Robert Więckiewicz jako "Wałęsa" w filmie Andrzeja WajdyRobert Więckiewicz as Lech Wałęsa in Andrzej Wajda’s film, photo: Marcin Makowski / MAKUFLY / Akson Studio

Lech Wałęsa’s biopic is Andrzej Wajda’s best movie since Korczak in 1990. It demystifies the leader of Solidarity - and presents the national legend somewhat pompously and ironically.

For years no Polish film has raised emotions and expectations like Wajda’s new Wałęsa. Człowiek z nadziei. On one hand, its release is accompanied by great media buzz, amplified by the marketing machinery; on the other, it is treated with suspicion by potential viewers with various judgements about the historical figure and fears of a boring lecture on a monumental hero.

In the past, Wajda often entered the realm of media-journalistic battles, to debate about Poland and discuss the country's changes, history and founding myths. That was how he became a prisoner of his own image, a one-man institution. With Wałęsa he has to meet expectations of the public and media once again. Some wanted a tale about a national hero. Others were longing for a story showing the fall of a great character who began collaborating with the communist-era secret services. Yet another part of the audience hoped that Lech Wałęsa would be portrayed as an ordinary man, a husband and head of a large family. It is worth noting that after publication in 2011 of Marzenia i tajemnice / Dreams and Secrets by Danuta Wałęsa, his wife, the coming movie was expected to present a thorough family background.

Wajda tried to respond to various needs, so in Wałesa we will find a few separate narratives. The story of a labourer turning into the people’s tribune is interwoven into a tale of the Solidarity movement. We peek behind scenes, where we see Danuta’s private life (good acting by Agnieszka Grochowska) and follow Wałęsa toward international fame.

The director skillfully merges these threads as he moves through time. Shifts are made possible by the somewhat anachronistic film structure, framed by an interview Wałęsa gave to Orianna Fallaci in 1981. Paweł Edelman proves that he is a true artist - his cinematography brings to mind black-and-white film chronicles, or takes us straight to the greyish, dull-coloured reality of communist Poland of the 1980s.

What’s best in Wajda’s movie is the sense of humour. Though the director often argued with screenwriter Janusz Głowacki during work on the script, the perspective of an ironic playwright is visible on screen. Robert Więckiewicz daringly portrays Wałęsa as a buffoon and good-willed simpleton. In one scene Wałęsa is incarcerated in Arłamowo (then a government hotel in the southeast). He receives a papal encyclical from a priest and asks without hesitating “Why should I even read this? I agree with the pope on everything”. It’s hard not laugh at this. Another high point is when Wałęsa asks a famous reporter a question that becomes an ironic punchline in the film: “You probably think I’m… conceited?”.

The spirit of the writer Witold Gombrowicz looms over Wajda’s movie. On one hand, this is a work by a man enslaved by his social role, a national artist telling the tale of a national hero in order to strengthen national unity. On the other, this is a film in which a man full of weaknesses turns out to be more interesting than any historical monument. As a character, Lech Wałęsa isn’t Homeric, but neither is he a caricature. 

Wałęsa has a bit of everything. Wajda, Głowacki and Więckiewicz skillfully balance a line between pathos and mockery. That's why Wajda’s movie is more similar to Kazimierz Kutz’s Zawrócony Reverted or Anrdzej Munk’s bittersweet Eroica than to a heroic lecture on Polish history.

Wałęsa turns out to be a history of the falls - signing the declaration of collaboration with the secret services - and ascents of a man who for many was the symbol of hope. Wajda's tale ends in 1989, which means that painful revisions of the myth of Solidarity in the 1990s is omitted. A film including this would be more agonising - but it would also come closer to the greatest Wajda movies demythologizing Polish history.

The film premieres on the 4th of October 2013.

  • Wałęsa. Człowiek z nadziei. Directed by: Andrzej Wajda, Screenplay: Janusz Głowacki, Cinematography: Paweł Edelman, Scenery: Magdalena Dipont, Interior decoration: Wiesława Chojkowska, Costumes: Magdalena Biedrzycka, Music: Paweł Mykietyn, Sound: Jacek Hamela, Katarzyna Dzida-Hamela, Editor: Milenia Fiedler, Grażyna Gradoń, Make-up: Waldemar Pokromski, Tomasz Matraszek, Cast: Robert Więckiewicz, Agnieszka Grochowska, Maria Rosaria Omaggio, Zbigniew Zamachowski, Cezary Kosiński, Mirosław Baka, Iwona Bielska, Maciej Stuhr, Marcin Hycnar, Dorota Wellman, Adam Woronowicz, Marcin Perchuć.

Bartosz Staszczyszyn, 26/09/2013

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