Tag Archives: Poland

Wajda and the Polish Resistance: Depictions and Message

1 Dec


After a break of several months, Kinokinomozi returns with an essay critically analysing Andrzej Wajda’s War Trilogy and comparing it to his 2007 feature Katyń . This piece, originally written in April 2011, will investigate whether or not the director’s message and view of the Polish Resistance has changed over time.

Wajda and the Polish Resistance: Depictions and Message


In the realm of Polish cinema and culture, it would be difficult not to mention the name of Andrzej Wajda. Operating throughout both the communist regime and transitions to democracy in a career spanning almost sixty years, Wajda has achieved international recognition and acclaim; despite much of his filmmaking exploring subjects which are quintessentially Polish in nature. An example of this can be seen in his “War Trilogy”: three films from the nineteen-fifties that focus on underground resistance to fighting Nazism during the occupation of Poland and its immediate aftermath. More recently, this has been revisited in the 2007 feature Katyń: a controversial film capturing events around the tragedy of the same name where several thousand Polish Army officers were executed in secret by Soviet forces.


It is this particular theme that this essay bases itself in. This investigation will analyse depictions of wartime resistance groups in Poland as shown in A Generation (Pokolenie, 1955), Sewer (Kanał, 1956) and Katyń in order to attain what Wajda’s general message and attitude to the resistance is, and whether this has changed by the time of revisiting the subject in the post-communist environment. In addition, style and narrative will be scrutinised to see how this supports the content of the films themselves. Through this examination, it will be argued that although depictions are patriotic and romanticised, they also set out to demythologise events and enforce a sense of realism in what had happened. This will be contrasted with Katyń which gives a more rationalised picture, yet this occurs due to the underground being a secondary theme; thus deflecting from the patriotism and romance of the primary characters.


Wajda’s debut feature, Pokolenie, is a story which bases itself in the political awakening of young people under Nazi occupation. The main protagonist Stach is a young worker who gains employment at a German-run carpentry business, and ends up becoming an organiser and fighter for the left-wing underground resistance. Jasio, the son of a carpenter, is also involved and becomes an important secondary character; as is Dorota, the group’s leader whom Stach falls in love with. Alongside street battles with German forces, for instance in scenes where they are assisting the Ghetto Uprising, there are also strong psychological aspects and narratives which are interwoven: the division of allegiances between rival underground groups in the workshop is one such example of this. By its conclusion, Wajda has painted a detailed yet bleak picture of war, which highlights the psychological and emotional cost alongside the loss of life.


It has been said that Pokolenie acted as a “transitional work between socialist realism and this new Polish School” (Mazierska 2005; http://www.criterion.com/current/posts/1053-a-generation-wajda-on-war, accessed 31/3/2011), and it is important to recognise this point in determining why portrayals are so effective here. The political thaw which occurred in 1956 under the leadership of Władysław Gomułka resulted in a liberalisation of the arts, and indeed a break from Stalinism in general. This allowed for Polish filmmakers to “build their films around their own experiences” and to initiate a “serious artistic and intellectual dialogue with their viewers, and who reflected the spirit of the times in their works” (Haltof 2002:76). Such openness gave space to a distinctive cinematic culture, which although diverse in terms of remit (films ranging from historical epic to black comedy), borrowed from realist movements in other European cinema to develop a style which reflected the tensions of postwar Poland. The early beginnings of this can indeed be seen in Pokolenie. On the surface, it stays in line with the general narrative of socialist realist cinema, in the sense that at the forefront is a “positive hero: high-minded, uncompromising, dogged, with all the mandatory virtues and not a trace of doubts” (Michałek 1973:19). In many respects, Stach fulfils the requirement of a class-conscious worker who overcomes the obstacles put in front of him. Yet underneath, the tragedies witnessed on screen break from this mantra.


If Stach is the worker-hero in the film, then Jasio is the embodiment of the shift away from conventional cinema at the time. He is troubled and complicated, hesitant to join the resistance, and possesses “an existential distaste for killing” (Mazierska 2005) that puts him at odds with such a hero figure. Just as “the white trench-coat of the fleeing Jasio isolates him from the grey surroundings” in the encounter with the soldiers, where even “the frame itself seems to be marking him down as doomed” (Michałek 1973:21), he commits suicide when he realises that he is helpless to escape them. This in itself embodies Wajda’s message here: that while there was a large degree of bravery involved in the actions, these were still regular people, wrought with internal conflicts and often meeting their end in a manner which was far removed from the glorious deaths expected of such a soldier. Noticeable was the move to include references to Home Army (Armija Krajowa, the right-wing and dominant resistance movement loyal to the government-in-exile) collaboration with Germans. Although this in itself is a tenet of the political line from the communist authorities, it can be argued that its inclusion is one which intends to undermine notions of uncritical support to resistance. More interesting is the inclusion of multiple references highlighting casual anti-semitism which also existed amongst Poles. The fairground behind the burning ghetto plays on these ideas, as does the joke on the workshop floor that “the Jews have actually started to fight!”.  These inclusions enforce a sense of historical realism into the film, highlighting Wajda’s disinterest with one-sided depictions of events and revisionism. In addition, like many Polish School films to come it reflected upon the auteur’s own life as well, commenting that his film “shows craftsmen’s workshops like those with which I had become so familiar during the German occupation, and council houses and poor suburban streets like those where I spent my days in the wartime” (Wajda, http://www.wajda.pl/en/filmy/film01.html, accessed 31/3/2011).


