I’m not sure how many biopics there are about trade unionists, but I’m willing to bet there aren’t many. Then again, Poland’s Lech Wałęsa was a particularly famous one, one that even the increasingly conservative Western governments of the era could embrace, for he was a pivotal figure in the collapse of Eastern European Communism in the 1980s. He later became a prominent figure in the post-Communist Polish government, but this film is the story of his union days and ends triumphantly in Washington DC. It’s a film that to some extent deals with the movement he led, Solidarność (Solidarity), but mostly it’s about the man himself.
Director Andrzej Wajda made his first feature in 1954, making him rather a veteran filmmaker and giving him an historical perspective on the events that younger filmmakers might lack; indeed, he made a couple of similarly-titled films during the era the film depicts — Człowiek z marmuru (Man of Marble, 1976) and Człowiek z żelaza (Man of Iron, 1981). For this one, he has co-opted a lot of the textures of archival film, in order to more seamlessly blend in period footage. There’s a lot of handheld camerawork, full of fuzzy out-of-focus shots, blurred framing and occasional lapses into black-and-white stock, giving a lot of the film the quality of a newsreel. This also ensures an up-close look at the man, played with wonderful conviction by Robert Więckiewicz. There are massed crowd scenes and group meetings, but for the most part this is Wałęsa at home with his wife (a beatific Agnieszka Grochowska) or in prison, being pressed by government interrogators (Zbigniew Zamachowski being only the most prominent of these).
It would be difficult to really convey in any film what is a very slow-moving struggle that took up almost two entire decades. Big events are depicted, like the 1980 strike originating at the Gdańsk shipyards which paralysed the country, and with such grand scenes it can be difficult to grasp their national importance (except for a few characters arriving to tell Lech what’s happening outside the shipyard’s walls). Instead it’s those periodic interrogations — the subtle movement of time tracking Wałęsa’s months spent in interment, putting on weight away from his family — that move the story forward. Wałęsa shows dogged resistance to the government, refusing to submit with a self-assured cockiness that he retains in a framing interview with journalist Oriana Fallaci.
It’s a film that seems to have rather slipped through into distribution in this country and it will probably disappear from cinemas rather quickly, but as a portrait of an era and of a defining figure in European history, it’s well worth watching. It also shows that even nearing his 90th birthday, Wajda is no slouch as a director.
Director Andrzej Wajda; Writer Janusz Głowacki; Cinematographer Paweł Edelman; Starring Robert Więckiewicz, Agnieszka Grochowska, Zbigniew Zamachowski; Length 124 minutes.
Seen at Cineworld Edinburgh, Edinburgh, Monday 21 October 2013.