A dignified Zucker (Jerzy Nowak) pleads with Karol to confirm he is not having an affair with Lucy.

The tyrannical Bucholz, Karol’s boss, threatens him with his stick.

Lucy and Karol on the train to Berlin.

Our first view of the ‘angelic’ Anka (Anna Nehrebecka) at the family home.

Images from The Wedding:

The wedding party at the farmhouse, peasants and gentry mingling.

Moses with his daughter.

The Priest (Mieczyslaw Czechowicz) tries to intervene between Moses and the drunken Czepiec (Franciszek Pieczka).

The intelligentsia in their corner.

Rachel left alone at the dance.

The Poet (Andrzej Lapicki) dances with Rachel.

Images from Korczak:

Korczak making one of his ‘Old Doctor’ broadcasts

Receptionist does a ‘double take’ when she sees Korczak.

The director (Andrzej Kopiczynski) equivocates.

Korczak washes the children’s clothes.









Coates' claim that the film especially caricatures the Jewish section of the population does not seem at all justified:

  • Karol is as greedy for wealth as the Germans and Jews;
  • Müller a German factory owner shows as much cultural ignorance as Grünspan the Jew who has not heard of Victor Hugo;
  • all the wives and daughters at the theatre display their jewels with equal excess; and
  • Kessler the German could hardly be more markedly corrupt and sensual.

Wajda’s treatment of the Polish, Jewish and German communities in the film is reasonably even-handed. He shows how the communities were to a large degree interdependent, and though tinged with antipathy and casual anti-Semitism, society functioned as well as could be expected in this frenetic atmosphere of “predatory capitalism” (Falkowska 2007:150). I would agree with Bechtel that “one ought to see his Jewish characters within the frame of his conscious aesthetics of caricature and exaggeration” for all the nations and classes (Bechtel 2006:91).

Coates, however, is unforgiving. He maintains that after the extreme persecution of Jews in Poland, greater sensitivity is required: their representation “cannot be entirely innocent now” (Coates 1997:227). This complex criticism cannot easily be dismissed. It seems, in particular, to be directed at Wajda's portrait of Karol's Jewish mistress, Lucy Zucker, which certainly embodies an extravagant portrait of lasciviousness and abandoned sensuality. In an almost unwatchable scene, set in a private railway carriage, Lucy consumes handfuls of greasy food while engaging in fellatio with Karol.[55][open endnotes in new window]

Ostrowska’s analysis (2000) takes this argument further by considering the imbalance between Wajda’s treatment of Polish and Jewish women, which is also found in some of his other films. Here, Karol’s fiancée, Anka, the daughter of impoverished nobility, is the essence of Polish female purity. First seen at her father’s idyllic country house—blonde-haired, demure, dressed generally in pastel colors—she complements the image of a “harmonious, perfect Poland” (123). In a number of sequences Wajda’s contrasting of the angelic Anka with the exotically erotic Lucy can only be deliberate. His personal imprint on the film serves to highlight only the “otherness” of the “alien Jew” in this time of multiple tensions.

Furthermore, in Wajda’s screenplay, the cause of Karol’s moral decline—and by inference the decline of the Polish nobility—is his relationship with Lucy. Her jealous husband burns down the partners’ factory forcing Karol to abandon Anka and marry Mada, Müller’s frightful daughter. In deviating from the novel, where it is Moryc’s schemes that cause Karol’s downfall, Wajda shifts the blame onto an exotic female thus amplifying “the supposedly destructive role of Jews in the history of the Polish nation” (127).

Wajda was not immune to the excessive criticism of the film and released a second, cut-down, version in 2000 which softens the portrait of Lucy in particular.[56] However, he has never acknowledged that some of the cuts may have been in response to accusations of stereotyping and instead has put forward a range of explanations: the need to shorten the film; his desire to restructure it; and his decision to reduce the role of Lucy in respect for the memory of the actress who had recently died. Stevenson is probably correct in concluding that Wajda re-edited the film because “he became aware that something of a tradition of Jewish stereotyping had entered into his imagery” (2003:92n9). In general, I would argue, though Wajda may have been guilty of an unconscious insensitivity towards the Jewish population he was not simply exploiting stereotypes to guarantee popular appeal in Poland as Mazierska claims (see footnote 12). His alterations to the novel not only toned-down its overt anti-Semitism, but created a realistic picture of the period, exposing heightened communal and class tensions, casual racism, and the onrush of modernism.

