Cinematic Echoes of Covenants Past and Present

National Identity in the Historical Films of Steven Spielberg and Andrzej Wajda

by Christopher Garbowski (Author)
©2018 Monographs 278 Pages


The author analyzes appropriately selected historical films of Steven Spielberg and Andrzej Wajda with respect to historical memory in relation to film. Cultural and moral foundations of national identity are also taken into account. Spielberg films particularly valuable for this comparative analysis are: «Schindler’s List», «Amistad», «Saving Private Ryan» and «Lincoln»; crucial Wajda films include: «Korczak», «Holy Week», «Katyń and Wałęsa». These works are analyzed in relation to the problem of representing the Holocaust, self-scrutiny in historical memory, commemoration of sacrifices for the national community during war, and foundation myths evoked through national heroes. The larger thematic framework for the above concerns is the underlying sense of covenant present within the two national communities that Spielberg and Wajda draw upon, a sense that explores the possibility of moral renewal under contemporary circumstances.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • Acknowledgements
  • Introduction: National Storytellers
  • Chapter 1: Sacred and Moral Sources of National Identity and Historical Memory
  • Nation and Covenant
  • Mythical and Historical Memory
  • Historical Memory and Film
  • Chapter 2: Spielberg and Wajda in Their National Cinemas
  • Spielberg and American National Cinema
  • Wajda and Polish National Cinema
  • Spielberg and Wajda and their National Audiences
  • Chapter 3: Korczak and Schindler’s List: The Holocaust and the Extension of National Covenant
  • The Legacy of the Holocaust in the United States and Poland
  • Wajda’s Korczak
  • Spielberg’s Schindler’s List
  • Biography, History and Covenant in Korczak and Schindler’s List
  • Chapter 4: Holy Week and Amistad: Historical Self-Scrutiny and Moral Memory
  • Wajda’s Holy Week
  • Spielberg’s Amistad
  • History, Self-Scrutiny, and Their Discontents
  • Chapter 5: The Glorious Dead and Commemoration in Saving Private Ryan and Katyń
  • Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan
  • Wajda’s Katyń
  • Commemorating Heroes and Victims
  • Chapter 6: Foundation Myths in a Post-heroic Age: Lincoln and Wałęsa: Man of Hope
  • Spielberg’s Lincoln
  • Wajda’s Wałęsa: Man of Hope
  • Foundation Myths Revived and Rescued
  • Conclusion
  • Filmography
  • Select Steven Spielberg Films
  • Select Andrzej Wajda Films
  • Bibliography
  • Index


This book was inspired by my years of teaching American film to Polish students and teaching Polish film to foreign students visiting Poland during the summer. My teaching was accompanied by research and publications on both national cinemas. At one point I came up with the idea of combining my teaching and research interests in a comparative study. While rather unusual in film studies, such comparative studies in literature are not uncommon, so I did not see why this could not be done in film. My admiration of both Spielberg and Wajda as well as historical films decided the choice of filmmakers and subject matter for me.

A book like this is never fully a solitary endeavor. I wish to thank Elżbieta Hałas at the Department of Sociology at Warsaw University for arranging a meeting where I could present some of my theoretical ideas on which the study is based. Some of the criticisms were indeed helpful. Most of all I wish to thank Brian Rosebury for reading several chapters of the manuscript and for the incisive comments that he made. I am also very grateful to the reviewer of the book, Marek Haltof, for all his comments. Moreover, I am grateful to my wife Monika for reading the manuscript and helping me improve the clarity of my writing, while her expertise in pertinent areas helped me avoid a number of errors. Needless to say, all errors in the book are my own responsibility.

Some parts of the book were previously published. Most notably, much of chapter 5 is based on an edited version of the article published as: “The Glorious Dead and Sacred Communities in Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan and Wajda’s Katyń,” Religion and the Arts 18, 3 (2014): 373-98. Somewhat less than a fifth of chapter 6 was published earlier in the article: “High Noon at the Solidarity Corral: Wajda’s Wałęsa and the Classic Western,” Studia Filmoznawcze no. 38 (2017): 91-104.

