Wałęsa: Man of Hope (Film Review)
This weekend I went to see Wałęsa: Man of Hope, the new film by acclaimed Polish director Andrzej Wajda, which offers a rich biopic of Lech Wałęsa: shipyard electrician, family man, leader of the Solidarity Trade Union, communist-era dissident, Nobel Peace Prize winner and President of post-communist Poland. The film focuses on the period from the Gdansk strikes of 1970 to the collapse of communism in 1989. This was the time when Wałęsa rose to international prominence as leader of the Solidarity movement, and original documentary footage of various events was interspersed throughout the movie. I’ve really been looking forward to seeing this, particularly as I visited Gdansk, the birthplace of Solidarity, for the first time last November (and am looking forward to returning in a couple of weeks!), so I was delighted when I discovered that Cineworld are currently offering showings throughout the UK.
The film’s narrative is developed around Wałęsa’s interview with Italian journalist Oriana Fallaci, which took place in March 1981. Near the beginning of the film, Fallaci asks her advisor ‘What is he [Wałęsa] really like?’. His answer is: ‘Full of contradictions and surprises’ – something which is more than evident as the film progresses.
Robert Więckiewicz and Agnieszka Grochowska are both wonderful in their respective lead roles. Więckiewicz excels as Wałęsa, allowing his uncompromising charisma to really shine through, while Grochowska provides a great portrayal of Danuta, both as Wałęsa’s loyal, long-suffering wife and mother to their eight children, but also allowing her to emerge as a strong character in her own right. We see her abusing the secret service agents sent to periodically search their apartment (while concurrently destroying incriminating pamphlets by boiling them in a pot on her stove!) and ordering dozens of journalists out into the street when she decides their privacy has been eroded enough. One particularly poignant scene shows Danuta traveling to Oslo to receive the Nobel Peace prize on her husband’s behalf (Wałęsa was awarded the prize in 1983, but refused to travel to Norway to collect it in person, as he feared that he would be prevented from re-entering Poland). Danuta returns proudly bearing the prize, fresh from the prestige of the acceptance ceremony, but is met with a cold welcome back in Poland where she is forced to endure a humiliating strip search and ‘personal interrogation’ as a punishment.
As the story unfolds, we get a real sense of the precarious position Wałęsa was in as he tried to grope his way through uncharted territory to victory against the communist party – often caught between the younger, radical members of the strike committee who urge him to push too fast, too soon and those who accused him of ‘selling out’ for his willingness to consider compromise with the communist authorities. We see Wałęsa himself become hardened and more radicalised in his demands for workers’ rights as the Solidarity movement gathered momentum. This is particularly evident from depictions of his experiences with the SB (the communist-era Secret Police in Poland). The fear manifest during his initial arrest for involvement in the 1970 riots is palpable, as he nervously watches other protestors, most of whom are bloodied and battered, being pulled in around him and listens to the StB make threats against Danuta and their new born son. But later arrests and interrogations are characterised by tolerance and resignation. ‘I’ve been expecting this’ he drily remarks when he opens his door to two nervous SB men sent to arrest him on a cold December night in 1983, as Polish Premier General Jaruzelski prepares to declare Martial Law.
Throughout the film we frequently witness Wałęsa’s ‘human’ side as he is forced to push harder and risk more in his fight against the authorities. The slogan ‘Nie chcem, ale muszem’ (‘I don’t want to, but I have to’) – as Wałęsa himself declared during his Presidential campaign in 1990 – appears increasingly apt. ‘What if I get scared?’ Danuta asks Lech before the SB men take him away on the eve of Martial Law. ‘Then that would mean the end’ he responds, before admitting, in a rare moment of vulnerability, ‘I get scared sometimes too’. This fear is perhaps most evident when he spots a Soviet aircraft hovering menacingly overhead as he is hurriedly transferred from his helicopter to the jeep that will take him to his confinement, while the SB officers accompanying him express concerns that the Soviets could decide to ‘take Wałęsa out’, placing them in danger too ‘so there aren’t any witnesses’. And although Wałęsa acknowledged how easily the people could turn against him during his 1981 interview with Fallaci, he still appears genuinely shocked when some passing Poles hurl abuse at him while he is being transported in an SB car the day after the declaration of Martial Law.
The film’s emphasis is firmly focused on Wałęsa’s ‘golden years’, although even the famous round table talks and the election victory of June 1989 are skipped over very quickly at the end. There is nothing about Wałęsa’s chequered Polish Presidency (1990-95) or the controversy provoked by his increasingly extremist views in recent years. While Wajda does not shy away from allegations that have emerged suggesting that Wałęsa acted as a police informant prior to his involvement in Solidarity (and even hints that there may be some truth in this), overall the film adopts a deliberately ambiguous approach in its portrayal of the nature of any collaboration between Wałęsa and the SB. No clear answers are provided, although more generally, Wajda hints at some of the reasons why people may have collaborated with the communist authorities – for example, the case of Wałęsa’s workmate, who agrees to make an unpopular speech calling for the acceptance of ‘voluntary penalties’ by shipyard workers who fail to make their quotas, because his family live in abject poverty and he was given ‘wood for the fire and a promise of electricity’ in exchange for his complicity.
Today, Lech Wałęsa remains a controversial figure. Reports that he recently walked out of an interview mid-way through, suggest that the confrontational, bullish, uncompromising attitude we witness during the film’s depiction of his interview with Fallaci has not mellowed. Wajda himself described producing the biopic as ‘a very difficult undertaking’, stating that his aim was to present a nuanced picture of Wałęsa – an aim in which he certainly succeeds. Man of Hope portrays Wałęsa very much as a flawed hero – someone who did the best he could under the circumstances in which he was operating, and achieved much against almost insurmountable odds. However Wajda also illustrates how Walesa’s ‘difficult’ and at times authoritarian leadership style frequently translated into arrogance, intolerance and rudeness. The overall sense I left with was one of Wałęsa as human, rather than saint-like, although I thought this strengthened, rather than detracted from, the film’s message. Wałęsa himself has recently given his seal of approval to the biopic, stating that overall he thinks Wajda has ‘done a good job’.
The film trailer is below. Catch it if you can!