A 2013 Polish biopic film about the leader of the trade union Solidarity movement (and later president of Poland) Lech Walesa by Andrzej Wajda. The film was selected as the Polish entry for the Best Foreign Language Film at the 86th Academy Awards, but was not nominated. Recently, on 10/01/2017, this film was shown on BBC4.
Lech Wałęsa, an electrician at the Gdańsk Shipyards, participated in local demonstrations during the 1970s which became violent and left their mark on him after he returned to his daily routine. Ten years later, a new uprising occurred and unexpectedly became a charismatic leader of the Polish dockworkers.
Wałęsa’s leadership role signifies the beginning of a new movement that successfully overcomes the country’s Communist regime, and Wałęsa is pushed into representing the majority of Poland’s population. The Soviet Union authorities, previously regarded as too powerful to be confronted, eventually tolerate existence of the movement a degree. However he is at one point taken from his home in the middle of the night by Soviet officials to an unknown location. On their journey there they pass a road and Lech declares that the people will support him but his escort laugh at this and tell him to open his window and ask the people themselves. On the roadside are some poor farmers who tell him they hate him and he has done nothing to help them. At the interrogation location he is fed and openly shows defiance to the authorities before being eventually released when it’s clear they will get nothing from him. Later we see his wife accepting the Nobel peace prize on his behalf in 1983 as he believed if he left the country he would not be allowed back in.
The film ends on a note of Soviet members saying they will get him and Wałęsa being left unchallenged by opponents. The Polish example of the group Solidarity causes a domino effect throughout Eastern Europe. People in Eastern Germany follow the Polish example, starting demonstrations for freedom which achieves a peaceful reunification of Germany. The Soviet Union then dissolved alongside Yugoslavia.
In the epilogue we are told that while Europe is reshaped, Poland remains stable and peaceful. Yet a huge variety of political parties unfold and Poland is on the brink of becoming as ungovernable as the late Weimar Republic. Wałęsa is subsequently elected as the first president of the new Polish democracy; but, this is followed by feelings of resentment among the Polish people who start to think that Wałęsa is becoming overly privileged. Consequently, the Polish people start to seek out ways to diminish Wałęsa’s significance, until they finally accomplish their goal through uncovering actions from a past period.
Robert Więckiewicz as Lech Wałęsa
Agnieszka Grochowska as Danuta Wałęsa
Zbigniew Zamachowski as Nawiślak
Maria Rosaria Omaggio as Oriana Fallaci
Cezary Kosiński as Majchrzak
Mirosław Baka as Klemens Gniech
Iwona Bielska as Ilona, Wałęsa’s neighbour
Maciej Stuhr as Priest
Małgorzata Zajączkowska as Shop assistant
Marcin Hycnar as KOR member Rysiek
Dorota Wellman as Henryka Krzywonos
Adam Woronowicz as Tadeusz Fiszbach
Marcin Perchuć as Instruktor
Ewa Kuryło as Anna Walentynowicz
Arkadiusz Detmer as Malinowski
Mateusz Kościukiewicz as Krzysiek
Piotr Probosz as Mijak
Ewa Kolasińska as Shipyard worker
Remigiusz Jankowski as Shipyard worker
Wojciech Kalarus as Chairman
Maciej Marczewski as KOR member
Maciej Konopiński as SB agent
Marcel Głogowski as Bogdan Wałęsa (aged 8–10)
Wiktor Malinowski as Jarosław Wałęsa (aged 3–5)
Kamil Jaworski as Przemysław Wałęsa (aged 5–7)
Jakub Świderski as Ludwik Prądzyński
Bogusław Kudłek as Bogdan Borusewicz
Michał Meyer as Jerzy Borowczak
Grzegorz Małecki as UB agent
Ewa Konstancja Bułhak as Customs official
Damian Jagusz as soldier
Be honest – if you read that synopsis and didn’t think ‘this is propaganda’ then your not being critical. This is a view you must take with any biographical works as inevitably there will be a bias present no matter the intent. Either the subject themselves, in the case of autobiographies, is editting the truth in order to better fit their personal self image or intentionally presenting an image they wish to be accepted as true or, in third party works, you are viewing the events through the perception of someone interpreting their subject for better or worse. It reminds me about someone who once told me they only read biographies because they deal in reality while fiction is just make believe. For such people this film will be accepted at face value.