Last but not least, I wish to thank Marek Brodzki for permission to use his photograph of Andrzej Wajda and Steven Spielberg taken at the European premiere of Schindler’s List in Kraków in 1994, as well as the Andrzej Wajda Archive at the Manggha Museum of Japanese Art and Technology in Kraków for providing me with the copy of the photograph and their permission for its use. ← 7 | 8 ← 8 | 9 →

Introduction: National Storytellers

One of Steven Spielberg’s most acclaimed films is Schindler’s List of 1993, for which he won his first coveted academy award. In an American Film Institute poll of 1998 for the top one hundred films of all time, the Holocaust film was the only movie from the last two decades of the twentieth century to make the top ten of the list. During the opening night of the film’s European release on 2 March 1994 in Kraków, where much of the filming had been done, Spielberg personally thanked Andrzej Wajda for having advised him during the pre-production period that he should use black-and-white for the movie. The Polish filmmaker had argued for this aesthetic choice on the following grounds: “If you have decided to make a film on the tragedy of the Jews in Europe, the film must differ from all those you have made up until this time.”1 Elsewhere Spielberg claimed that he already came up with the idea of filming Schindler in black-and-white when he had first read Thomas Keneally’s historical novel,2 so it is unclear whether Wajda had reminded him of a forgotten intention, or he was simply being polite to the Polish director. At any rate he did thank him publicly. Spielberg showed his gratitude further by supporting Wajda for a lifetime achievement award from the American Academy of Motion Picture Arts, which the latter received in the year 2000. “Emblematic of Wajda’s later career,” Spielberg declared, “is Korczak (1990), one of the most important European pictures about the Holocaust.”3 Significantly, Wajda’s film had also been in black-and-white.

In the annals of film history such creative exchanges are hardly unusual. The two filmmakers’ paths briefly crossed and they went their separate artistic ways. But the fact that their exchange dealt with the problem of the filmic presentation of the Holocaust does give it a weight that cannot be overlooked. And they continued, in some respects, on similar paths. Both created a series of historical films: the continuation of a longstanding artistic passion in the case of Wajda; an increasingly important one in the case of Spielberg’s use of a variety of film genres. An even more striking similarity is that so many of their films constitute an ← 9 | 10 exploration of the question of what it means to be an American, to be a Pole – to be a member of a specific national community – in today’s world.

This raises the no longer simple question of what presently constitutes a national community. For instance, what distinguishes one national community from another? What is the ethos of a given community? What if anything does that community share with its past incarnation and how is that past relevant for the present? These questions are related to the larger one of how specific national communities nurture a sense of identity within their members. National communities are in part Janus-like entities which are both inward and outward looking. Despite their boundaries nations are not islands. Depending on the particular challenges they face the stress might be considerably more inward at a particular juncture, but at all times centrifugal forces exist that test their cohesion. Needless to say, this struggle for cohesion is not always equally successful, and fairly deep divisions can surface for longer or shorter periods of time. The collective name for especially powerful contemporary centrifugal forces is globalization, but national communities coexist and even thrive in spite of them. This much can be stated of both the United States and Poland, despite the different responses to these forces in each case.

It may be asked whether such large bodies as modern national communities can truly generate any significant level of cohesion. There are arguments for and against. No doubt any answer is debatable. The historian Geoffrey Hosking, for one, argues national communities do generate cohesion at a certain level, and presently are the largest bodies which permit a degree of widespread trust to exist.4 This is not to deny that trust can undergo periods of crisis. Nevertheless, trust on such a scale can hardly exist without an overriding ethos, whether it is explicit or implicit.

Although hard to measure to what extent, national cinemas undoubtedly play their role in creating or conveying the ethos as well as the collective self-consciousness of their communities. Within these cinemas certain filmmakers play more distinctive roles than most others: these can be dubbed national storytellers, and in their own respective national cinemas Spielberg and Wajda play such a role. In the course of this book full account is taken of the fact that these national cinemas are naturally governed by radically different laws of production and economic resources. Spielberg has been able to give his version of the national ethos through his connection with the national audience via the blockbuster; Wajda by virtue of a long established reputation, which assured him both ← 10 | 11 public and private resources to continue his national storytelling in a changing political and economic climate. Moreover, the American national community has traditionally been one of the more optimistic among numerous similar communities; the natural home of positive psychology that retrospectively gives a cogent rationale for the much berated Hollywood ending,5 of which Spielberg is a master. Conversely, the Polish community has been steeled by a dark and oppressive history for at least half of the last century and this is reflected in the often more stoic stories the filmmakers tell their audiences, with Wajda providing among the more powerful and reflective versions right up until the end of his life in 2016. Paradoxically, among their last films under discussion in this book, it is Spielberg’s Lincoln (2012) that is darker than Wajda’s Wałęsa: Man of Hope (2013).

