From Poland’s Greatest Director, A Poem to a Promised Land: “Pan Tadeusz”

The most brilliant work of sustained idealization in all of Polish romantic poetry, Adam Mickiewicz’s 12-part masterpiece  Pan Tadeusz is every Polish high school student’s nightmare: endlessly taught, forcefully memorized, and rarely understood for what it truly is. Published in exile in 1834, well into Poland’s 123-year period of absence from the map of Europe, the poem was meant to soothe Mickiewicz’s compatriots by means of willful nostalgia (even as it criticized many traits of Polish character).

Andrzej Wajda, Poland’s most eminent filmmaker, seemed compelled (if not destined) to make a movie of Pan Tadeusz for a long time – especially since he was no stranger to adapting works written in verse, as proved by his masterful Stanisław Wyspiański adaptation, The Wedding (1972). The 1999 film is more of a showcase for a terrific cast than anything else. By creating a set of colorful characters both heroic and comical (sometimes simultaneously so), Mickiewicz unwittingly gave Wajda a chance to stage his own vaudeville show, with actor after actor having their five minutes and delivering the fine verse with palpable glee and wit. ( Daniel Olbrychski’s turn, as the Quasimodo-like warden Gerwazy, deserves a special mention as probably the broadest – and richest – performance in the film (the casting of Alicja Bachleda-Curuś as the ethereal Zosia proved prescient at the very least, if one remembers her subsequent appearance in Neil Jordan’s realistic fairy tale Ondine [2009]).

The story of a local feud between two families of landed gentry in Lithuania (tied with Poland since the 1569 union) is played out against the epochal promise of Napoleon’s 1812 war against Russia, which many Poles saw as a chance of resurrecting their partitioned homeland. Just as familial squabbles get settled, Polish troops march off bravely towards Moscow. However, we are spared witnessing Napoleon’s retreat, since Mickiewicz purposefully ends the narrative on a hopeful note (the shattering of that hope was something every contemporary Polish reader had freshly in his or her memory).

Mickiewicz’s poem manages to strike an uncommon balance between grand idealization and scathing critique of Polish landed gentry. On the one hand, the manor and its vicinities are presented as near-mythical land of robust vitality and gorgeous natural beauty. On the other, the endlessly volatile gentry are often presented as an obnoxious bunch of knuckleheads, more eager to fight with one another than to unite in resistance against Moscow. That trait of the poem is happily preserved by Wajda, who relishes in staging the arguments as much as he will four years later, adapting the classic comedy of Polish stubbornness, Zemsta/ Revenge (2002).

If Wajda doesn’t seem particularly keen on deconstructing the Napoleonic myth in Pan Tadeusz, it’s partially because he already did so three decades earlier, in his devastating epic The Ashes (1965), which depicted the Polish faith in Napoleon the Liberator in terms of a near-fatal collective infatuation. The closing shots of The Ashes, with the brutally decimated Polish troops making their way through a frozen wasteland of the Russian plains in a bitter retreat from Moscow (Napoleon’s stony face watching them affectlessly), are the exact opposite of the colorful finale of Pan Tadeusz, with those same troops marching off to Russia with a happy gleam in their eyes. The black-and-white CinemaScope of The Ashes and the oversaturated wide screen of Pan Tadeusz’s finale, could almost be screened at the opposite ends of a shared cyclorama, as a part of a museum installation called “Polish History Experience”.

The final sequence of the redemptive national dance – the polonaise – majestically scored by Wojciech Kilar and shot by Wajda as a collective ritual of total harmony and peace, harkens back to his greatest masterpiece, Ashes and Diamonds (1958). The latter’s finale was a polonaise, too – albeit one danced by an eerie crowd of zombie-like specters. In Pan Tadeusz, the dance is blisfull. In the very last scene, though, all the characters seen in the idyllic Soplicowo turn out to be re-imagined versions of despondent Polish immigrants in Paris – a purely Wajdan stroke which, in retrospect, renders the idealized movie we’ve just seen into a reverie of sorts.

Michał Oleszczyk is a film critic, translator and festival programmer based in Kraków; he runs a blog at

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