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End of a Saga: Andrzej Wajda’s Wałęsa: Man of Hope

Man of Hope

Man of Hope


By Geoffrey Fox.

The credits roll over a black-and-white newsreel of missiles and men parading before an austere Leonid Brezhnev in Moscow on the 52nd anniversary of the October Revolution. A leap in time and place, and we see as through a car window the sepia and rust-brown hulks and cranes of a shipyard, the gray-blue water of the harbor glimmering in the weak sun. Then… the large dark eyes of a thin, elegant, self-assured woman in her fifties turn to glance at the car behind.

“We have company again,” she says in staccato Italian.
“That’s possible,” her driver-interpreter grunts as he maneuvers through blocks of austere concrete apartment buildings.
“Can they stop us?” she asks, more curious than anxious.
“The most famous journalist from the West? They’re here for our safety.” His tone is tenuous, unconvincing.
“It seems evident that this interview could be very uncomfortable for them,” replies Oriana Fallaci (Maria Rosaria Omaggio), seemingly pleased by the thought.

The plainclothes men observing and listening through a long distance recording device do appear intensely uncomfortable, as Fallaci and her driver alight from their car in front of an apartment building.

Meanwhile, in his bustling, child-filled apartment upstairs, Lech Wałęsa[1] (Robert Wieckiewicz) is resisting the necktie his wife Danuta (Agnieszka Grochowska) is trying to get around his neck and complaining loudly about having to do an interview with “that brazen hag.”

Man of Hope

Man of Hope

The foreign journalist has travelled to Gdansk in February 1981 because this previously unknown electrician has suddenly become head of a strike movement that is unsettling Poland and possibly the entire Communist bloc. In Andrzej Wajda’s polyphonic, dialogic history of a man and a movement, Wałęsa: Man of Hope (Wałęsa: Człowiek z nadziei, 2013), her questions and his sometimes startling responses serve to introduce the complex character of this hero who is quick thinking and quick to act, generous but with prickly prejudices. The hyper-energetic man with the big mustache and comic gestures is audacious, garrulous, and supremely self-confident. He is also obviously uncomfortable at being treated as an equal by the woman journalist – when she asks him about his leadership qualities, he describes himself as “the bull who is needed to look after the cows.”

His memories and explosive comments in the interview lead into scenes illustrating key moments in Wałęsa’s extraordinary career, merging the story of this man’s life with the larger story of the coming to consciousness and to power of the Polish working class, which is Wajda’s real concern. This film is the closing chapter of this director’s almost life-long study of the working class of post-World War II Poland, a three-part saga – Man of Marble (Człowiek z marmuru, 1977), Man of Iron (Człowiek z żelaza, 1981), and now Man of Hope. The saga covers the entire history of Polish workers and their movement, from their peasant beginnings in war-devastated, agrarian Poland under the aegis of the Communist Party, to their growing conflicts with the Party as they become a self-conscious working class, and their final triumph through the independent labor organization “Solidarity” under the leadership of Lech Wałęsa, which hastens the end of Communist Party rule.

The first two of these films, shown frequently on Polish television, have become familiar parts of popular culture and memory of this history. This third and final film seeks to connect itself to that popular memory by quoting scenes from its predecessors. Together, the three films, with their mix of fiction and documentary, are Wajda’s very personal vision and offer a rare opportunity to watch the evolution of a master filmmaker, returning to a similar theme as he matures and as his subject takes on new forms.

Man of Marble

Man of Marble

Man of Marble tells of a 1950s champion bricklayer and Stakhanovite “hero of labor,” Mateusz Birkut (Jerzy Radziwiłowicz), and the young film student Agnieszka (Krystyna Janda) who discovers his discarded marble statue years later. Using her diploma film and old news clips to investigate his story and why he had fallen from grace, she discovers that he had turned into a dissident after, in one of his demonstrations of bricklaying prowess, someone – presumably another worker – had handed him a hot brick, crippling his hands. This made him realize that, for most workers,”socialist emulation” was simply speed-up (without protection or added compensation), and Birkut had turned his energies into protesting abuses and agitating for workers’ rights.

Wajda had commisioned the script in 1962, loosely based on a news item about a real bricklayer, but the subject was too touchy for satire under the rule of party First Secretary Władysław Gomulka, identified with that era (Szporer 2014).[2] But at the end of 1970 the party forced Gomulka to resign, blaming him for the violent suppression of strikers in Gdansk and Gdynia earlier that year.[3] Thus Wajda, Poland’s most prestigious filmmaker, known in the West for films such as Ashes and Diamonds (Popiól i diamemt, 1958) and Kanal (1957), tried again, and in 1976 the Ministry of Culture, anxious about international opinion, gave the go-ahead to his new project.