Both national communities, then, are possessors of a rich and complex history that constitutes a strong basis for their communal identity. They also possess robust national cinemas, which, in turn, mine those histories. The differences between these specific histories, political cultures, national cinemas, and filmmakers will be made abundantly clear in the course of the book. Nevertheless, some of the problems Spielberg and Wajda face as national storytellers and the cultural resources they draw upon are of a similar nature, albeit outwardly different. And this fact constitutes a major impetus for my comparative study.

One of the inspirations for my approach is the book Cinema & Nation (2000), edited by Mette Hjort and Scott MacKenzie, where a number of chapter length case studies of various national cinemas are presented.6 In some chapters a national cinema is seen through the lens of a particular filmmaker. Among these are one on Wajda and Polish national cinema and one on Spielberg, but rather in a transnational context for contrast. My book can to some extent be seen as an in depth version of such a case study approach with a focus on two specific filmmakers in the context of their national cinemas. Furthermore, worth noting is that one of the more theoretical essays in Cinema & Nation is by Anthony Smith who applies his ethno-symbolist perspective to historical film and national identity.7 According to Smith, a nation’s cultural roots are crucial sources of strength ← 11 | 12 for national identity.8 These diverse cultural roots, deeply embedded in a nation’s history, are also an element contributing to the variety of national communities. Cultural roots constitute one of the sources from which national identity draws its strength in the contemporary world. This theoretical methodology is the point of departure for my study as well, and has likely not been used to such a great degree in books on film.

Despite the fact that Spielberg and Wajda have made other significant films that contribute to their respective national cinemas, I will focus on a comparison of their historical films, since these have a special significance for national identity. For one matter, historical films are among the lynchpins of the collective self-consciousness of contemporary national communities since they have considerable impact on their collective memories. In part this is because narrative remains one of the most effective means of breathing life into the past, while films, in turn, are presently among the most persuasive purveyors of story. Historical memory selects events that illuminate the roots of the ethos of a national community. The ethno-symbolist approach effectively discusses why this is so, stressing the importance of historical memory as a cultural resource for national identity, but has little to say about historical films as a genre, so in my study this latter aspect is augmented by contemporary film scholarship on the topic. As should also become evident, historical films are the works of Spielberg and Wajda that give particularly fruitful grounds for comparison within their oeuvre.

What exactly constitutes a historical film? Many films deal with the past but historical films are feature films wherein a dramatic plot is either based on actual historical events or a fictional plot is developed on the basis of such events which are crucial to the narrative.9 For film scholars at least, the significance of Wajda for the historical film genre in the tradition of Polish cinema hardly needs to be stressed; and while Spielberg’s spectrum of filmmaking genres is considerably broader, since the 1990s he has also been among the more recognized creators of historical films in his country. Filmmakers of the stature of Spielberg and Wajda are sensitive to the cultural elements of historical cinema and its potential impact on national identity.

A debated question among historians that study the relationship of historical film to the reenacted history itself is the degree to which the filmmakers involved ← 12 | 13 in the projects can be called “historians.” Historians themselves accept a variety of positions, but for the purposes of my book the position of Robert Brent Toplin in his book Reel History of 2002 is the most useful.10 Toplin argues that a historian who evaluates a work from the historical genre should take into account that the filmmaker has certain responsibilities toward his producers as well as to his audience. For instance, from this perspective certain simplifications in the historical narrative are necessary and justified. On the other hand, Toplin criticizes those film scholars who grant filmmakers virtually unrestricted license in presenting their historical subject.

