To the Marrow: Powidoki by Andrzej Wajda

Autonomy and resistance are characterized by vigour, drive and tension in many of Andrzej Wajda’s films. His actors shout, dance and rush. They have no knowledge of relief, no break from this intensity: dense humidity lies heavily on them. Every movement requires a concentrated will, and once set in motion, a halt makes it harder to get going again, like a red light that obstructs the runner. They are in spasm, pain, despair and ecstasy. Popiół i diament, Człowiek z marmuru and Danton, their leading actors, Zbigniew Cybulski, Krystyna Janda, Wojciech Pszoniak or Jerzy Radziwiłowicz exemplify this clash of energies that takes place in an environment too oppressed to fully explode. 

However, stripped of his Baroque pomp and feisty loudness, Wajda also filmed resistance in a different vein. Plain compositions, calibrated colours and the contrast of the above-described excess mark this form. 

Old, disappointed, displaced and disabled people oppose quietly. Let down by the revolution he had participated in, Władysław Strzemiński (Bogusław Linda plays the inert and sloven painter in his twilight) is portrayed as such a person in Wajda’s final feature film, Powidoki. Recounting the last years of the artist in Stalinist Poland, the film concentrates on the quick takeover of power in the university and cultural life, and Strzemiński’s peculiar relation to it. There’s a dual quality to the consistency of his understated contrarianism. The circumstances get more and more ruthless, and while he appears to have a sharp understanding of totalitarianism and knew in each decisive situation whether to obey or not, he acts as if he hadn’t anticipated what’s coming to him. The images that indicate everyday life outside of the artist’s milieu align with Illyés Gyula’s everlasting description of tyranny. 

“(…) For it is in all you intend,/In Your to-morrow it is at hand,/Before your thoughts it is aware,/In your every movement it is there;//As water cleaves the river-bed/You follow and form it; but instead/Of peering from that circle anew,/Out of the glass it looks at you,// In vain you try to escape its wrath:/Prisoner and jailer, you are both;/It works its own corrosive way/Into the taste of your tobacco,//Into the very clothes you wear –/It penetrates you to the marrow;/You detach your sense from it, only to find/ No other thought will come to your mind. (…)”

//Egy mondat a zsarnokságról/A Sentence on Tyranny, translation by Vernon Watkins//

On the other hand, Strzemiński doesn’t seem to experience this. Despite enjoying theatrical gestures to impress his students, he never acts out or makes a scene until he is pushed to the cliff – there is a strong discontinuity in his conduct. The few scenes in-between conflicts show a man absorbed by creation and the maintenance of his elemental needs. More and more space is taken away from him up until the terminal minutes of neglect and hunger, yet, with the less and less he has at his disposal, he preserves an inner order, as if the reduction of air had no impact on him. Then, he confronts the perpetrators without any sense of danger. He has no interest in revolting or even encouraging his students. If he is forced to adapt, he objects and walks off. When he witnesses the devastation of his paramount achievement, the Sala Neoplastyczna, the room that also displayed the works of Katarzyna Kobro (Strzemiński’s ex-wife), he is surprised and carries on. He is neither apathetic nor motivated. He is principled and rational. Unlike in Wajda’s more lively characters, he is not fearless or led by heroism and valour – Strzemiński simply cannot stand any interference. He is uncompromising about art-making and remains intact, as long as possible. Without the slightest concern of the reaction, he cuts into the red drapery hanging in front his window during a parade but exclusively because it stands in the way of light while he is working. Then his rationality manifests (over heroism) and Strzemiński makes the effort to undertake a job as sign-painter. 

The film eventually infers Illyés’ truth. 

“(…) Because, where tyranny is,/Everything is in vain,/Every creation, even this/Poem I sing turns vain, (…)”

Strzemiński may look irresponsible; indifferent to his daughter and his students and unwilling to use his intellect and strength to inspire or help others. This curious case-by-case mode of hard-headed morality, which refuses to acknowledge the stream of violations, only functions if he is detached. 

Interpretations differ whether the film’s indirect meaning refers more to Wajda’s own trauma from the dictatorship or to the contemporary, right-wing despotism in Poland. Considering the further prevalence of superficial, pseudo-progressive movements since the film’s release, the disappointed and failed avant-garde and revolutionary brings other autocrats to mind. 

Regardless, there is something universal in Wajda’s and Linda’s rendition of Strzemiński: beyond the ostentatious rebels, there are other practitioners of autonomy; moderate and thoughtful. Though Strzemiński didn’t want to teach anything but art, his students could conclude a useful political stance from his example: dare to know, dare to individually assess, dare to trust common sense.