Andrzej Wajda is a freind of Lech Wałęsa and so there is inevitably a bias. This film romanticises events in favour of depicting Lech Walesa as a man of the people who never did anything questionable. It is a love letter to him displaying his defiant, outspoken behaviour and being seen to be rarely challenged successfully in his opposition to the Soviet era establishment. It is highly romanticised not in it’s imagery, as Wadja’s style is distinctly realist and unsensational (barring a few concessions to cinematic flare), but in how we are presented Lech’s personality, showing him often making political statements and being in control of any enviroment he is in – even when he is taken by the secret police from his family to be interrogated.
Many scenes of the film include achive footage in which the faces of the actors are superimposed onto the footage of the person they are playing. Due to the low quality of the footage in compariosn to modern high definition imagery this is done quite effectively although I would wonder if it feels jarring for those familiar with the real life individuals and this footage in its original form. Apart from this we have dramatisations of Lech’s personal life which presumably has been sourced from multiple accounts to create as close to the actual events as possible – or maybe it’s just from Lech’s perspective and therefore favours his interpretation of events.
In the final third of the film, once he is held by the Soviet authorities, all we have is speculation based on his personal accounts of events. My issue with this? In most of this film we have the intergration of modern and contemporary footage (with the actor’s faces placed over those of the actual historical figures they play) which lends itself to making us unable to distinguish which parts are fact and which parts are further along the sliding scale of fact towards we accept as ‘historical fact’.
What I mean by this is we can only base our knowledge on the accounts given by people of the time and any evidence we are able to establish. History is only what we are told happened and which re-enforces the oft cited cliche ‘the victor writes history’ as we are discovering, time and time again, when historians go back to events long ago and uncover new evidence that the previously accepted ‘truth’ is not what actually happened but was a biased interpretations of events from the perspective of one side.
Why note this distinction between fact and historical fact? This film is doing its best to establish Wałęsa’s legacy as an unquestionably noble figure who did no wrong in his lifetime to achieve his goals and yet there is a challenge to such a perception of him nowadays. Recently Wałęsa has faced accussations of colluding with the Soviet government which he vehemently denies despite growing evidence to the contrary. In the closing minutes of the film we see his interrorgaters comment, to almost cartoonish effect, they will ‘get him later’. This moment works to make the audience also refute any later accusations of collusion they will hear including those currently being discussed in light of new evidence. After all who do we believe – the Soviet authorities who are well known to have used certain methods and obscured the reality of events often or this idealised man of the people?
Further to the cartoonishly villainous declaration of revenge we are given a brief summary, via text on the screen, relaying what occurred after the events depicted. One of these asserts that because of Wałęsa’s actions, and the rise of the Solidarity group, Poland led other Eastern Bloc nations towards rebelling against Soviet control and thus were key in the fall of the Berlin Wall.
This film presented an oversimplification of historical events regarding the downfall of the Soviet Union in it’s closing moments by suggesting Wałęsa’s actions, singlehandedly, began the sequence of events that led to the collapse of the Soviet Union. There were a great many other world events and internal problems within the Soviet union which led to its downfall so this film, as I have already mentioned, acts as propaganda attempting to secure the legacy of Wałęsa as one of the great historical figures in the history not just of Poland, which has been so hard fought for throughout the centuries by its citizens, but of the world.
He comes across as a historical figure not a man in this film. An image not a living person similar to how canonised saints are depicted. We have seen this time and time again in biopics which cherrypick what is depicted, how it is depicted and perhaps this is why I tend to avoid watching them because ultimately what we are watching is personality propaganda and not a fair account of the individual’s life. Rarely are such films a fair representation of what actually occurred let alone the unblemished, and sometimes unpalatable, truth. Often they instead iconise their subject either as hero or villain.