Significantly, Toplin does not absolve filmmakers from what can be called, after Paul Ricouer, the ethical dimension of historical memory. In contrast to, for instance, Hayden White, who stresses the parallel between historical and fictional narrative since events in themselves allegedly possess little coherence,11 the French philosopher continues to demand from historians that to the best of their abilities they attempt to recreate the past – in accordance with the ambitious aim of the nineteenth century historians – as it actually was. Naturally this task can only pertain to the historical films at a certain level.

One of the specific strategies commonly occurring in historical films is focusing on a few strands connected with the depicted events as well as on several key characters. Such a strategy limits the extent to which the films can convey the complexity of historical forces. The filmmaker who goes against this principle confuses his or her viewer. Even in the case of the more attentive viewer that an art cinema director can expect, there is a limit to the complexity which can be attained in an approximately two-hour story in order for the film to be dramatically coherent. Despite this, the creative filmmaker can convey a deeper historical message within the constraints of a feature film.

The most evident such theme broached by filmmakers is the problem of the individual in the face of historical forces, which fascinates both Spielberg and Wajda. Related to this problem is the call to heroism that a person faces in extraordinary circumstances, e.g. in times of war. This is a theme taken up often enough by the creators of historical films in Hollywood, which does not mean it is banal. For instance, Polish poet Czesław Miłosz found fault in European literature of the second half of the twentieth century since it did not manage to portray genuine heroes, despite the fact that he had witnessed true heroism ← 13 | 14 frequently enough during the war.12 In the United States an interesting discussion on the problem of heroism was initiated by Peter Gibbon, who examines the problem of teaching about the matter to students.13 Furthermore, the moral philosopher Joseph Kupfer demonstrates the possibility of applying some of the insights of contemporary virtue ethics to the analysis of heroes in popular film, including some examples in historical film.14

The focus on a relatively small number of characters, such as we usually meet in fictional films, can also illuminate certain basic elements of a larger community and its political life. From this point it is a small step to the question of the national community as such. The term “national community” is used quite often by Anthony Smith. This leading theorist of contemporary national identity stresses the importance of historical memory, among other things in its penchant for creating golden ages, as well as venerating heroes, who exemplify national virtues. For instance, he points out that historical film presents the viewers from particular national communities with “simplified public moralities of heroism, courage and self-sacrifice, tied to a community of will and purpose on whose behalf the hero or heroine strives and dies.”15 Smith argues this function of historical film is a continuation of the tradition initiated by painters of historical tableaux toward the end of the eighteenth century. Wajda has not infrequently been compared to Jan Matejko, the Polish nineteenth century creator of such national historical tableaux.16 In American film there is the example of John Ford’s use of Frederick Remington’s paintings as an inspiration for the mise-en-scene of his set pieces.17 The visual influences of Spielberg’s historical films are more from other films, among these ones by Ford.

Among the fascinating problems connected to the genesis of nations in Smith’s conception is what he perceives as their sacred dimension, which often enough ← 14 | 15 is related to a form of covenant made at a nation’s onset or during the course of its history. Significantly for this study the tradition exists in different forms in both the United States and Poland. The covenantal tradition has its roots in the biblical Exodus narrative, with the concomitant sense of chosenness and subsequent moral demands upon the select community. These sacred or other cultural sources of national identity can but obviously do not have to be a factor toward the continuing process of the renewal of that identity: “To retain national authenticity while adjusting to, or initiating, social and cultural change, the members need to discover new strands within the many memories, myths, symbols and traditions of community, territory, history, and destiny that comprise the pattern of national identity, and turn to them for understanding and guidance.”18 I would add these cultural sources often enough probe the depths of the human condition and even outside the covenantal tradition imply the moral challenges that maintaining national identity entails. This salient dimension will also create a framework for the examination of Spielberg’s and Wajda’s films.

An essential chronological framework affecting my project reflects the fact that the majority of Spielberg’s historical films were created after the Cold War had ended, with 1989 the pivotal year. This period witnessed the subtle transformation of national identity in the United States, and a more dramatic transformation in Poland. Because of this, I will also concentrate on the same period in the historical films by Wajda, which was fecund and significant in its own right. History is continually rewritten, both in a relatively stable nation state with a long democratic tradition such as the United States, and all the more so in a national community that has only recently regained its sovereignty such as Poland.

