A guide to Andrzej Wajda, who mixed symbolism with humanity

The great Polish director, who died last year, will be celebrated at London's Kinoteka festival

Last October, the Polish director Andrzej Wajda died. There can be few directors whose films have influenced their country's cinema and tracked their country's society to the same degree. As The Guardian's Peter Bradshaw put it, Wajda "had a viable claim to be Poland's great national artist of modern times."

Wajda was no mere documenter, however; he was a restlessly creative artist. His films are rich in symbol, sometimes veering into the surrealist territory previously charted by Luis Bunuel. They experiment with narrative form in ways that prefigured the new waves that swept through Europe in the 60s. In their ability to turn real suffering into something poetic without airbrushing the reality, they stand as amongst the finest responses to 20th century history on film.

To commemorate Wajda's life and career, Kinoteka - London's festival of Polish cinema – is running a retrospective series devoted to the great director. The festival will open with a gala screening of *Afterimage (2016), Wajda’s final film, before launching into a series of classics.

Below are five highlights from Wajda's oeuvre, each of which will be screened over Kinoteka 2017.

Kanał (1957)

Wajda's first feature, A Generation (1954), depicted several characters coming of age during the Nazi occupation of Warsaw. Kanał focuses more stringently on a group of Resistance soldiers and civilians caught up in the Warsaw Uprising, the two-month long struggle that resulted in the nigh-complete destruction of the Polish capital. It follows a group of soldiers and citizens as they attempt to escape through the filthy sewers, uncertain of the safety of their destination.

Wajda makes what might be a torturous tale compelling, without sacrificing the twin senses of terror and tedium felt by the characters. Wienczysław Glinski, who plays the protagonist Lt. Zadra, was himself a former Resistance member and concentration camp prisoner, and his conscientious, unshowy performance here puts all manner of method actors to shame.

Kanał screens at the Barbican Centre on 3 April at 6.30pm

Ashes and Diamonds (1958)

Often grouped with A Generation and Kanał as Wajda's War Trilogy, Ashes and Diamonds is also arguably his greatest. Zbigniew Cybulski, often dubbed the Polish James Dean even before his untimely death in a train accident, plays Maciek, a Resistance Member who is commanded, on the last day of the war, to assassinate a communist politician.

After a botched initial attempt, the film follows Maciek discovering the pleasures of peace and embarking on a surprisingly tender love affair, as well as his would-be victim, who is searching for his lost son. Containing startlingly beautiful scenes, Ashes and Diamonds is a masterclass in using the story of individuals to say something meaningful about a wider situation.

Ashes and Diamonds screens at the Barbican Centre on on 4 April at 6.30pm

The Promised Land (1975)

Wajda made a diverse range of often excellent films in the 1960s and 1970s, from the jazzy Godard-paralleling Innocent Sorcerers (1960) to the melancholic 1930s drama The Birch Wood (1970). It was in 1975, however, that he created his next undisputed masterpiece.

The Promised Land is a three-hour historical epic about the 19th century industrialisation of Łódź - often dubbed the Polish Manchester, as well as the home of its most important film school. It follows three friends as they attempt to open a factory, showing both their energetic zeal for business and the vacuity and amorality that defines their lives. It also takes an unstinting, Zola-like look at the conditions of the Polish working class. The combination of extravagance and destitution remains startling.

The Promised Land screens at Close-Up Cinema on 26 March at 7pm

Man of Marble (1976)

Having tracked Poland's devastating journey through the Second World War, in 1976 Wajda decided to take on communism. Man of Marble shows the student filmmaker Agnieszka (the redoubtable Krysytna Janda, who later starred in other Polish classics Interrogation and Dekalog: Two) attempting to make a film about Mateusz Birkut, a fictional heroic worker (Jerzy Radziwilowicz) in the Stakhanovite mould.

Wajda follows the progress of Agnieszka's research as she meets a combination of revelation and obfuscation. The tale she discovers is a sad, tawdry one that exposes the futility of the communist establishment. A prize-winner at Cannes, it was a bold, risky critique even in relatively moderate 1970s, and was quickly dubbed “the Polish Citizen Kane.

Man of Marble screens at Close-Up Cinema on 25 March at 4pm

Man of Iron (1981)

It was with Man of Marble's Palme d’Or-winning sequel that Wajda finally pushed too far: after its chilly reception in Poland, he moved to the West for almost a decade. Man of Iron picks up with Agnieszka married to Birkut's son, also played by Radziwilowicz.

A surrogate for the Solidarity leader Lech Walesa – whose life Wajda would later film – Maciej is a docker and trade unionist in Gdansk, and at the centre of the 1980 strike that began the arduous, decade-long destruction of Polish communism. More leisurely than Man of Marble, it carries the rare thrill of complete contemporary relevance: rarely does a fictional film allow you to watch history unfold as Man of Iron does.

Man of Iron screens at Close-Up Cinema on on 25 March at 7pm