A Generation: Wajda on War

Andrzej Wajda’s first feature film, A Generation, made in 1954, marks the beginning of the Polish School, the paradigm of Polish cinema that arose from the political and cultural thaw of the mid-1950s. It is also the first chapter in what has come to be known as the director’s “war trilogy,” a series of films—continuing with Kanal and Ashes and Diamonds—tracing the history of Poland during World War Two. These films stand together as sharing not just a historical subject but a historical moment of creation, between 1954 and 1958—a volatile time when the nation was struggling to shed the legacy of Stalinist oppression. They also have in common a visual style and thematic preoccupations unique to this period of Wajda’s work, shot expressionistically in black-and-white and heavy with symbolism rooted in Polish Romanticism.

Wajda would continue to tackle the topic of the Second World War throughout his career, but his interests and approaches changed significantly over the almost half century that spanned A Generation and The Condemnation of Franciszek Klos (2000), his last film on the subject. In his earlier works, he tended to focus on Polish patriotism and heroism, and he was not afraid to display deep empathy for his noble characters. Later, however, his protagonists become more morally ambiguous, and we observe a growing distance between the film author and his characters. Klos, for example, is a Polish policeman who collaborates with the Nazis by betraying Jews and Polish underground fighters simply to earn his living. There is also a political and even geographical shift in the reality represented. Wajda’s early films on the subject of war, most importantly the “trilogy,” concentrated on the most dramatic and crucial events of the years 1939–45—the Ghetto Uprising (A Generation), the Warsaw Uprising (Kanal), the end of the war (Ashes and Diamonds)—taking place principally in Warsaw. By contrast, The Condemnation of Franciszek Klos depicts “ordinary” life in provincial Poland under Nazi rule. The style changes, too, from expressionistic to realistic.


Wajda’s abiding interest in World War Two stems, of course, from the fact that it is by far the most tragic period in twentieth-century Polish history, when the country became the central battleground between the competing interests of its powerful neighbors, Hitler’s Germany and Stalin’s Soviet Union. Following the August 1939 Ribbentrop-Molotov Pact, in which the two powers agreed to divide East-Central Europe between themselves, Poland was partitioned along the lines of the rivers Narev, Vistula, and San. The Poles initially fought these plans, in a short but bloody war against the Nazis in September 1939, but after losing that battle were subject to German occupation, which lasted until the country’s “liberation” in 1945. This was a time of extreme hardship, when Jewish and other Polish properties and enterprises were confiscated and most Polish cultural and educational institutions were abolished or suspended. There was also a shortage of almost all basic goods, and at the same time trade in them was illegal under the sanction of imprisonment, deportation, and even death. Death was also imposed on anyone who harbored Jews or helped them in any other way. And even those who showed no disloyalty to the occupiers were not safe: the Germans organized raids arresting people at random and punishing the inhabitants of whole tenement blocks and villages for the acts of a few. As a result, a large number of Poles ended up in concentration camps or as slave laborers on German farms. Despite the severe sanctions, however, in many parts of the country underground political and cultural life flourished, including armed forces, universities, and publications. A Generation is a testimony to the dual lives that many Poles led: by day working in German-controlled factories or going to official schools, by night organizing acts of sabotage, helping Jews, and learning Polish history.

In parallel to the Nazi attack from the west, Poland suffered Soviet aggression and colonization from the east, starting in the middle of September 1939. A symbol of the ruthlessness of this onslaught was the Russian extermination in 1940 of fifteen thousand Polish officers (four-and-a-half-thousand were later to be found in a mass grave in Katyn, Byelorussia), which virtually wiped out the whole Polish officer class. Among those killed was Jakub Wajda, Andrzej Wajda’s father, a captain in the 72nd Infantry Regiment. (Until the collapse of Communism in Poland and the Soviet Union, the official line held that this hideous act was perpetrated by the Germans.) More than a million other Poles perished in Soviet gulags during this time.

The political situation changed in 1941 when the Soviet Union joined the anti-Nazi coalition. From this moment, Polish and Russian objectives were, at least on the surface, the same: to defeat the German army. Toward this end, a Polish army was formed on Russian territory. However, due to the lack of Soviet material support, the army left Russian territory and fought the Nazis alongside the Western allies in Italy.