The period covered by the film ranges from the apogee of Polish-Jewish relations in the middle of the 19th century—the height of the “brotherhood of nations"—through its rapid decline over the next three or four decades. The film could have been expected to encourage a contemporary spectator first, to acknowledge the evidence of growing anti-Semitism and, secondly, to observe some of the fallacious generalizations on which it was grounded. However, the film aroused contrasting reactions—accused in Poland of being anti-Polish and abroad of being anti-Semitic—and became mired in the heated disputes previously described. As such, it failed in its intent to provoke serious debate on the Jewish tragedy in Poland. A plausible explanation for this put forward by Falkowska is that while such debates were common in the West in the 1970s when The Promised Land was released, they only started in Poland in the late 1980s and early 1990s (Falkowska 2007:151). It has taken several decades before the film can be judged on its merits.


Produced a year earlier than The Promised Land, Wajda’s The Wedding (1972) moves us on slightly to the beginning of the 20th century and to the countryside around Krakow which, at that time, was in the Austrian partition. The film was made in response to what Wajda called the “catastrophe” of 1968 that included the venomous anti-Semitic campaign of the Polish nationalists and the disarray following the breakdown of the Gomulka regime (Michnik 2000:151). For this purpose, he adapted an experimental verse play by Stanislaw Wyspianski, using its strong symbolism that reflects on Poland’s past, to comment on the state of the nation in the 1970s.

The play is based on an actual wedding party at which Wyspianski was present. Reduced to its essence, it is a debate about the Polish nation, illustrating the gulf between the peasant masses and the intelligentsia.[57] It recounts a not unusual story of the time when a member of the intelligentsia, in this case a poet, marries a country girl (Peterkiewicz 1998:7-9). The poet’s friends from the city attend a wild, drunken, wedding party in a farmhouse where they mingle with the locals. Over the course of the night the guests are visited by “ghosts”—symbols of Poland’s past, and for a short time it appears as if, through solidarity between the classes, they might be stirred to revolt against foreign domination. But, with the sobering dawn, they sink back into dream-like apathy.

Wajda’s film is a swirling, lively dance in which groups of figures move among three or four rooms of the farmhouse. He follows the pattern of the play with short scenes of brisk dialogue between the characters punctuated by fluid entrances and exits through doorways, all to the rhythm of the country dance music. In this respect, the adaptation is faithful to the original, though there were many contemporary criticisms of inserted scenes and changes to the order of scenes and the text.[58] Revisiting the film in the 1990s, Coates is highly critical, calling it a “grimly vulgar Marxist version of the class struggle” (Coates 1992:131). I would argue that despite the rather impoverished dialogue (and poor sub-titles) of the screenplay this is an important, if enigmatic, film and an interesting continuation of Wajda’s exploration of Polish-Jewish relations.[59] Even Coates acknowledges that the treatment of “the Jewish question” is “haunting” (ibid.).

From the outset Wajda creates an eerie, phantom world that surrounds the warmly lit farmhouse where the party is in full flow.[60] He follows the play’s stage directions that call for the interior walls to be painted a greyish-blue causing the characters at certain times to take on a ghostly pallor. Outside are misty fields and a garden where ranks of “straw-men” appear to stand guard.[61] A sinister twanging theme is repeated throughout the film whenever the camera strays outside the house or when characters look, always apprehensively, out the windows.[62]

Moses (Mieczyslaw Voit) arrives. Greeted by the Groom (Daniel Olbrychski)

Through Wajda’s depiction of the unnamed Jewish innkeeper and his daughter, Rachel, we see the position of Jews in Polish rural society and experience the way they were treated at this time.[63] At his first entrance the innkeeper presents an alien figure. Exotically hatted, he stoops to pass through a doorway and then seems to crouch anxiously to one side, never joining the revellers. In contrast to this dark figure, the Groom, colorfully dressed, strides easily through another doorway which frames a religious icon and a crucifix endowing him with the innate authority of the Catholic church.[64]

The dialogue accompanying this meeting is:

“Groom: Here’s Moses come to join the spree
Jew: I’m rather shy of company—
Groom: But aren’t we friends? Why should you be?
Jew: It’s just that we’re the kind of friends who don’t much care for one another.”

