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Oscar-winning Polish film director Andrzej Wajda dies at 90

WARSAW — Film director Andrzej Wajda, best known for chronicling Poland’s struggle for democracy during half a century of communist rule, has died at the age of 90.

Wajda won international acclaim for “Man of Iron” (1981), which tells the story of the anti-Communist Solidarity movement, and the film’s subversive predecessor “Man of Marble” (1977).

Fans, film-makers and political leaders rushed online to pay tribute after his death was announced late Sunday.

“We all stem from Wajda. We looked at Poland and at ourselves through him. And we understood better. Now it will be more difficult,” Poland’s former prime minister and the current head of the European Council, Donald Tusk, said on social media.

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Communist authorities censored the “Man of Marble,” angered by its portrayal of political corruption in the early 1950s Stalinist period, shown through the fall from grace of a Stakhanovite bricklayer.

“Man of Iron,” which portrays the 1980 strikes that led to the creation of the Solidarity union and the fall of communism, was awarded the Palme d’Or at the Cannes festival.

It was his most overtly political film, made in a flowering of openness after Solidarity’s initial successes. When martial law was imposed in late 1981 the authorities banned the film and tried to prevent it being nominated for an Oscar.

In 2000, Wajda received an Academy Honorary Award in recognition of five decades of work, the first eastern European director to win the lifetime achievement Oscar.

Wajda’s films also won a Silver Bear at the Berlin International Film Festival and four nominations for Academy Awards, among other prizes.

“He was one of the greatest Polish artists, one of the best-known in the world. Poland was his passion,” film director and head of the Polish Filmmakers’ Association Jacek Bromski told TVN24 broadcaster.

“For us, for the community he was a pillar of strength, everybody gathered around him. He was always present in the life of the film-making community, he was a mentor, a paragon.”

Subtle messages, outwitted censors

Wajda’s last film, “Afterimage,” a biopic about avant-garde painter Wladyslaw Strzeminski, tells a story of an artist struggling to overcome the pressures of Stalinist dogma on art shortly after World War II.

Wajda, who spent decades using subtle cinematic language and hidden meanings to avoid overt clashes with the communist authorities, has drawn parallels between Strzeminski’s efforts and the current conservative government’s policy of promoting “national culture.”

Since winning power, the right-wing Law and Justice (PiS) government has announced plans for a major public relations campaign, including a possible film venture to promote patriotic themes and bolster the country’s image abroad.

“We are facing a moment when the authorities are trying to influence art,” Wajda, who has criticized PiS on several occasions, told the local PAP news agency in September.

“‘National art’ is being discussed, what is art and what isn’t. I made a film about the past which says that influencing art is not the role of a government. Artists should do art, not the authorities.”

“Afterimage” has been submitted as Poland’s candidate for best Foreign Language Oscar.

“He never considered the risks,” said Krystyna Janda, who won Best Actress at the 1990 Cannes Film Festival for her role in “Interrogation,” a 1982 film about false imprisonment in Stalinist Poland.

“He made films which he thought were necessary. The censors harassed him, he was taken off shoots to speak with them. Sometimes he agreed to what they wanted, but later re-inserted scenes he had removed. The film was always what was important,” she told TVN24 broadcaster.

After the fall of communism in 1989, Wajda was ignored by audiences who preferred U.S. blockbusters.

He regained prominence with films such as “Walesa” (2013), another biopic, focusing on the pro-democracy Solidarity icon, as well as Oscar-nominated “Katyn” (2007), a grim tale about 15,000 Polish officers and professionals — including Wajda’s father — who were massacred by Soviet secret police in 1940.

Wajda, who was in hospital for several days before his death, will be buried in the southern Polish city of Krakow where he sometimes lived.


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