Most Poles involved with the resistance movement against the Nazis joined the Home Army (Armia Krajowa), an underground organization that considered the Polish government-in-exile in London (which was a continuation of the Polish prewar government) to be the only legitimate Polish authority. The Home Army wanted any future Poland to be independent from the Soviet Union. At its peak in 1944, it had 380,000 members, many of them women and teenagers. The Home Army played a crucial role in the 1944 Warsaw Uprising, the goal of which was to liberate Warsaw from the weakened Nazi occupiers. But it did not succeed, partly due to the strong resistance of the German army, which consolidated its forces in Warsaw, and partly due to its isolation. The Russian army, approaching Warsaw from the east, decided not to intervene, so as not to help an organization whose ultimate objective was opposed to its own. There was also very little assistance from the Western allies. This geographic and political isolation is depicted in Kanal, whose title works on both a literal and metaphorical level. It refers to the escape route through the city sewers and to the doomed fate of the Polish fighters.

After the war, the members of the Home Army and organizations affiliated with it were considered the main enemy of socialist Poland; many were imprisoned for years and many died in the fight against the new Communist authorities. Their situation after the war is the subject of Ashes and Diamonds, as well as Wajda’s The Ring with a Crowned Eagle (1993), which can be regarded as the last chapter of the Polish School—or at least the strand that Wajda created.

A relatively small proportion of anti-Nazi conspirators (about fifty thousand people) joined left-wing military organizations, such as the People’s Guard, transformed in 1944 into the People’s Army. Despite the fact that a majority of the nation opposed becoming a satellite of the Soviet Union, after the war Stalin imposed a Communist government on Poland, known as the PKWN (Polish Committee of National Liberation). Thus Poland joined the group of European socialist countries and formed close political, military, and economic links with its eastern neighbor. This was as much the result of the Soviet victory over Germany as of Western indifference toward Poland’s future. As early as the 1943 Tehran Conference, the leaders of the United States and Great Britain accepted Stalin’s idea of having political control over postwar Poland, and even moving its borders to the west, which resulted in Poland losing part of its eastern territory, often regarded as the cradle of its culture. The unfortunate political outcome of the war was compounded by the enormous human loss: on the whole, about six million Poles died during the war, including practically the entire Jewish population of about three million.

One of the consequences of Poland’s incorporation into the Soviet bloc was the introduction of political censorship. Although it existed almost until the collapse of Communism in the late 1980s, its effect varied. It was felt most profoundly between the end of the war and the middle of the 1950s, when artists, especially those using state funds, were strongly encouraged to follow the rules of socialist realism—meaning producing works with no political or moral ambiguity that would illuminate Communist achievements, denounce enemies of the state, and educate viewers in the spirit of socialism.

Although socialist realism did not overtly preclude making films about the Second World War, for Polish filmmakers this subject proved very difficult to tackle in a way that would be acceptable to both Polish audiences and the political authorities. The main reason was the disparity between the basic historical truth about the war and socialist propaganda. For example, it was universally known that the fiasco of the Warsaw Uprising was largely due to the lack of Soviet help. Similarly, from the perspective of the vast majority of Poles, the members of the Home Army were heroes who fought to free Poland; yet from the perspective of the Communist authorities, they were guerrillas and saboteurs who tried to prevent proletarian rule in Poland.

Another thorny issue was that of the Polish-Jewish relationship during the war. Different groups had opposing views on whether Poles did as much as they could and should have to help their Jewish neighbors. The members of left-leaning underground organizations, such as the People’s Army, wanted to take all the credit for helping the Jews. Among Jews who survived the Holocaust, on the other hand, the prevalent opinion was that Poles could have done much more to save Jewish lives. There was also controversy about the stance of the Polish Catholic church with regard to the Jewish question. While many individual priests harbored Jews, it could be argued that the Church as a whole was rather indifferent to their extermination.

The middle of the 1950s brought many positive changes to Polish politics and social life. A so-called political thaw followed the deaths of Stalin in 1953 and the leader of the Polish Communist party, Wladyslaw Bierut, in 1956, and the bloody events of June 1956, when scores of pro-democracy demonstrators were killed by government troops during street riots in Poznan. These events paved the way for Wladyslaw Gomulka, who envisaged a more independent, less totalitarian Poland, to become the new party leader in October 1956. Although he was no more than a moderate, his pledge to follow a “Polish road to socialism” was almost universally interpreted as the beginning of a new chapter in Polish history.