A caricature who is defined as representing some noble cause and whose example (of their mythos, not their reality) we should follow, is presented to the audience and we are asked to accept it blindly. There are too many examples of biopics being more fiction than fact but that is something to discuss another day. What is safe to say is that the actions of characters in the film must fit the narrative even if it warps the character of the real life person. Examples I can give off the top of my head are First Officer William Murdoch’s depiction in the 1997 film Titanic and of Vivian Liberto Cash in 2005’s Walk The Line both of whom were depicted negatively to enhance the focus narrative without thought to real world events.
Secondary to depictions of Wałęsa are those of the Italian reporter Oriana Fallaci, who is interviewing him as part of the film’s framing device. She is also somewhat of a caricature of the real life person and the choice for her to be used is itself indicative of Wadja’s intentions. Here she is depicted as the classic image all journalists wish to be seen as. Partisan yet invested. Distant yet intimate with their subject. Taking a stand against perceived injustices in the world yet never personally being involved (or indeed effected by it save, as journalist’s often do to create repore in hopes of exposing weakness in their subject, to express a few half hearted suggestions of sympathy – but never empathy). To be objective though they edit what they write and thus can never truly ignore their own experiences in life thus fostering an image which often overshadows the subject they cover. A journalist’s journalist.
The real life Fallaci often came into conflict with Muslims regarding her outspoken criticism of communities both in the East and West while she maintained an aloof air of superiority over them both. During her 1972 interview with Henry Kissinger, Kissinger stated that the Vietnam War was a “useless war” and compared himself to “the cowboy who leads the wagon train by riding ahead alone on his horse”. Kissinger later claimed that it was “the single most disastrous conversation I have ever had with any member of the press”. In 1973, she interviewed Mohammad Reza Pahlavi. She later stated, “He considers women simply as graceful ornaments, incapable of thinking like a man, and then strives to give them complete equality of rights and duties”.
It is hard to suggest that this image isn’t based on one Oriana herself made every effort to enforce during her life through her actions, often intended to incite reaction, and not just Wadja trying to lend further credence to his biopic by using a respected real life journalist in the framing device. She, like any others, was more a journalist seeking glory and building her reputation through conflict than making a difference in the world through her work and reporting things people do not want to accept as reality. Despite the heavily doctored image she seemed to wish to portray of herself fault always lay outside the individual as was the case when she blamed her lung cancer on her stay in Kuwait in 1991 after Saddam Hussein had ordered troops to burn hundreds of oil well alone and not that she had been, by choice, a lifelong heavy smoker. And in this film the fault lay exclusively with the Soviets never with how people did not rise up and challenge them before Wałęsa ascension to, what this film is mythologising as, a figurehead.
On many aspects of the film I can find no fault. The acting is impactful, the cinematography up to the standard you would expect of a world class director such as Andrzej Wajda (who sadly passed away 9 October 2016) and it really has the sense, if not the most accurate depiction, of the 1980s in Poland. It is solidly built but the message it wishes to express seems, as with any biographical work, to have a desire to frame events in a certain light and omit anything unseemly in order to create a streamlined mythological narrative about its subject – to create an icon rather than relate a flawed, but inspirational, subject.
My greatest critcism is that Andrzej Wajda considered Lech a personal friend and I feel that this caused him to not cast a critical eye upon his subject. This has led, in this love letter of a film to his freind, to the embellishment of a historical figure and securing of his legacy. It deminishes the moments of true opposition faced in order to secure the heroic, incontestable, historical mythos of Wałęsa. The reason people watch a biopic or read an (auto)biography is to see the person behind the facade but sadly, as is often the case, all we get is a re-enforcement of what was already presented to us elsewhere. If you want an introduction to the life and times of Wałęsa then this is good enough as a biased crib notes like starting point but don’t expect any insight into him or how the Soviet era effected Poland beyond trade union strikes.
If you are interested in the works of Andrzej Wajda, or depictions of Poland under Communist rule, I strongly recommend you go watch Wadja’s Man of Marble (Polish: Człowiek z marmuru) or its sequel Man of Iron (Polish: Człowiek z żelaza) which depict fictionalised characters’ experiences covering the events of the Solidarity movement. In these Wajda is less sentimental about his subject and can better present the moral ‘truth’ of events without concern for offending a friend as has sadly occurred with this biopic made far later in his career.