Walesa, Man of Hope

This film screens as part of the Polish Film Festival in America.

In this era of worldwide video communication, the idea of national cinema has begun to lose its meaning; people are becoming too homogenized to recognize any kind of geographical border, too fixated on the present moment to bother with history. Can it be an accident, then, that the most nationalistic of national cinemas, brought to Chicagoans every year by the Polish Film Festival in America, is so locked into the past? In a decade covering the festival, I’ve lost count of how many films I’ve seen that deal, either directly or indirectly, with Polish history, especially the Nazi invasion and the Soviet oppression that followed. This conservative mind-set governs style as well as content: dominated by sober, traditionally staged dramas, the Polish cinema has been largely impervious to the sort of formal experimentation that made the Romanian new wave an object of interest to cinephiles. For better and for worse, the PFFA has always been a visit to the old country.

Walesa, Man of Hope, which opens the 25th annual festival, is a case in point: directed by 87-year-old Andrzej Wajda, the undisputed giant of the Polish cinema, it presents in standard biopic fashion approximately a decade in the life of Lech Walesa, the Gdansk shipyard worker who led the Solidarity movement against the Communist government and eventually became the first president of a democratic Poland. Wajda has already made two acclaimed dramas about Solidarity, Man of Marble (1977) and Man of Iron (1981), and he and Walesa are old friends, the latter having played himself in the second movie. Here, Wajda has made a concerted effort to portray Walesa as a man of neither marble nor iron, taking up the controversial charge that he informed on his colleagues to the secret police after the December 1970 strikes at the Gdansk Shipyard. In the movie, a nightmarish interrogation sequence ends with Walesa agreeing to sign a statement he hasn’t read, which is about as far as Wajda is willing to go but probably farther than some Poles might like.

As portrayed by Robert Wieckiewicz, the steely dissident never really comes into focus as a private person, though there are some revealing moments from his family life: before leaving his apartment to plunge into the rioting at the shipyard in 1970, he leaves his watch and wedding ring with his long-suffering wife (Agnieszka Grochowska), and a later sequence in which Walesa is recruited to lead the August 1980 strike takes place as the family and their neighbors gather eagerly around a black-and-white TV set to watch the U.S. miniseries Rich Man, Poor Man. Yet limiting the narrative to the most heroic period in Walesa’s life, and completely omitting his rocky presidential administration and Poland’s transition to capitalism, tend to simplify him despite Wajda’s stated ambition to confront the Polish people with a more complicated figure. Like many a history, this one is defined to a great degree by what it leaves out.