There follows a friendly conversation, much abbreviated in the film, in which the Jew discusses his daughter: a cultured woman, clever and generous to the peasants, who longs to dance and join in the celebrations. Thus Wajda sets up the Jew’s position as an outsider and, despite the Groom’s warm welcome, his uneasy relationship with the intelligentsia.

Rachel (Maja Komorowska) floats across the darkened fields. Rachel arrives outside the farmhouse and looks through the window.

At last, Rachel makes her entrance across the misty fields, exotic in black dress and red shawl, again accompanied by the ethereal music. She claims she was carried there by:

“Rachel: A little cloudlet … a wisp of mist, the breath of eve.”

And here, the Jew’s bitterness comes out for the first time as he gives permission for Rachel to join the party, before exiting the scene:

“Jew: Why shouldn’t Rachel, too, carouse? A Jew, I’m used to being reviled, but her, at least, you must respect. She’s not ashamed to be my child.”

The Jew later on has another important scene with the Priest who is the landlord of his tavern. He explains that he cannot pay the Priest until he, in turn, is paid by Czepiec, the headman of the village. Czepiec, in a drunken rant, blames the Jew for his debt, curses him, and tries to assault him. Wajda cuts from the ensuing brawl to a corner of the house where the intelligentsia shift awkwardly in their chairs, not sure how to deal with this embarrassing situation.

For the villagers at least, the Jew is not only alien but also an object of suspicion—hated as a trader/innkeeper who they believe will cheat them. Like Jankiel in Pan Tadeusz, he is easily accepted by the gentry but here is not a welcome guest among the country folk—never an integral part of the community.

However, in his characterization of Rachel, Wajda reveals a different perspective on Polish-Jewish relations. Like her father, she is liminal in this society, but in a different way. In her conversations with the visiting Poet, she is poetical, mystical, and prophetic: likening the dancing guests to moths who circle a flame that will surely “incinerate their wings.”

In one scene fashioned by Wajda, she stands flattened against a wall trying to join the dance, but as each prospective partner approaches, he turns aside to pick someone else. Finally, the Poet dances with her and as they swirl around the floor, the other dancers stand back and look on silently disapproving. Then Rachel dances alone as the music fades to a stop, and only the Poet applauds. She is also alien and shunned—yet she is nonetheless regarded with awe or superstitious fear rather than hatred.

Rachel appears at intervals through the film, always with the Poet who may be taken as Wyspianski’s alter ego. At first, their relationship is playful, as they flirt with words, but then their exchanges become more caustic as she disdains his poetry and his professions of love. But, finally, she relents, confessing that she has “imbibed” his love. She tells him that if he is to create his great work he must invite the strawman to the party. This initiates the subsequent appearance of various heroes and villains from Poland’s past. Thus, as Wisse notes, by personifying “the magic power of poetry,” Rachel initiates “a confrontation between Poland’s past and present” (Wisse 2003:110). In this she presents a constructive role in the play/film as opposed to the representation of Jewish women as overly sensual and erotic in many other works.

In the urban environment of Lodz in Promised Land Polish-Jewish relations can be seen to have deteriorated markedly by the end of the 19th century. So also in the countryside of The Wedding Jews have become outsiders, either reviled or feared. Wajda’s films ask his audience to reflect on these changes and to consider the loss to Polish culture from the absence of Jews.


When Poland finally regained full statehood two decades later (1921—see footnote 7), friction between the two communities intensified. Even though the official stance towards the Jewish population became more liberal when Jozef Pilsudski came to power, Eva Hoffman theorises that, in the inter-war period, “Jewishness” took on a political and ideological tinge. It became distinct from a Polish identity, such that Jews could be “mentally detached or expelled from the symbolic universe of a self-contained Polish state” (Hoffman 1999:169). This perhaps encouraged the right-wing Endecja movement, especially after the death of Pilsudski in 1935, to push demands on the Jewish population for either total cultural assimilation or emigration.[65] Though economic and political factors—such as the high proportion of Jewish ownership of major industries, their prominence in the professions, and their links with Communism—could easily be exploited, especially during the Depression, the movement essentially was racially motivated.[66] It resulted in sections of Polish society trying to correct what they characterized as an imbalance of wealth and influence, by boycotts and by forcing Jews to accept a quota system in the universities and professions.