Man of Marble

Man of Marble

However, Wajda’s updated script now lampooned not only the socialist construction excesses of the 1950s but also the cynical opportunism of the new elites of the 1970s, including film censorship as one of its themes – the fictional film institute director seizes the young filmmaker’s camera and footage when her story gets too close to embarrassing truths, just as Wajda knew routinely happened to less established filmmakers than himself. More daringly, its ending referred – obliquely, but Polish viewers would get the reference – to the 1970 massacres of strikers that had forced Gomulka’s ouster. It is in the Lenin shipyard that the now-expelled film student Agniezka finally locates Birkut’s illegitimate son, Maciej Tomczyk (also played by Jerzy Radziwiłowicz).

Wajda was really testing the limits of what could be said. But what made Man of Marble utterly intolerable to the new leadership was that by the time it was released in 1977, a new and bigger strike had broken out in the Lenin Shipyard in Gdansk, supported and guided by a newly-founded Workers Defence Committee (Komitet Obrony Robotników, KOR), made up of dissident intellectuals. The new film’s reference to 1970 and the Lenin Shipyard workers could be explosive. Thus when Man of Marble was released, the Ministry of Culture, which had funded it, limited publicity and screenings severely. Nevertheless word-of-mouth drew big crowds to its brief, unpublicized screenings in Poland, and a smuggled copy of the film got to the Cannes festival, where it won the International Critics Prize in 1978.[4]

Wajda had planned a sequel to make clear that Birkut had been killed by police in the 1971 workers protests, but it was not until 1980 that a new strike distracted the government too much to interfere. The new, bigger strike movement was again centered in the Lenin Shipyard in Gdansk, and had spread to mines and factories across Poland. In August, the strikers, led by Lech Wałęsa, finally obliged the Communist government of Edward Gierek to recognize the independent union, which took the name Solidarity (Solidarność), and elected Wałęsa leader in September. When Wajda, as president of the Association of Filmmakers, went into the shipyard to record events “for archive purposes,” the workers asked him to make a film about them.

“I had never made a film to order,” Wajda tells us on his website, “but I could not ignore this call. The echo of Man of Marble returned to me; the final scene had ended right here, at the gates of the Gdansk shipyard. This could provide a good excuse for making a new film.”

Man of Iron

Man of Iron

Wajda finished shooting Man of Iron in January 1981, much of it in the Lenin Shipyard. His script was about the bricklayer’s son, now a welder in the shipyard and thus a “man of iron” and an almost reckless union agitator, contrasted with a timid and ambivalent TV newsman (Marian Opania) pressured to spy for the government. This fairly simple and clear story line was distorted by the pressure of the shipyard workers, who insisted on being portrayed prominently and as they wanted to be seen. Several are given cameo roles, the most prominent being Lech Wałęsa and Anna Walentynowicz, whose firing had started the whole revolt. The result is an often amusing mix of cinéma vérité and fiction, its climax being the real-life triumph of the workers and the signing of the accord with the government that established Solidarity as a legal trade union. The film was panned as reactionary propaganda in an editorial in the Soviet journal Iskusstvo Kino (October, 1981), but it had already won the Palme d’Or and the Prize of the Ecumenical Jury at the 1981 Cannes Film Festival in May.

Much has happened in Poland since then, and Wałęsa and Solidarity have been at the center of the transformation. In 1990, Lech Wałęsa was elected president of the first post-Communist government of Poland. For the 25th anniversary of that event, Wajda invited twelve other Polish directors to collaborate in a new film for Polish television on Solidarity, consisting of thirteen 8 to 10 minute “études.” Wajda gave it the title proposed by Wałęsa, “Man of Hope” – Człowiek z nadziei – and for his segment, he brought together Wałęsa and the two principals of Man of Marble and Iron, Jerzy Radziwiłowicz and Krystyna Janda, in a conversation about those earlier films and their possible relevance today. As Janda told an interviewer,

“What we did consider was who the Man of Hope would be today, what he would do, and what a third film would actually be about. We posed this question to Mr. Walesa, since after the premiere of Man of Iron it was he who had come up with the title of Man of Hope and he who had sent a telegram to Andrzej Wajda to express his hope that such a film would be made.”

For his 2013 film, Wajda seems to have decided that Wałęsa himself was the “Man of Hope.” By beginning with that interview by Falacci in February, 1981, he could revisit scenes from the two earlier Man of… films, mixing them with new ones to make Lech part of a film context already very familiar to Polish viewers.