For filmmakers, the thaw meant a lessening of film censorship and an acceptance of new subjects—particularly involving the Second World War—and styles. Moreover, the organization of film production was transformed through decentralization and a reduction in bureaucracy, and, as a consequence, film production expanded, allowing new directors, scriptwriters, and actors to join the industry.

The creators of the Polish School—a movement that emerged in the middle of the 1950s—were the main beneficiaries of these changes. These directors, including Wajda, Andrzej Munk, Jerzy Kawalerowicz, and Wojciech Has, were all trained after the war, mostly at the Polish National Film School, in Lodz, which opened in 1948. They rejected the simplistic world vision offered by socialist realism and wanted their films to appeal to the viewer through images, rather than the verbal tirades of elevated individuals. In addition, the leading figures of the movement, particularly Wajda and Munk, wanted their films to be rooted in Polish prewar culture, especially in Polish Romantic literature, the most revered Polish literary tradition.


A Generation is justly regarded as a transitional work between socialist realism and this new Polish School. It can also be seen as a veritable catalog of Wajda’s future thematic interests, narrative solutions, and stylistic idiosyncrasies and thus as a key to understanding his entire oeuvre. The very title of the film deserves special attention, as it perfectly captures the socialist realist requirement of telling the stories of masses of people bound by a common fate and class consciousness—the proletariat—and Wajda’s own ambition, rooted in the ethos of Polish Romanticism, of speaking on behalf of the whole tormented nation.

Set in 1943, the film casts as the main characters two young factory workers, Stach Mazur (Tadeusz Lomnicki) and Jasio Krone (Tadeusz Janczar), who belong to the so-called Generation of Columbuses, a term borrowed from the book by Roman Bratny, Columbuses Born in 1920, published in 1957. Bratny wrote that for these people, the Second World War was a crucial experience and that they lost the most because of it: their youth, innocence, even life itself. A Generation depicts their ideological maturation, understood in terms of joining an anti-Nazi conspiracy and the Communist movement. Stach, who is the main character and the narrator of the film, is an uncomplicated, even naive, young man. He is guided into adulthood by an older foreman, Mr. Sekula, who advises him less on how to be a good craftsman than on how to understand capitalism in Marxist terms, emphasizing exploitation of workers. As a highly political and paternalistic figure, Mr. Sekula is reminiscent of the high-minded and generous party secretaries who helped younger people reach privileged positions on the professional ladder in such typical socialist realist Polish films from the 1950s as Leonard Buczkowski’s Adventure in Marienstadt (1954).

Jasio Krone, on the other hand, has little in common with the heroes of socialist realism. In his long white coat, evoking 1950s Western intellectuals, he comes across as mysterious and complicated. Jasio describes himself as a Communist but does not want to join the organization. He is the first one in the group to shoot and kill a German, but later he shows an existential distaste for killing, saying it “turns my stomach,” and insists on being treated as a civilian. Despite that, he agrees to help the Jews during the Ghetto Uprising. Moreover, his suicide when cornered by the Nazis is at odds with the optimistic world of socialist realism. He is closer to Polish Romanticism and a forerunner of Wajda’s later characters from his Polish School period, especially Maciek Chelmicki in Ashes and Diamonds. Although Stach’s role was greater than that of Jasio, the impression is that the latter character was more significant to the director. This was noted by some critics, including Boleslaw Michalek, who wrote: “It is a fair guess that the inner world to which Wajda personally felt most attuned was that of Jasio Krone—edgy, troubled, bewildered, switching from one extreme to the other.”

Another important character in the film is Dorota, a young female Communist who inspires Stach to join the anti-Nazi organization. A highly energetic, idealistic, and pretty woman—played by Urszula Modrzynska, who was previously cast as a young Communist in Maria Kaniewska’s Not Far from Warsaw (1954)—she can be regarded as a familiar stereotype. Yet, again, her tragic ending separates her from the heroines of socialist realism. Through Dorota, Wajda includes in his film the motif of love, which is desired by the characters but rendered impossible because of the political circumstances and the characters’ sense of duty toward their motherland. This type of woman, who is young but more stoic and mature than men of her age, will become an enduring feature of Wajda’s universe. In particular, Dorota can be seen as a “sister” of Daisy in Kanal and Krystyna in Ashes and Diamonds.

