A major figure in the world of post-World War II Eastern European cinema, Polish director Andrzej Wajda has chronicled his country's political and social evolution with sensitivity, fervor, and a refusal to make compromises in dealing with his difficult subjects. Once dubbed a symbol for his besieged country, Wajda has repeatedly drawn from Poland's history to suit his tragic sensibility, crafting an oeuvre of work that devastates even as it informs.
The son of a Polish cavalry officer who was killed early in World War II, Wajda fought in the Resistance movement against the Nazis when he was still a teenager. After the war, he studied to be a painter before entering the Lodz film school. On the heels of his apprenticeship to director Aleksander Ford, Wajda was given the opportunity to direct a film on his own. With A Generation (1955), the first-time director poured out all his bitterness and disillusionment regarding blind patriotism and wartime heroics, using as his alter ego a young, James Dean-style antihero played by Zbigniew Cybulski. The Wajda/Cybulski team went on to make two more films of escalating brilliance, which further developed the antiwar theme of A Generation: Kanal (1956) and Ashes and Diamonds (1958). While perfectly capable of turning out mainstream commercial pictures (often dismissed as "trivial" by his critics), Wajda was more interested in works of allegory and symbolism, with certain symbolic devices (such as setting fire to a glass of liquor, representing the flame of youthful idealism that was extinguished by the war) popping up repeatedly in his films.