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Oscar Preview

Andrzej Wajda's Peers Direct Praise to Poland's Preeminent Filmmaker

Movies * At 74, the director is still at his peak and is being honored with an Oscar for a body of work that fills a lifetime.


At the Academy Awards on Sunday, Poland's Andrzej Wajda will join such luminaries as Michelangelo Antononioni, Fred Astaire, Charles Chaplin, Greta Garbo, Kirk Douglas, Buster Keaton, Akira Kurosawa and Orson Welles when he receives an honorary Oscar. Wajda has long been regarded not only as Poland's premier director but as one of the world's great filmmakers.

Now 74 and still at the peak of his creative powers, Wajda has born witness to the tumultuous events of his lifetime and of his country's turbulent past in an ongoing series of films. He's acclaimed for his superb skill at storytelling and for making films that are at once intimate and epic, simultaneously committed yet equally entertaining. The consistent high level of Wajda's accomplishments is as astonishing as its range.

Always one to look ahead, not backward, Wajda is reluctant to sum up his career and his accomplishments. "A real director is worth only as much as his latest film, and every latest film may be his last," he said in an interview this week, only to admit the next moment: "I'm so happy with my life and with all the opportunities given me. If you were to ask me what I am most proud of, I would say it is because I am here to receive this honor.

"I live in a distant land and create in an unknown language, and here I am, talking to you, getting recognition and getting an Oscar. There is no greater satisfaction than being honored by so many famous American filmmakers. Perhaps there is a universal language in film after all."

Wajda joined the Resistance in World War II at the age of 16, after his father, a cavalry officer, was killed. He studied art in the postwar years but enrolled in Lodz's famous film school in 1950. He came into international prominence with his World War II trilogy, "A Generation" (1954), "Kanal" (1957) and, most notably, "Ashes and Diamonds" (1958), all of which explored the plight of the individual in the midst of chaos and questioned conventional notions of heroism.

"Land of Promise" (1975), a saga of three young industrialists--a Pole, a German and a Jew--who build a textile factory at the turn of the century, brought Wajda the first of three best foreign film nominations. Arguably his finest achievement is "Man of Marble" (1972), a portrait of Poland's Stalinist era that was so controversial it took a decade to get made and four years to win release. Its 1977 sequel, "Man of Iron," recorded the flowering of the Solidarity movement as it was happening and drew another Oscar nomination.

In temporary exile in France, Wajda made the stirring "Danton" (1982), and then back in Poland in 1990 directed the wonderful "Korczak," the true story of a renowned pediatrician and educator who became a popular early radio star with a program on child rearing. He was a Jew who, because of his celebrity, could have fled to safety but chose to stay in the Warsaw ghetto to prepare its children for death.

Now after a decade that has seen him serving in Poland's Senate and observing a film industry in the throes of transition from communism to capitalism, Wajda, who has also directed much theater, has returned to the screen in triumph with "Pan Tadeusz," a glorious mock epic, based on Adam Mickiewicz's 1834 poem, known to every Polish school child. Set on the eve of Napoleon's march on Russia in 1812, it centers on an ancient rivalry between two noblemen who subsequently join forces in the face of the common Russian oppressor.

"Pan Tadeusz," which provides juicy roles for a bevy of Poland's greatest stars, was shown out of competition this year at Berlin, where Wajda served on the jury; it just opened in Paris on Saturday. Wajda's honorary Oscar could not come at a more propitious time.

"Six million people have seen 'Pan Tadeusz' in Poland," said Wajda in amazed delight Thursday through his interpreter, Roman Czarny, of Poland's consulate general. Wajda, a trim, vigorous silver-haired man of much graciousness and a little English, was sitting in a Santa Monica restaurant atop a Santa Monica hotel, taking in the view and enjoying his trip to California.

"This is phenomenal," he said of "Pan Tadeusz's" success. "Not only did it draw the young people but also families and older people who usually sit at home and watch TV. Since Poland became an independent sovereign state in 1989 it has been a difficult time for our filmmakers. Our movie theaters, which had been run by local municipalities, simply started shutting down, for attendance was at its lowest ebb. Once there were 3,500 movie theaters, and that number slipped to 700--in a country of 40 million people.

"And then American films started coming, attracting a new kind of audience, and there was no space for Polish films. Basically, the Polish film industry retreated to TV, which does not have the same impact, of course. Than some young Polish directors started to try to copy American films but came up with nothing that was novel, fresh or different.

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