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Poland’s ‘no choice’ politician

by
08 November 2013

Stephen Brown sees a new film about the leader of Solidarity

Faith and politics: Robert Wieckiewicz as Lech Wałesa in Wałesa: Man of Hope

Faith and politics: Robert Wieckiewicz as Lech Wałesa in Wałesa: Man of Hope

IT HAS been said that behind many a successful man there is an astonished woman. Wałęsa: Man of Hope (Cert. 12A) seems to bear this out. Danuta Wałęsa (a delightful Agnieszka Grochowska, who also appears in the film We're All Christs) not only stands by her man, but often props up the charismatic shipyard worker whose Solidarity Movement led to the overthrow of Poland's communist government.

Throughout the film, Lech Wałęsa (in a convincing performance by Robert Więckiewicz) draws strength not only from his wife but also from a rather conservative Roman Catholicism. Moreover, even though the film finishes before Wałęsa's controversial presidency, he is already living out his campaign slogan ("I don't want to, but I have to") - a vivid embodiment of Kant's categorical imperative.

The film is the work of the much lauded 87-year-old director Andrzej Wajda, whose work employs a subtle Christian iconography (e.g. the ironically titled Holy Week), with which he chronicles Polish society. His latest shows no sign that age is inhibiting his endeavour or creativity. In many ways, Wałęsa is a companion piece to Man of Marble (1977) and Man of Iron (1981), both of which depict a charismatic working-class hero fighting a totalitarian political system. In fact, Wałęsa makes an appearance in the latter film, as by then the dispute at the Gdansk shipyard had kicked off the ultimate demise of communist rule. Both earlier films on the subject, though, were more despondent; harsh Soviet bureaucracy typifies Hannah Arendt's "banality of evil".

In retrospect, Wajda (as the film's subtitle indicates) is much more hopeful. While he never paints Wałęsa as other than a flawed human being, Wajda finds, as he always has, diamonds among the ashes. Temper tantrums and stubbornness go hand in hand with charm and eloquence. Victories of the human soul against indomitable odds figure here. The most hopeless of situations are preludes for miracles, major or minor.

The film doesn't shy away from the incident when Wałęsa, under police duress, agrees to become a state informer against comrades. Instead, we learn subsequently how he turns this potentially disgraceful act into a contemporary version of Jesus's parable of the unjust steward, one that advances the workers' cause. In this rendering of the parable, Wałęsa and his wife are not only the wiser children of this world, but, to a great extent, manage to be children of light, too. Whether this is enough to restore the ambivalent reputation of the former President of Poland remains to be seen.

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