzeminski — screened at the Toronto International Film Festival, and Poland selected it as the country’s entry into the Best Foreign Language Film category at the Oscars.

It's impossible to separate Wajda's artistic trajectory from Poland's messy political history. His first trilogy of films — A Generation (1954), Canal (1956), and Ashes and Diamonds (1958) — is about his country's resistance during World War II. Two others, Man of Marble (1977) and Man of Iron (1981), may sound like they’re about Superman's cousins, but are actually about the lives of Polish workers under communism.

Being a prolific filmmaker was difficult to pull off under Poland’s repressive communist regime, which often censored and suppressed films it didn’t agree with: When Wajda formed a filmmaking collective to mentor younger artists in the early 1970s, the government shut it down. But he kept on doggedly, and his later films continue his early themes, many of them love stories set among the chaos and wreckage of war. After the fall of communism in 1989, Wajda even served a term in the Polish Senate.

Two men hold guns in a scene from Ashes and Diamonds
Ashes and Diamonds (1958).

Not everything Wajda made worked for Western tastes. As The New York Times obituary put it, “quintessentially Polish subjects, like the romantic appeal of lost causes, extended beyond plot and subtext to the iconography with which he filled his movies.” But because he chose to focus on the personal and the political—and because his framing of subjects calls attention to both the people and the places that shape them—he brought attention to his native Poland and sparked filmmakers around the world.

The director’s most accessible film is Ashes and Diamonds, a melancholy and moving (and sometimes pretty funny) film with a bit of an In Bruges vibe, set on May 8, 1945, the day of Germany's official surrender in World War II. A pair of Home Army soldiers, Maciek (Zbigniew Cybulski) and Andrzej (Adam Pawlikowski), are tasked with assassinating the communist Commissar Szczuka. It goes badly, and they flee into town to hide out in a hotel. While they’re there, Maciek develops an acute crush on the hotel barmaid, Krystyna, and eventually convinces her to spend time with him. He starts to see what life could be. Meanwhile, a social tragedy-farce plays out around them.

The Criterion Collection released the whole film, and it is streaming on Hulu; it’s well worth your time. For more on the film’s symbolism, historical context, and challenge to its audience in 1958, read Daniel Gerould's and Paul Coatess essays, which accompany the Criterion release.

Watch the Ashes and Diamonds trailer:

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