Man of Hope

Man of Hope

His casting of Maria Rosaria Omaggio as the journalist produces a startling effect. The Italian actress’s piercing gaze and physical resemblance to the real Oriana Fallaci, along with Robert Wieckiewicz’s Wałęsa-like mustache and animated gestures, contribute to the illusion that we are seeing real history. The director’s interspersing of actual newsreels with re-enactments, mixing black-and-white and color sequences, enhances that illusion. But this is a work of fiction that knowingly compresses and elides much of the messy and complex history of Poland and Solidarity in order to tell a simpler truth. Important figures in the rise of Solidarity, if not totally omitted, are given slight prominence, because this is the story of what Wajda calls the “man of hope.”[5] But it is not simply Wałęsa’s story as Wałęsa would like to see it. That would be too boring and unconvincing for Wajda, master of subtle irony, who includes many sly references inviting us to question the myth.

Falacci’s questions prompt re-enactments of episodes revealing the tawdry routine of this worker’s life, lingering on (and surely exaggerating) his loving care of his wife and kids (six at the time of the interview; Wałęsa and Danuta would eventually have eight children). We see aspects of his character that help explain his rapid successes as an inspiring leader, and also the weaknesses that would become glaringly apparent in his later one-term career as president of Poland (1990-1995) – a period that Wajda leaves out of the movie. For example, in the interview he tells Falacci that he views intellectuals with suspicion and that he has never read a book – “I’ve tried, but I never get past page five.” Books are boring, and intuition is all he needs. He can come up with the same conclusions in a minute, he boasts, that the intellectuals in the Workers’ Defence Committee, KOR, will spend hours of debate to reach.

Man of Hope

Man of Hope

Falacci does not mention, but Wajda shows us in a scene from the 1970s that Wałęsa’s relationship to the authorities was not always as simple as he would have us believe. We see him in police custody after a protest in 1971, signing papers thrust before him that commit him to work for them as an informant. That he signed such papers is certain (as did many others during that period). Very likely, as shown in the film, he signed without reading them, but if he didn’t know the details, he knew those papers were committing him to something, and the police considered him an informant on workers’ possible conspiracies. Whether he ever actually provided any useful information to them is more doubtful. As shown in the movie, and confirmed by most observers and even the police’s own reports, he was far too cagey to get pinned down on anything, to the enormous frustration of the police who were trying to handle him.

Man of Hope

Man of Hope

This is touched on rather lightly in the movie, but would become a major issue for him when – after the collapse of Communist rule – he became president of Poland.[6]

The August, 1980 victory of Solidarity would be short-lived. As Falacci insists, but Wałęsa refuses to acknowledge, the plucky electrician’s bravado would be no match for the tanks and infantry of the Warsaw Pact once it saw itself threatened. For those first months after the Gdansk agreement, we see Wałęsa as head of the new independent union federation trying to put down wildcat strikes that were then bursting out all over. This he hoped would avoid a new crackdown, but his gift of gab was not always enough to get workers to return to work. Finally on December 13, 1981, General Wojciech Jaruzelski, military commander and new president of Poland, fearing Soviet intervention if he did not act to stop the continuing strike actions, declared martial law. Wałęsa was detained and held incommunicado for 11 months at a remote hunting resort.

But larger political currents were shifting, in the Soviet Union and the entire socialist camp. The death of Leonid Brezhnev in 1982 ushered in a series of short-term successors (Yuri Andropov, Konstantin Chernenko and finally Mikhail Gorbachev in 1985) and uncertainty and instability in Soviet foreign and domestic policy. Jaruzelski and his government were now feeling greater pressure from the West than from the East. And so he decided that the wiley electrician with the loud mouth, so popularized in the western press, could be left free, though closely watched.

In 1983 Wałęsa was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. Fearful that if he traveled to Norway to collect it, he would not be permitted to return, he sent his wife Danuta instead. In the movie we see her delivering Lech’s speech, and then on her return home, being subjected to a humiliating strip search by Polish customs officials.

In the last scenes in Man of Hope we see the real Wałęsa, not the actor, his body pudgier and his big mustache white, now the elected president of Poland, being received in the U.S. Congress. He continued, and continues today, to be very popular in the West, but in Poland, his presidency is generally seen as embarrassing. He made outrageous anti-homosexual remarks (saying that homosexuals elected to parliament should sit outside the walls, so as not to contaminate normal people), single-handedly turned Poland from one of the most permissive countries for abortion to one of the most restrictive, and invited the International Monetary Fund to save Poland’s economy. He managed to alienate many of those who had been his allies in creating Solidarity. In January 1992, President Wałęsa faced a one-hour strike by the union he had once led, and the following year, a Solidarity-led no-confidence motion against his prime minister.[7] By the end of Wałęsa’s presidential term (1990-1995), public opinion polls showed that General Jaruzelski was much preferred as president. Wajda however has remained a friend, though not an uncritical one.

