Andrzej Wajda on Zemsta, Roman Polanski and Polish Culture
It was back in 2000 that Andrzej Wajda got a peck on the cheek from Jane Fonda in front of millions of people. One second later, she handed him the Oscar for Lifetime Achievement and suddenly his life changed. Or did it? Certainly the honor was well received, but it didn’t necessarily change Wajda’s own vision as an artist, which was to create fine films with significant messages. And that he’s done. Wajda has been the leading filmmaker in the world for more than 50 years. His early creations— the trilogy of A Generation (1954), Kanal (1957) and Ashes and Diamonds (1958)—pushed the limits of Soviet censorship. But other films were full of pathos and a great many were nominated for Best Foreign Film by the Academy. Land of Promise (1975), The Maids of Wilko (1979) and Man of Iron (1981)—they all turned heads. Now, Zemsta has become a hit in Poland and local company MGE is bringing t to North American audiences. The film also reunites the director with a former struggling actor—Roman Polanski, who starred in Wajda’s A Generation in 1955. In Zemsta, Polanski takes on the role of Papkin in a film that’s full of a comedy of errors.
Greg Archer: Why did you choose to make a film of Zemsta?
Andrzej Wajda: First of all, it’s a masterpiece, it’s the best comedy in our literature. You can’t find a single better written comedy in Polish than Zemsta. Zemsta is still staged regularly in theaters in Poland and it seemed to be a good moment to bring it to the screen. It shows the various character types that we Poles are made up of and people are interested in that side of the play, in the ways are national character expresses itself. Our national character colors all of our actions, in politics, in the decisions we are making as we prepare for entering the European Union, so basically, I thought that it was a good moment to film a great comedy that was also a national character study.
GA: The film reminds me of a comedy of errors in the style of Molière. What difficulties did you encounter in bringing this script to life?
AW: Well one problem above all was that Zemsta is a theatrical, not a filmic masterpiece. Fredro (the playwright), of course, couldn’t have foreseen a movie version, so the greatest difficulty was in introducing action proper to film into the text so that it wouldn’t take place all in the same place, so that it wouldn’t seem like filmed theater happening on one stage, but would show a variety of places. For instance, the two houses across from each other to create a genuine impression of open filmic space.
GA: What was it like working with these great Polish actors?
AW: Oh, I’ve known and worked with all of these actors before in many previous films, with the exception of the young actress who played Klara, Agata Buzek, so we are familiar with each other’s work and I know them well. After all, Roman Polanski’s first role in the cinema was in one of my films over 40 years ago. I chose them (the actors) because I knew this would be a difficult film to make, so I needed people I knew and could depend on.
GA: What directors inspire you?
AW: Well, naturally there are the great directors whom I consider my masters. Bergman, Kurosawa, Fellini—they were the great directors in my formative years and when European cinema was in its heyday. Nowadays I am really interested in Scorsese’s work and follow it closely.
GA: What films have inspired you?
AW: Oh, I think the single film that made the greatest impression on me has to be Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane.
GA: What is it that you love about directing?
AW: I love working with lots of people and having people around me. There are those who like to work alone, who like to, say, paint a picture alone, but I’m not like that. I like it when there are a lot of people around. I like to have them challenge me. I like to be in charge of a big group and I know that I can gain people’s confidence. I’m in my element when I’m in a big group.
GA: What was going through your mind when you were accepting the Academy Award (in 2000)?
AW: I thought, ‘What a big stage!’ I mean the distance you have to cross to get from backstage up to the microphone is unbelievable. That was probably the most difficult thing I’ve done in my life, crossing that distance [jokingly].
GA: Was the Academy Award a big honor for you?
AW: Yes, yes, it was, but let me say again that it wasn’t just me getting that award, but all of Polish cinema had worked hard for one of its directors to be noticed by the American Academy, and I’m just happy that it happens to have been me.
GA: Has being a director changed you?
AW: Yes, of course. You know often I feel closer to the heroes of my films than I do to friends and family, probably because in my life I’ve spent even more time with my film characters bringing them to life than I did with friends and family.
GA: What is it like to work with Roman Polanski?
AW: It was wonderful. Polanski devoted himself fully to this role, so the only thing that I really had to do was to make sure that his acting was sufficiently exhibited on the screen. There was no tension between us on this film, he was an actor and I was the director, despite the fact that he himself is also the director of many wonderful films.
GA: Is it easy to direct another director?
AW: No, in general I don’t think it is, but in this case we worked together very smoothly. Polanski was totally devoted to the role. You know, the role of Papkin is one of the classic roles of Polish theater and has been played by some our greatest actors, so it has a rich tradition of characterization and Roman decided to explore and incorporate some of that tradition and that absorbed him so completely that there was no opportunity at all for directorial competition to even arise between us.
GA: You are the founder of the center for Japanese Culture in Krakow, founded in 1996. Tell me a little bit about your interest in Japanese art.
AW: You know, I think that anyone who has ever seen Japanese art or has been to Japan or known any Japanese people, cannot help but have felt their distinctness. I think Japanese art has many noble and elegant characteristics, characteristics that we Poles have always wished we had. I mean, the sense of honor and the chivalric tradition. These are values dear to us and I think this is what draws me to Japanese art.
GA: Which of your films do you like the best?
AW: Well, I would have to say that Ashes and Diamonds remains close to my heart. That was a film that opened up many opportunities for me and was seen throughout the world. It remains popular today for several reasons, but mainly because of Zbigniew Cybulski and his wonderful interpretation of his character.
GA: Are you working on a new film?
AW: Yes, I am, I am working on a film about Katyn, the site of the greatest crime ever done to Poles in their entire history, but about which no film has yet been made. Besides that, the topic is not only of historical interest to me, but personal as well. My father was one of the cavalry officers murdered at Katyn. So that’s what I’m working on now.
GA: Why is Zemsta a film with universal appeal?
AW: You know, I asked Roman Polanski once what was the secret to a good film and he gave me a great answer. You need two things, he said, well-defined characters and conflict. And I think Zemsta has this. It’s certainly got well-defined characters and the conflict, though humorous and an intellectual spoof, is attractive, so I think that’s why the film is popular.
GA: Who would you be if you weren’t a director?
AW: I think I’d have been a politician. You know, in Poland in the ’40s when I was making
career decisions that path was closed to me, only members of the communist party could go into a career in politics, but I think if I had been living in another country I may have become a politician.
GA: Do you have any comment about the current American political situation?
AW: I support America in every way. I think that terrorism must be dealt with urgently. We can’t live in a world that is ruled by chance, by madmen and religious fanatics, we have to use our common sense and America must follow its common sense and its reason, because the whole world stands or falls with her.
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