Wajda made two films—Samson (1961) and Korczak (1990)—that are primarily about life in Warsaw, especially in the ghetto, during the war. In each film the protagonist is a Jewish Pole and, as we shall see later, there is much critical and academic discussion about Wajda’s representation of these characters—for example, Baron notes “Korczak’s bifurcated Polish-Jewish identity” (Baron 2007:45)—and the competing Jewish and Catholic martyrologies of the films. For now, we will concentrate on the short pre-war sequences in these films which reveal even more clearly Wajda’s understanding of the complexities of the relationships between Poles and Jews at that time.

Novelist Kazimierz Brandys, a law student at the University of Warsaw from 1934 to 1938, reflects this stage of Polish-Jewish history in his novella, Samson (1948).[67] This tells the story of Jakub Gold, a new student at the University, who arrives in the middle of an anti-Jewish demonstration. He is taunted and attacked by the other students. During the ensuing brawl he accidentally kills one of them and is sentenced to prison. At the beginning of the war, the prison is bombed and Jakub escapes along with the other prisoners. The remainder of the story follows his downward trajectory from one form of incarceration to another, each more confining than the last. He retreats into increasing passivity and torpor until, like the Biblical Samson, he at last gathers his strength and attacks his oppressors, killing himself in the process.

Constrained by the “schematic ideological determinism” of the Socialist Realist literature of the time (Rogerson 1987:367), important themes emerge nonetheless. First is the fundamental importance of Jakub’s appearance—it governs the course of his life as he comes to realise that people find his looks “suggestive of the characteristics they hate in Jews” (Adamczyk-Garbowska 2003:182). Secondly, the novel openly records the racism that characterized Polish-Jewish relations in the lead up to the war, and the active participation of some Poles in the persecution of Jews during the war.

Wajda is faithful to these aspects of the novel in his film, Samson. In the opening section, without resorting to stereotypes, he emphasises the importance to Jakub of his appearance.[68] For the first four minutes the camera tracks Jakub from behind as he hesitantly enters the University courtyard on his first day. Ignorant of the nature of a demonstration that is taking place there, he bypasses the crowd and enters a lecture theatre. Here he witnesses three bullies who throw a Jewish student out of the main area reserved for non-Jews. When the bullies confront him, he retreats to the courtyard where he is surrounded by a hate-spewing mob, taunted, punched and finally pinned against a wall by their nationalist banners.

Samson: Nationalist students… …pin Jakub against the wall.

Wajda has withheld this moment dramatically to increase the impact of Jakub’s appearance when, at last, we see his dark, gaunt face. We perceive he is Jewish by the reaction of the others to him and we now know his appearance is crucial to his survival.

In this opening sequence, Wajda illustrates the passive acceptance by some Poles of the racist treatment of the Jews in this period. When Jakub enters the University for the first time, the doorman warns him that the meeting going on is not for his “kind” but does nothing about the fascist demonstration in the courtyard. In the lecture theatre, most of the students watch inertly while the bullies force two Jews into a segregated area. When the professor enters, he does nothing about the obvious segregation in his class. And, in the courtyard again, just one student attempts, ineffectually, to prevent Jakub being attacked. Wajda has been quite clear up to this point about the anti-Semitism prevailing among students of the University. As we shall see later, more complex issues of identity and representation—how people are viewed by others, including the audience—and the Polish-Jewish relationship during the war, emerge in the course of the film.


Janusz Korczak (the pen name of Dr Henryk Goldszmit)—a paediatrician, author of children’s books, broadcaster, and advocate of children’s rights—was a much-loved figure in Poland before the war and remains important to both Polish Catholic and Jewish cultures.[69] From a family of acculturated Jews, he was heavily influenced by his father who long advocated the belief that it was possible to be “both a loyal Jew and a loyal citizen of one’s country” (Lifton 2005:section 3).

In 1910 he met Stefa Wilczynska with whom he established and co-directed a Jewish orphanage in Warsaw.[70] A few years later he also set up a Polish orphanage called “Our Home” which was directed by Maryna (or Maria) Falska. During the 1930s he broadcast a popular radio program under the deliberately secular name “The Old Doctor,” dispensing advice on the upbringing of children irrespective of faith. When Warsaw was occupied by the Germans at the start of the war, Korczak was forced to relocate his Jewish orphanage into the ghetto. After two years of terrible hardship and deprivation, the surviving children, some 200, Korczak and Stefa were transported by rail to Treblinka where they were killed in the gas chambers.