Lech Wałęsa is crude, unlettered and notoriously ungrammatical (a comic element lost in the subtitles but embarrassing to Poles who had elected him to the presidency). He is impulsive and, as we saw once he attained power, deeply prejudiced – ostentatiously Catholic (Poland’s black madonna on his lapel), disdainful of homosexuals and patronizingly superior to women. His impatience with reading anything more complicated than a leaflet or engaging in intellectual debate and his reliance on intuition rather than investigation or reflection made him hopeless as a strategist. But not as a tactician; there, in the struggle where every action demanded an immediate response, he was brilliant. He is also charming, generous, quick-witted and sometimes very funny, and very, very audacious, a living caricature of the working-class superhero.

And Andrzej Wajda is a brilliant filmmaker who, in this, the culminating film of his great saga, has managed to produce a film of action, humor and irony that is at once a tribute and a critique. And which delights its subject: As Wajda told a reporter, “Wałęsa called me one day and said, ‘This is the fourth time I’ve seen the movie, and every day I like it more.’ And he also participated in promoting the film at the Mostra in Venice.”

Geoffrey Fox is a sociologist and fiction writer. Website: http://geoffreyfox.com.

References

Fox, Geoffrey (1981), “Men of Wajda,” Film Criticism, Vol. VI, No. 1, Fall, pp. 3–9.

Szporer, Michael (2014), “Lech Walesa and the Solidarity Era: The Myth Revived?,” Journal of Cold War Studies, Vol. 16, No. 3, Summer, pp. 205–12.

[1] Diacritical marks on the “l” and “e” indicate pronunciation “va-WEN-sa.”

[2] The initial model was Piotr Ożański, “whose team on 14 July 1950 beat a Warsaw team by laying 34,728 bricks in eight hours, a work rate 525.5 percent above the norm.” But, according to Michael Szporer (2014), he “fell to drink, married a 15-year-old girl, and squandered his rewards, [and] fell out of favor with the party and was rejected by the system.” Ożański did not become a labor agitator like Birkut; that part is Wajda’s invention, based on other models.

[3] The sudden increase in food prices had provoked protests and strikes in the Gdansk shipyard, Gdynia and other cities on the Baltic coast, whose attempted suppression by the army and militia – ordered by Gomulka – left hundreds killed or wounded, but the protests continued. To appease the protesters, Gomulka was forced out, and the new first secretary, Edward Gierek announced a reversal of the price rises and other reforms including wage increases. When some of these promises were not kept, new protests broke out in 1971.

[4] For a more developed review of Man of Marble and Man of Iron, see Fox 1981.

[5] At the center of the Lenin Shipyard strike of August, 1980, before Wałęsa even got there, were two women, Anna Walentynowicz and Alina Pienkowska, workers and activists in the independent and unrecognized union WZZ. The strike broke out in protest against the firing of Walentynowicz, an award-winning crane operator – who appeared as herself in Man of Iron. She and Pienkowska were the ones who insisted that the strike continue in solidarity with other workers across Poland after Wałęsa declared it over, because the Lenin Shipyard demands had been met. Other important figures mentioned in the movie, but only briefly, include Jacek Kuroń and other intellectuals in the Workers Defence Committe or KOR. The feisty tram operator Henryka Krzywonos who organized a transit strike is recognized, in a memorable but brief appearance.

[6]Accusations of Wałęsa’s collaboration with security police SB would become the subject of lawsuits and countersuits after 1990. How serious this collaboration was is another question (cf. Szporer 2014).

[7] The victory of Solidarity meant the defeat of its common enemy and its end as a cohesive force, and its various components – idealist Marxists in KOR, dogmatic Catholics like the Kaczyński twins, purely pragmatic trade unionists and others – split into various factions and pressure groups. That is, victory deprived Solidarity of its solidarity. It is still functioning as a trade union but politically reduced to a rightwing pressure group, Akcja Wyborcza Solidarność Prawicy (AWSP) or Solidarity Electoral Action of the Right. In 2006 Wałęsa quit Solidarity, over the union’s support of the Law and Justice party and its rightwing nationalist leaders, the twins Lech and Jarosław Kaczyński.

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