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Wajda's "Katyn" to open Gdynia Festival

Andrzej Wajda, 81, the dean of Polish filmmakers and generally recognized as one of the all time great film directors -- period -- will open the 32nd Polish Feature Film Festival in Gdynia on September 17. This long awaited dissertation on the egregious massacre of Polish officers (POW!) in WW II perpetrated by the Russians -- then cynically blamed by them on the Germans
-- has been a pet project brewing in the mind of the Polish screen maestro for a number of years. The new Wajda opus will premiere at the annual Review of Polish Feature Films out of competition. With a budget estimated at around 15 million Zloty this is one of the most expensive productions in Polish film history, which has become more or less par for the course whenever a new Wajda film is involved. Walda has been relatively inactive in the new Millennium up till now, and, considering his age, some thought that the long projected Katyn story would never actually reach the screen. He mentioned it to me, casually, as "something he was working on" during a reception at the Warsaw Jewish Film Festival some three years ago, but since his last big film, "Zemsta" in 2000 had been rather poorly received, both at the box-office and critically, and since he did not look very vigorous at the time, I was harboring both hopes and doubts.

The current film is the first time that this momentously painful event of XXth Century Polish history has come in for the full treatment on screen in Poland. During Communism it was a "no-no" even to mention it, let alone make a film about it, and it was only after Glasnost' and the breakup of the Soviet Empire that the Russians finally came clean regarding their guilt in this matter of unconscionable mass murder -- under Stalin, of course -- although it was an "open secret" everywhere else. Many overseas Polish communities have erected Katyn monuments over the years, one of the largest is in Toronto. Wajda's own father was an officer in the Polish Army during WW II and might well have been a victim of the Katyn obscenity. So, after much speculation, finally, here it is --"Katyn" according to Wajda, Poland's most prominent filmmaker and one who has served as a kind of celluloid conscience of the Polish people for five long decades. As for the expected "production values", the gold-plated credits will probably take ten minutes to roll by, but suffice it to say that the lensing duties were discharged by Poland's number one cameraman, Pawel Edelman, the music is by another Polish national treasure, Krzysztof Penderecki, and the all star cast reads like a who's who of top Polish actors.

Depending on how you count this versatile and prolific director's "complete"
features, exclusive of contributions to international omnibus films (such "Love at Twenty") documentaries of various types, and other works in other countries, "Katyn" can be listed as his 35th major feature film, reckoning from his debut long metrage, "Pokolenie" (Generation) in 1955. In his extremely varied directorial career embracing over half a century Wajda has always been very active in "legit" theater as well as TV, so his actual list
of complete directed works would be at least twice as long. At one point,
harassed by the Polish Communist establishment he left the country altogether, took up residence in France, and came up with one of his many masterpieces, "Danton", starring Gerard Depardieu as the celebrated hero of the French Revolution. He has also made a number of films in Germany, and one about Pope John Paul II, in Italy. He received a special Oscar for his life's work in Hollywood in 2000, and has been decorated with so many other high level awards in Poland and elsewhere, all over the globe, that to list them all would constitute something of a tedium. His most overtly political opus "MAN OF STEEL", shot on the spot at the Gdansk shipyards during the early Solidarity strikes in 1970, took a Golden Palm top prize at Cannes in 1971, and two of his films were awarded in Venice , "Kanal" ('57), and "Ashes and Diamonds" in 1959.

Wajda films were nominated for a best foreign language Oscar on three different occasions: 1974 for Ziemia obiecana (Promised Land), 1979 for Panny z Wilka (The Young Girls of Wilko) in 1982 for "Czlowiek z Zelaza"
("Man of Iron", in which young electrician and Polish president-to-be, Lech Walesa, appeared as himself!), but it was not until the year 2000 that the Hollywood Establishment finally saw fit to recognize him up front with a career Oscar -- the first such award ever accorded to a Central European director. On the occasion American president Bill Clinton called in a personal message of congratulations, attesting to the truly high esteem in which Mr. Wajda is held globally.

Among his other countless awards and honors one may mention the Special Jury Award at the Cannes International Film Festival for "KanaL" in 1957, the Jury and FIPRESCI Award at the International Film Festival in Venice for "Ashes And Diamonds" in 1959, and the Kyoto Prize, Japan's equivalent to the Nobel Prize. With the prize money that he received from this Japanese award he set up the Manggha Centre of Japanese Art in Krakow. When he finally was accorded the long overdue Honorary Academy Award for lifetime achievement in 2000, Steven Speilberg commended him with the following words; "Wajda belongs to Poland, but his films are part of the cultural treasures of mankind".

Small wonder that the international film community is now awaiting the octogenarian Polish director's latest work, "Katyn" with both high curiosity and Great Expectations.

Alex Deleon, Los Angeles
September 3, 2007

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