The first part of the book presents the conceptual framework and broader context for the analysis of selected historical films. In the first chapter what constitutes a national community is discussed on the basis of ethno-symbolist and related concepts, examining some of the deep cultural foundations of nations. Particular attention is paid to explaining the covenantal tradition in general and in what manner it is a cultural resource for the American and Polish communities. Afterwards the relationship between historical memory and history is explored, and subsequently the problem of historical film and memory. The second chapter examines the work of Spielberg and Wajda in relation to their national cinemas, stressing the different means of production under which they make their films, their different styles and thematic concerns, and how their films convey their na ← 15 | 16 tional ethos. The discussion will primarily but not exclusively explore their work leading up to the selected films.

In the key section of the book that follows selected historical films of Spielberg and Wajda are analyzed with the aid of the above concepts related to historical memory, and taking into account the cultural foundations of national identity. Naturally the analysis is not limited to these, but the films of Spielberg particularly valuable for this comparison are: Schindler’s List (1993), Amistad (1997), Saving Private Ryan (1998), and Lincoln (2012); crucial Wajda films include: Korczak (1990), Wielki tydzień (Holy Week) of 1995, Katyń (2007), Wałęsa: człowiek nadziei (Wałęsa: Man of Hope) of 2013. Although these films constitute the majority of films by Spielberg and Wajda after 1989 that can be considered historical films, there are a couple more that are omitted from more extensive analysis, such as Spielberg’s Munich (2005) and more recently Bridge of Spies (2015), or Wajda’s Pierścionek z orłem w koronie (The Crowned-Eagle Ring) of 1993 or his final film Powidoki (Afterimage) of 2016. A couple of Wajda’s period pieces or costume dramas are not included either, since they do not belong to the historical film genre per se. Some of the omitted historical films, for instance Munich, are important works within the oeuvre of the filmmakers. The primary reason for these omissions is the selected films are better suited for comparative analysis in relation to specific problems of national identity and moral memory from the perspective of the ethno-symbolist approach.

The selected films are analyzed in four separate chapters dealing with an exemplary film from both Spielberg and Wajda. In the first of these chapters the problem of representing the Holocaust on film is examined in Schindler’s List and Korczak. Self-scrutiny in historical memory is looked at in Amistad and Holy Week in the next chapter. Commemoration of sacrifices for the national community during war is subsequently examined in the chapter on Saving Private Ryan and Katyń. Finally, foundation myths that are evoked through national heroes are analyzed in Lincoln and Wałęsa: Man of Hope. The larger thematic framework for the above concerns is the underlying sense of covenant present within the two national communities that Spielberg and Wajda draw upon or reflect. Implicit in the films is the attempt of the filmmakers to creatively contribute to national cohesion, but not at any price.

A comparative approach such as this book proposes of two separate national artists is more common in literary studies, but quite rare in film studies, and so this work has something of a pioneering status. I hope that it will inspire further works of a similar kind. ← 16 | 17 →

1      Tadeusz Lubelski, Wajda. Portret mistrza w kilku odsłonach (Wrocław: Wydawnictwo Dolnośląskie, 2006), 244.

2      John H. Richardson, “Steven’s Choice,” in Steven Spielberg: Interviews, ed. Lester D. Friedman and Brent Notbohm (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2000), 164.

3      Steven Spielberg, “Mr. Steven Spielberg’s Support Letter for Poland’s Andrzej Wajda,” Dialogue & Universalism 10, no. 9/10 (2000): 15.


ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2018 (July)
Historical memory Ethno-symbolism National cinema Foundation myths Biographical films War films
Berlin, Bern, Bruxelles, New York, Oxford, Warszawa, Wien, 2018. 278 S.

Biographical notes

Christopher Garbowski (Author)

Christopher Garbowski is an Associate Professor at the Department of English at Maria Curie-Skłodowska University, Poland. He is the author and co-editor of several books, for example on religious life in Poland and on American and Polish cinema.


Title: Cinematic Echoes of Covenants Past and Present
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280 pages