Andrzej Wajda rose to prominence as one of Poland's most gifted cinematic talents on the strength of his 1955 feature-length debut, "Pokolenie," the first film in a trilogy of World War II-set dramas that explored the plight of the individual in the midst of chaos and questioned conventional notions of heroism.
In a retrospective titled "Last of the Titans: Classics From the Legendary Polish Filmmaker Andrzej Wajda," the American Cinematheque will showcase his second and third features, the harrowing "Kanal" (1957) and "Ashes and Diamonds" (1957), plus "The Promised Land" (1975) and "Man of Marble" (1977) -- Saturday and Sunday at the Aero in Santa Monica.
"The Promised Land" and "Man of Marble" are landmark achievements. Wajda is a born storyteller who can express himself through a camera with the same control and directness as a great writer can with a pen.
In "The Promised Land," set in the late 19th century, the lean, intense Daniel Olbrychski plays the ruthless son of faded gentry who joins with two friends, one a Jew (Wojciech Pszoniak), the other a German (Andrzej Seweryn), to make a fortune in the burgeoning wool and cotton mills of Lodz, at the time under czarist rule.
Olbrychski is never really sympathetic, yet his personal magnetism, combined with his wit and intelligence, makes him an engaging antihero.
Although rarely screened, "The Promised Land" is one of the most exhilarating three-hour sagas ever filmed. Wajda buoyantly sustains a brace of subplots, all the while satirizing the inhumanity of the rapacious Lodz captains of industry (who could as easily be from any other 19th century manufacturing capital in Europe or America).
That some of them are Jewish brought charges of anti-Semitism from members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences -- which presented Wajda with an honorary Oscar in 2000 -- but it's actually the Poles and the Germans who are portrayed as villains of the darkest order.
The bravura, bristling "Man of Marble" is arguably Wajda's greatest film and has often been compared favorably to "Citizen Kane" in its compelling and complex investigative style of storytelling.
An impassioned and implacable student filmmaker (Krystyna Janda) researches the life of a forgotten and discredited bricklayer (Jerzy Radziwilowicz) once named a hero of the state in the 1950s; her quest becomes a coruscating comment on Stalinist Poland.
'Last of the Titans'
Where: Aero Theatre, 1328 Montana Ave., Santa Monica.
When: 7:30 p.m. Saturday ("Ashes and Diamonds" and "Man of Marble") and Sunday ("The Promised Land" and "Kanal")
Contact: (323) 466-3456 or americancinematheque.com