The second instalment of the trilogy, Kanał, would further develop such sentiments. Released in 1956, it documents the final days of a Home Army platoon during the Warsaw Uprising of 1944. Forced into retreat after battle, the group takes to the sewers in an attempt to escape capture. Unlike his previous film, Wajda makes the situation overt from the very beginning; narrating on top of the “long opening shot, tracking over ruined Mokotow and introducing the doom-ridden squadron” (Bren 1990:35) that the soldiers will die, and that these are the final hours of their lives. There are also numerous protagonists making up the unit, all under assumed names, led by Zadra the commander. The number of different characters on screen reflects the sub-plots and interactions that permeate – the love interests between Korab and Stokrotka, Madry and Halinka; and the composer who desperately tries to contact his family stand out here. Ultimately, tragedy becomes the overarching theme, for the deaths of the soldiers and loves which are unfulfilled.


Kanał’s depiction of its characters, each with their unique background and traits, acts as part of the director’s deliberate plan to “show the antifascist resistance as it actually was” (Liehm and Liehm 1977:179). This includes showing the diversity of the fighters, coming from all walks of life; as well as portraying the futility and demise of those fighting. The heroism on display to an extent mirrors that of Pokolenie in that the courage of the group is never doubted, but is at times interspersed with fear and a sense of hopelessness. Outwith the characterisation these fears are communicated via the visualisation of the sewers, with the stifling claustrophobia made all the more real by the usage of close camera shots and dim lighting. In this way Wajda very effectively “straddles a gulf between the realism of actual events and characters who are reasonably faithful portraits of the mentality and attitudes of the time, and an almost abstract vision of a sealed world whose inhabitants are doomed to extinction” (Michałek 1973:29). The chilling picture is enforced by the mental trauma of the subjects throughout their time in the sewers, best portrayed by Jacek, who stumbles feverishly and confused through the winding tunnels.


This is not to say, however, that there has been a complete departure from the romantic, patriotic style as witnessed in Pokolenie. Rather, there is a dualism here. The suffering that the platoon goes through, and the painful choices made in order to survive, couples with the cinematography to generate an atmosphere which carried the real events of the uprising to screen. Yet by considering “the mise-en-scène, in the way of presenting the fate of participants, in the romantic tone of narration, in the heroic nature of their commitments and gestures, Wajda implies admiration and approval of this historic event, and that set the tone for Canal (sic)” (Michałek and Turaj 1988:133).  Higham has argued that “the film is flawed by an over-literary style” (1965:411) which can be seen to enforce this further (the quoting of Dante by the Composer draws comparisons to the Inferno for instance, invoking a clear symbolic effect). Despite admiring the courage of the soldiers, Kanał “is not a paean to the Home Army heroes, but rather a film demythologizing (sic) Polish-style heroism” (Haltof 2002:85). It communicates, much like Jasio’s suicide on the stairwell, that death is not the illustrious and glorified sacrifice it is often considered as. In a climate where such a film would have to contest with “popular memory of events and an extreme selectiveness in the presentation of the political facts” (Coates 2005:120), Wajda achieves a feature that not only passes comment on the role and nature of resistance, but bases itself in realistic notions and environments which became symbolic with films of the Polish School.

Moving forward fifty-one years to the release of Katyń, the viewer sees a film which is contrasted to that of the “War Trilogy” in several ways. A colour film, in which underground resistance is very much part of the background rather than leading plot, Katyń explores what its title suggests: basing itself around the lives of families living in wartime Poland, and their relatives who are captured Polish Army officers, in the years surrounding the massacre. Many elements of the film are based around the director’s own war experiences – a resistance fighter applying for art school, a relative who was murdered – which adds a certain amount of autobiographical weight here. It can be argued that to an extent Katyń is a classic Wajda movie, in the sense that it is directed towards a Polish audience and that “Wajda has always been able to rely on them to interpret his work correctly, even when censorship forced him to make his points indirectly” (Applebaum 2008, http://www.nybooks.com/articles/archives/2008/feb/14/a-movie-that-matters/, accessed 1/4/2011).


