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Biopic, Polish Cinema, Politics on film

Walesa: Man of Hope (Poland 2013)

We watched this film a fortnight ago and it seems a little strange that I haven’t thought much about it since. I’m hoping that Keith will have some comments to add.

I’ve always been a fan of Andrzej Wajda and I looked forward to this biopic of Lech Walesa very much. It’s the final part of a loose trilogy of films stretching back to Man of Marble (1977) and Man of Iron (1981). In the first of these films Wajda adopted an approach not dissimilar to contemporary films from other countries. He mixed fictional and archive material in a film that tells the ‘real’ story of a model worker in the 1950s. This story is uncovered by a young TV director making a documentary. The second film then explores what happened to the son of the bricklayer from the first film. It focuses on the Gdańsk shipyard in the late 1970s with an appearance by the real Lech Walesa. Man of Hope focuses directly on Walesa himself but again utilises an investigatory narrative structure so that the early part of Walesa’s story (i.e. from his first brush with the authorities on the night his first child is born during the food protests in Gdańsk in 1970) is told via the device of an interview conducted by a visiting Italian journalist in 1983. The film ends with the downfall of the Polish government in 1989 and Walesa clearly an important and charismatic leader of a workers’ movement –but with some doubts about exactly what he did and how it affected the eventual outcome.

Wajda has been making films since the early 1950s and Man of Hope is of course very well executed with good performances by the two leads, Robert Wieckiewicz and Agnieszka Grochowska as Lech and Danuta Walesa. Many critics have pointed out that only Wajda is capable of so expertly melding the fictional and archive footage to recreate specific events from the 1980s. However, the enterprise is fraught with dangers. There are several different audiences for the film, each with different views on Walesa and the history of Poland during the post-war period and up to the present. Walesa himself has gone through periods of popularity culminating in his election as the second President of the New Poland in 1990. Since 1995, when he narrowly failed to be re-elected, he has lost support at home whilst still being lauded in international circles.

Wajda is said to have seen this production as a personal goal, although it followed his earlier film about the Polish officers killed by the Russians at Katyn. That really was ‘personal’ and concerned his memories of his father. I’m not sure how he feels about Walesa. He promised a film about Walesa that would not be hagiographic and Man of Hope does cast some doubts on the legend, including references to Walesa being forced to act as a stooge for the Polish secret police in his early days – something he at first naïvely accepted. Did he then repudiate the links later?

Danuta Walesa at home in the family's tiny flat with the Walesa children.

Danuta Walesa at home in the family’s tiny flat with the Walesa children.

I don’t know enough about Polish political and social history to make any kind of reasoned comment on how the ‘real’ Walesa is represented. I’ve never taken to him as a public character. He was not a trade union leader in the conventional sense or a socialist. His social views seem highly conservative. In fact I confess that the collapse of Eastern European communism has always seemed to me a mixed blessing – out of the frying pan of Soviet state capitalism and into the fire of privatisation, the (not) free market etc. The story about the rise of Solidarity has the capacity for great drama, but without the depth of historical knowledge needed to analyse events I turn to the more personal stories. In Man of Hope I found Danuta to be more interesting as a character – left to cope with the children and humiliated by the Polish authorities when she returned from Oslo with her husband’s Nobel Peace Prize. (I noted in my review of Katyn that Wajda had represented the women at home in order to show the effects of the Russian invasion in 1939.)

Wajda’s film is in the end perhaps too polished. Wajda himself has argued that Polish films were artistically stronger when making films was a struggle against censorship. Now films with serious themes struggle to find audiences unless they become more conventional (and perhaps shorter – this one at 125 minutes is much shorter than its two predecessors). At least in the UK it has got a release from the Polish independent distributor ‘Project London’. In its first weekend it was in 44 cinemas but managed only a £1,497 screen average. But in Poland the film topped the box office with the best opening of the year and attracted 150,000 cinemagoers over the first weekend. Fandor rounds up some of the American reactions (to screenings at festival, I don’t think it’s out in the US yet) and I noted that Marilyn Ferdinand praises the “energetic mise en scène of the Gdańsk shipyards and Wałęsa’s crowded home filled with children and union activists”. I do agree that this was one of the positives of the film and it is simply good to see images of a mass of workers in an industrial dispute. The workers’ tactics sometimes struck me as naïve – presumably this is due to the years of repression of free trade unions. The lack of proper union leadership was perhaps why an opportunity arose for a charismatic outsider like Walesa?

 

Discussion

One thought on “Walesa: Man of Hope (Poland 2013)

  1. Firstly, the archive material used in the film has been cropped [and I think once stretched] to fit the widescreen format. I don’t like this and I find it distracting. I also worry that a number of serious filmmakers [including Ken Loach and Margarethe von Trotta] has also used this technique recently.
    Secondly, Walesa was a conservative figure, witness his pal act with the pope. One problem with the film is that this is not really examined critically. We do learn about his enforced co-operation with state security early in his career, but he is also a demagogue and I don’t think the film really addresses that. There is little characterisation of the ordinary workers involved in the struggle or of the intellectuals. In fact, i felt we had a better idea of state security figures than of members of the mass movement.
    Roy is right about the woman character, one of the more postive angles. This is also true of one of my favourites of his films, Man of Marble (Człowiek z marmuru, 1977). But in this film the investigation of a pulbic figure is carried out by a young filmmaker. The reflexivity this provides seems to me much more effective than the journalistic interview in Man of Hope.

    Posted by keith1942 | November 9, 2013, 10:37

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