As with the construction of some of the characters, the visual style of A Generation suggests its connection with a different cinematic paradigm than that of socialist realism: expressionism, especially its later embodiment in films such as Carol Reed’s Odd Man Out (1947). A Generation conveys the impression that Warsaw under Nazi occupation was hell, at least for the Polish fighters (an idea developed further in Kanal). A large part of the film’s action takes place at night or in dark, cavernous places. The streets are often enclosed by the ghetto walls or gates, dividing the Polish and Jewish parts of Warsaw; courtyards, sewers—where the fighters hide—and interiors feel extremely claustrophobic. There is so little light in the sheds, cellars, tunnels, bunkers, cafés, and flats where the conspirators meet that their faces are hardly discernible. The motif of coal, stolen at the beginning of the film from the German train, adds to the impression of Warsaw as an inferno. Eventually, at the time of the Ghetto Uprising, part of Warsaw is literally ablaze. Two other important visual elements, probably borrowed from film noir, are the iron bars, through which people gaze, and the circular staircase, suggesting the impossibility of escaping one’s dire fate. Wajda also uses elements of mise-en-scène to add dark humor and irony to his narrative, and as a premonition of things to come—for example, when we see an image of Stach, who has just parted with Dorota, inside a large empty heart with the inscription, “I shall wait for you,” a kitschy item from a peddler-photographer designed for young couples.

In this his debut film, Wajda refers not only to the Polish anti-Nazi conspiracy as a means of liberating Poland but to the more difficult issue of the Polish attitude to the Jewish Holocaust, a theme to which he will return in films such as Samson (1961) and Holy Week (1995). In common with these later renderings, the director admits that some Poles welcomed, even enjoyed Nazi extermination of their Jewish neighbors. In one scene, a man named Ziarno, who works in the same factory as Stach and Jasio, jokes to his unamused co-workers, “The Yids have actually started fighting!” We also see a fairground erected next to the ghetto wall—which is also the motif of a famous poem by Czeslaw Milosz, “Campo di Fiori,” in which the poet compares the burning of Giordano Bruno on Rome’s Campo di Fiori with the burning of Jews during the uprising in 1943. Milosz makes the point that the impact of these two horrendous acts on their witnesses was small—life went on as before.

We can assume that the Germans built the fairground to draw Polish attention away from the burning ghetto and to make  Poles associate the suffering of Jews with fun. At the same time, the image of the fairground suggests that some Poles were hostile to the Jews and welcomed their cleansing. However, images, actions, and conversation conveying Polish anti-Semitism are more than balanced by scenes representing Polish help for Jews and Polish martyrdom. In particular, two of three main characters, Jasio and Dorota, pay with their lives for their efforts to rescue Jews.

Music in A Generation both illustrates and provides a counterpoint to the action, and is as variable as Stach’s moods, ranging from optimistic to ominous, from symphonic orchestra to single piano. One critic described it as an “echo of the human heart,” strengthening the subjectivity of Wajda’s film. The composer, Andrzej Markowski, also uses popular songs from the war period and national uprisings, and even a German love song in an episode when Stach and Dorota are close to confessing their love for each other. In due course, Wajda (who always modestly claimed that he did not know much about film music and blindly trusted his composers) became renowned for his innovative approach to music scores.

A Generation was not only a film about a generation of young people, it was also made by young people. Wajda was twenty-seven at the time of shooting, and almost all of his main collaborators, including the actors Lomnicki, Modrzynska, Janczar, and Roman Polanski, as well as composer Markowski, were under thirty. For most of them, A Generation was their first major film. Given this, and the censorship of the times, it’s an astonishingly mature and self-assured work. In his next two films, Wajda would develop many of the thematic and visual motifs he introduced in A Generation, taking full advantage of the growing freedom Polish artists were beginning to experience to tell even darker, more pessimistic tales of the war—as if assuming the role of advocate for all those to whom these events brought only misery and defeat. 

Ewa Mazierska is a reader in contemporary cinema in the Department of Humanities at the University of Central Lancashire. Her publications include numerous articles in Polish and English about contemporary Polish and world cinema and several books, including Trapped in the Present and Other Postmodern States: The Cinema of Wong Kar-wai and From Moscow to Madrid: Postmodern Cities, European Cinema (co-author Laura Rascaroli).

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