With this in mind, Wajda is overt in his condemnation of Soviet forces in Poland, and the point-blank and grotesque execution scenes would never have had any chance of making it on-screen in the years of Kanał or Pokolenie, but not everything about Katyń is on-the-surface. Indeed, there is a large element of symbolism involved, which appears to take the place of filming technique in creating the atmospheric conditions which Wajda is famed for as an auteur. One of the most striking examples occurs near the beginning of the film, where the viewer has time to “register a bizarre and painful touch: a statue of the crucified Christ has evidently been knocked down – only a nailed hand is visible on the cross” (Bradshaw 2009, http://www.guardian.co.uk/film/2009/jun/19/katyn-andrzej-wajda-film-review, accessed 1/4/2011). The similarities with Wajda’s Popiół i diament is striking here – the symbol of the arm acting in the same way as the upside-down cross did to enforce a sense of Godlessness and loss of hope at this time. Viewers will also understand the heavy symbolism involved in Soviet soldiers tearing up the Polish flag, in order to use the red half for communist banners to hang from public spaces. Under this backdrop the instances, brief as they are, of resistance fighters carry a great deal of weight, as it enforces the feel of clandestine activity operating in a heavily oppressed society.


The most interesting character in this respect is Tadeusz, a young man who spent much of the war fighting as a partisan in the forest against Soviet forces. Attempting to integrate back into society by applying for an artist course, he refuses to amend his C.V. in which he states that his father, a Polish officer, was murdered by the NKVD. Leaving the faculty building, he tears down a pro-Soviet poster: a fairly innocent act but within this context an act of subversion. Following a hasty escape from soldiers looking to arrest him, he tries to pull out his gun, only to be killed by an army jeep on the road. Echoing the protagonist Maciek in Popiół i diament, “he dies a pointless, postwar death, fighting for a failed cause” (Applebaum 2008). Rather than use this as a critique of the pointlessness of war, Wajda states that Tadeusz’s role was to “show the defiant, indomitable spirit of that generation” and “as a reminder” of those who believed that the West would free Poland from the Soviets after 1945 (in Hodge 2009, http://www.krakowpost.com/article/1388, accessed 1/4/2011). Very similar is the delivery of the secondary character Agnieszka, a partisan involved in the Warsaw uprising. Most of her story is only catalogued through references in dialogue, again suggesting the covertness of such operations. The director again shows the uncompromising nature of the fighters, in the lines “even the rising taught you nothing. You won’t change this world”: highlighting how out-of-place and disenfranchised these people now feel.


Although Katyń puts the Polish Army in the central role, the general atmosphere carries over to the discussion of underground resistance effectively. It is a necessary inclusion if the director wishes to create an image of Poland which encompasses all political lines and sections of society. The romanticised style of Wajda does not touch the fighters, rather it is saved for the main characters and their families, instead giving way to a degree of rationalism. There is no support or denial of their actions, nor that much sympathy for the cause, but rather a feeling of tragedy; in that those fighting for a free Poland can no longer assimilate back into society without compromising the ideals that brought them to fight in the first place. This is a contrast from the sympathies exerted in both Pokolenie and Kanał, which carried sympathetic tones and paid a tribute to the heroism of the soldiers. At that time, they also served as a demythologising of commonly-held ideals and uncritical support directed towards the resistance. In the political and social context of Katyń, such a point was never needed to be made. While it may be argued that mythologies are communicated in the film, they are taken up through the soldiers of the Polish Army and are never mixed up with the underground.


In conclusion, in the years spanning Pokolenie to Katyń, Wajda has undergone a transformation as a director; from beginning with a feature breaking with many conventions of socialist realism, to one which was fully produced in post-communist society. The message of underground resistance carried in these films has been influenced by the styles exhibited, but have all moved away from glorification to suggest more of a realistic depiction. While the director clearly shows a romanticised style, this has also gone hand-in-hand with techniques akin to neo-realism in other European cinema, with a quintessentially Polish twist and take; allowing for an acknowledgement of bravery and human sacrifice without resulting in an imbalance or political favouritism. Therefore in his featuring of underground resistance movements, Andrzej Wajda is one of the directors that has been at the forefront of making bold depictions, which although slightly unpopular and away from common memory at times, have been able to provoke an interesting discussion in a Polish cinematic context.





Books (Authored)


  • Bren, F. (1990) World Cinema 1: Poland, Trowbridge: Flicks
  • Coates, P. (2005) The Red & The White: The Cinema of People’s Poland, London; New York: Wallflower Press
  • Haltof, M. (2002) Polish National Cinema,  New York; Oxford: Berghahn
  • Liehm, M. and Liehm, A. (1977) The Most Important Art: Eastern European Film after 1945, Los Angeles; London: University of California Press
  • Michałek, B. (1973) The Cinema of Andrzej Wajda, London: The Tantivy Press
  • Michałek, B. and Turaj, F. (1988) The Modern Cinema of Poland, Bloomington; Indianapolis: Indiana University Press


Journal Articles


  • Higham, C. (1965) “Grasping the Nettle: The Films of Andrzej Wajda”, The Hudson Review 18:3 pp.408-414


Online Articles