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30 Years After Martial Law, Poland’s Blundering Hero Comes to the Big Screen

30 Years After Martial Law, Poland’s Blundering Hero Comes to the Big Screen

Thirty years ago this week, an unassuming mother of seven (later eight), wearing a modest black blazer and white blouse stood in front of an audience of international dignitaries gathered in Oslo, Norway. She had come to accept the Nobel Peace Prize on behalf of her husband, Lech Walesa — the man who gave hope of a better life to millions of Poles under the boot of a repressive communist regime. Had he gone to receive the prize he wouldn’t have been let back into the country he fought to free from oppression. It was 32 years ago to the day — Dec. 13, 1981 — that Poland’s communist regime introduced martial law, a measure aimed at containing the influence of the Solidarity labor movement led by Walesa. Polish authorities arrested Lech Walesa the same day – leaving Danuta to care for their huge family — and held him until November of the following year.

The soft-spoken Danuta Walesa is touchingly portrayed by Polish actress Agnieszka Grochowska in a new biopic about the famous leader of Solidarity, Walesa: Man of Hope. The more poignant scene in the new movie, however, is the one that follows. Upon returning from Oslo, customs officials fish Danuta Walesa out of the crowd at the Warsaw airport for a personal inspection. In a chilling scene, she undresses in front of a group of condescending women from the customs authority.

"What are you declaring?"

"Just a Nobel Prize," she snaps. "All the money was left in Oslo."

Her struggle to feed her children when her husband gets fired and arrested time and again, leaving his wife to her own devices, is one of the focal points of the new movie, which is no mere ode for Lech Walesa, but an intimate consideration of his life.

The subject matter called for one director, and one director only — the man who arguably is to contemporary Polish culture what Walesa is to its politics — Andrzej Wajda. The movie, which is the official Polish submission for the Academy Awards, is the last part of a somewhat unintended trilogy directed by Wajda. The first two films, made over thirty years ago — Man of Marble (1976) and Man of Iron (1981) — chronicled the struggles of Polish workers in a system designed to elevate them but all too often did exactly the opposite.

Man of Hope scrutinizes the man who was the face of the fight against this system. The film shows two decades of Walesa’s life and political activity — from his transformation from shipyard electrician into union leader during the 1970s and 80s, to his speech in front of the United States Congress in 1989, several months after Solidarity won Poland’s first partially free elections.

Wajda and screenwriter Janusz Glowacki addressed the legend head-on, dealing with far more about the labor leader than what became part of his hagiography. They do not shy away from periods of his life that are seldom mentioned — his initial collaboration with the secret police as well as his relationship with his wife, ready to sacrifice everything for her husband. In an uncanny performance, Robert Wieckiewicz portrays Walesa as a man with flaws — pompous, immodest, even chauvinistic, nevertheless a hero.

But the Walesa of Man of Hope is a lone hero. Wajda omits other key players in the events of the struggle — such as the late Tadeusz Mazowiecki, the intellectual backbone of the movement and Poland’s first post-communist prime minister. It’s an understandable move in a biopic, but it creates an illusion that a movement of ten million people had only one person behind the wheel.

Built around a hard-hitting interview with iconic Italian journalist Oriana Fallaci in Walesa’s apartment in 1981, the film is dynamic, with rapid cuts and fast-paced action, jumping back in forth in time, jumbling events in a way that could be confusing to a viewer not intimately familiar with the chronology of the Polish workers’ movement. With archival images interwoven into the footage, at times also stylized to resemble 1980s newsreels, the film is visually attractive. An action movie, a family drama, a documentary, and a national epic, Man of Hope can’t quite make up its mind as to its genre, but the mish-mash quality works, creating a film that is at once moving, exhilarating, and informative.

At a screening on Capitol Hill last week, Chairman of the Association of Motion Pictures of America and former Senator Chris Dodd spoke of Walesa as the man who introduced a human aspect to the world of Eastern Europe’s intellectual dissidents, such as former Czech President Vaclav Havel and the Russian human rights activist Andrei Sakharov. Walesa, staying true to his perpetually quotable self, agreed that he was more "heart" than "mind."

"I didn’t have any PhD’s at the time," Walesa said. "Now I have three, a hundred professorships, and 50 times more medals than Brezhnev had, and his would cover his entire chest." He added that "even for this, it was worth fighting."

Walesa has always had charisma in droves, but his larger-than-life personality never quite fit with Poland’s newfound democracy. His leadership style in the opposition, accurately depicted in the film, was borderline autocratic. He also failed to impress as president of Poland, and he failed in his bid for a second term. Not one to carefully choose his words, he recently sparked outrage in Poland with some homophobic remarks.

To his credit, Walesa never denied that he doesn’t mesh well with the deliberation inherent in a democratic system. He has no patience for talk. "I get bored after 30 minutes," he said before the screening in Washington. "And that’s if I have a crossword puzzle."

Deliberative processes don’t make for good movies. But films about egotistical, charismatic, revolutionary men do.