Several attempts were made in Poland after the war to produce a film based on Korczak’s life, but the various treatments were stifled by censorship.[71] The usual grounds for refusal were because of their

“negative representation of wartime Polish behavior, attitudes of Poles toward Jews, and the explicit, accusatory portrayal of the perpetrators—the Germans” (Haltof 2011:190).

Aleksander Ford, head of Poland’s national film institute, strongly supported the project, but when he was purged from the communist party in 1968 because of his Jewish roots, proposals to make the film in Poland were dropped.[72] Wajda had considered making a film about Korczak in the early 1980s and commissioned a script from film-maker Agnieszka Holland in 1983.[73] The events of 1989, among which were the anti-Jewish slurs included in a widely-published homily by Cardinal Glemp, Roman Catholic Primate of Poland, and the resurgence of anti-Semitism in Poland, spurred Wajda to return to this project with some urgency. The collapse of the Soviet Union and the election of Poland’s first post-war democratic government provided the freedom he needed to fulfil his vision in the film Korczak (1990).

Wajda wanted to focus specifically on the martyrdom of Korczak and most of the action of the film takes place within the Warsaw Ghetto in the two years leading up to the final journey to Treblinka. But the opening sequence of scenes set before the war form a prologue which, as Stevenson remarks,

“demonstrates [Wajda’s] developing need to open up the Blonskian stricture to describe how Poles lived with Jews in the past in ways that allowed acquiescence with the Holocaust” (Stevenson 2003:89).

Korczak is introduced in an intimate shot in the broadcasting studio—we can practically read the script over his shoulder—a clear indication that this is his personal story.[74] What follows is a series of scenes that illustrate multiple levels of anti-Semitism—institutional, personal, and banal—prevalent at the time.

In the next scene he enters the anteroom of the director of the government-controlled radio station. He is greeted warmly by the receptionist as the Old Doctor until she realises he is a Jew. This is followed by a confrontation between Korczak and the director. The elegant director, clearly from the Polish nobility, nervously equivocates, telling Korczak his broadcasts are to be cancelled, due to “outside pressures,” reflecting the attempt by Polish intelligentsia to appease right-wing anti-Semitic forces.

The action then moves to a summer camp for both of the orphanages. Again the outside world intrudes into this idyllic setting as the coming fate of the Jews is foreshadowed. A group of older students, intelligent and active, recount everyday incidents of beatings and other violence. They want to reject Korczak’s passive humanism, and take up resistance against those Poles who have attacked them. This is followed by a little cameo of the washerwoman at the camp who refuses to wash a Jewish child’s dirty clothes. Korczak shames her by washing them himself.

Wajda introduces the seemingly simple story of burgeoning love between two of the teenaged orphans: a young blonde Catholic girl Ewka, and the Jewish boy, Jozek. On each of their meetings, there is a brief cut to the dark Jewish girl, Natka, who seems to anticipate Ewka’s forthcoming betrayal of Jozek.

The gathering storm of persecution is symbolically evoked with an actual storm. Korczak protectively gathers the children around him, trying to raise their spirits by telling them how beautiful though frightening it is. He then “magically” disperses the thunder and lightning—illustrating his abiding but mistaken belief that he will be able to overcome the forces ranged against them.

Korczak gathers his children to shelter from the storm. Korczak commands the storm to stop.

It can be argued that these incidents illustrate only minor forms of prejudice which pale into insignificance against the victimization experienced every day by Jews in Poland. But, in the context of the overall film, which shows the gradual isolation of the Jews and their struggle for survival in the Ghetto, they provide a distinctive account of the complexity of the relationships between Poles and Jews in this period. Anti-Semitism among Poles was not universal, nor was it simple.[75] As with Samson, the depiction of the wartime years raises issues of identity—who is a Pole?—and the representation of the Jewish community.


This discussion, using a historical framework, shows Wajda’s long engagement with the issue of Polish-Jewish relations. By focusing on key moments, he traces the arc of this relationship: from the relative accord at the start of the 19th century; through the growth of the notion of a “brotherhood” in the common resistance to external forces and increasing economic interdependence; to mutual suspicion, distrust, and antipathy in the lead-up to the second World War. With cinematic means of performance, casting, shooting, editing and mise-en-scène, these films challenge audiences to recall and try to understand how Poles and Jews lived together in the past.

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