Director: Andrzej Wajda
By Marilyn Ferdinand
The biopic genre is one that most film fans approach with a certain amount of caution. Rarely are they historically accurate, and oftentimes, they fall into a template that seems to predestine their subjects with a greatness that separates them from the pack almost by birthright. Poland’s greatest living filmmaker, Andrzej Wajda, most recently made a 2010 documentary tribute to his own cinematographer Edward Kłosińsk, thus setting him up nicely to approach the momentous life of Solidarity founder, former Polish president, and Nobel Peace Prize winner Lech Wałęsa. While largely complimentary to the still-living, elder statesman of the working class, Wajda’s biopic moves meticulously through the major events of Wałęsa’s life with a bracing veracity and the perfect pacing of a master craftsman.
Wajda chooses an interesting framing device for his survey of Wałęsa’s history—an interview with Italian journalist Oriana Fallaci (Maria Rosaria Omaggio). The screenplay makes clear that it is not the interview she conducted for her 1977 book Interview with History, but rather one following the success of the Solidarity movement. Fallaci, a probing, sometimes confrontational interviewer, challenges Wałęsa (Robert Wieckiewicz) about the appropriateness of accepting comfortable housing from the government, testing whether fame and power will corrupt the people’s leader with this and other questions that check his level of hubris. Wałęsa waves off the concern, and when we see throughout the film how many months he spent in prison from the time he witnessed the 1970 massacre of dock workers in Gdansk to the 1980 lockdown strike he led at the shipyard and beyond, it’s clear that government housing of one kind or another has long been a part of Wałęsa’s life.
His story begins on the eve of his first arrest in 1970. Working as an electrician at the Gdansk shipyard and expecting the birth of his first child (the film chronicles the arrival of six of the eight children the Wałęsas have), he learns a labor action is about to commence. He feels his place is at the dock, where he ends up trying to stop the workers to prevent the killings that follow, gets arrested, and is released only after promising to spy for the government, a pledge he soon fails to keep. Before he leaves, he removes his wedding ring and watch with instructions to his wife Danuta (Agnieszka Grochowska) to sell them if he doesn’t come home; this wholly inadequate substitute for a wage-earning husband becomes a running routine throughout the film, as Wałęsa’s growing involvement in the emerging Polish labor movement leads to more and more absences and the loss of one job after another because of his activism.
Wałęsa seems to know how to talk to people to get them to listen—he tells Fallaci that the right words just come. He also is a practical man who knows how to negotiate and win. When he falls in with a group of intellectuals who are talking about staging a hunger strike, he asks them forthrightly what good their starvation will do. It’s not practical, it won’t get results, he says, and he’s right. The movement was far from unified at that point, and few would have cared about their sacrifice. At the same time, however, Wałęsa feels the intellectuals can help him craft language and strategies; he’s not anti-intellectual, only pro-results. His agreement with the police teaches him never to sign anything, advice he passes on to other activists.
The major set-piece of the film is the 1980 lockdown strike. The action begins before Wałęsa is in the shipyard, and the police are hellbent on keeping him from getting in. He manages to slip away, but is only a few meters ahead of his pursuers when he manages to climb over the fence to join the workers. He quickly organizes them, and word of the strike reaches throughout Poland, where transportation workers, miners, and others join them in a general strike. Wałęsa has secured several modest demands for the dock workers, but when a trolley car driver begs him not to abandon them by ending their strike, the gates to the shipyard are closed again as the Solidarity movement wins major concessions from the government, including having their union legalized. This section is nail-bitingly brilliant, as Wałęsa appears to be improvising his way to a revolution of sorts.
Things look bad for Solidarity, however, when the Soviets decide to flex their muscles by declaring martial law in 1981 and outlawing the union. Wałęsa is imprisoned for nearly a year, but the death of Leonid Brezhnev in 1982 brings an end to martial law. In 1983, Wałęsa wins the Nobel Prize, but fearing exile, he sends Danuta to accept it. Wadja uses stock footage of Brezhnev’s funeral, but dramatizes part of Danuta’s delivery of Lech’s acceptance speech and shows the humiliation she suffers when she is stripped for a full body-cavity search by Polish customs officials at the airport.
Wadja is a crowd-pleaser with this film, bringing an energetic mise-en-scène to the Gdansk shipyards and Wałęsa’s crowded home filled with children and union activists. He shorthands relationships, particularly that between Danuta and Lech, with homey touches like the ring and watch and a handmade “typhus” sign he proposes to hang on their door to keep the world away. Wieckiewicz seems to channel Wałęsa’s natural leadership and charisma, portraying a perfect man of action who seemed driven to make the changes he did despite the hardships to himself and his family, particularly as communicated by Grochowska. Important events that helped strengthen the movement, not the least of which was having the Polish Pope John Paul II come home to preach to the faithful, show how one man does not a movement make, though Wieckiewicz makes it clear that Wałęsa was not a terribly humble man. His homophobia is not included in this film, which ends before his pronouncements on homosexuality were made publicly, but Wadja avoids—just barely—straight hagiography simply by letting the events speak for themselves.
As a Chicagoan whose city has the largest population of Poles of any city other than Warsaw, I remember well seeing the Solidarity flags and banners waving up and down Milwaukee Avenue, the main drag of Polish Chicago, during the 1980s. Wałęsa, thus, is a part of my personal history and a figure of great interest to me. But in these times of union-busting and worker exploitation, it would be a great salvo against corporate elites if this film opened widely and played to sold-out audiences. I highly recommend that CIFF attendees fire the first shot by selling out every showing of this highly entertaining and instructive film from one of cinema’s grand masters.
Wałęsa: Man of Hope shows Friday, October 11, 5:30 p.m., Sunday, October 13, 2:15 p.m., and Wednesday, October 16, 3:20 p.m. at the AMC River East 21, 322 E. Illinois St. in Chicago. www.chicagofilmfestival.com
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