Wałęsa: Man of Hope
Robert Więckiewicz, Agnieszka Grochowska, Maria Rosaria Omaggio
UK DVD: 10 Nov 2014
If history and life have taught us one lesson, it is that in the shadow of oppression there is a ray of hope. Imagine the light-house that serves as a beacon of hope for maritime sailors. Now fast-forward to the Cold War era in Poland, where the danger was not to mariners but to civilians and the threat was not a shoreline masked by night, but rather a foreign superpower that integrated nations into its totalitarian ranks. In Andrzej Wajda’s latest foray into Polish history, the beacon was not from a light-house, but from Wałęsa: Man of Hope.
Now aged 88 with 60 years having elapsed since he stepped onto the world film stage with his seminal trilogy (A Generation, Kanal, and Ashes and Diamonds), Andrzej Wajda once again turns his gaze to the past, and to one of Poland’s titanic figures for his biopic of Lech Wałęsa. In contrast to his trilogy, whose stage was German occupied and post-war Poland, Wajda’s latest offering has more of a connection with Katyn, and depicts further the tragedy of a country severely wounded by two totalitarian forces.
In an interview with the Chicago Tribune, Wajda explained, “My aim is to show Polish people the truth. If it’s accepted in the Western world, that’s a bonus. But my aim is primarily here.” Wajda’s choice of words raises two points of interest. Firstly, a questioning of the film’s universal appeal, in which the Polish and Western audience are effectively two sides of the same coin. For one group it reveals the truth, whilst for the other it simultaneously introduces and reveals the truth. Secondly, art as a means to understand the past; to re-contextualise it and to give it centre stage through a mass entertainment art form. After all, history is tainted by subjective gaze and personal bias, and therein history relies upon hindsight to create a more truthful understanding. However, this understanding is one which equally demands an understanding of the context of the time, as history should never be judged according to the the time we peer back into yesteryear.
Coinciding with the theatrical release of Mike Leigh’s Mr. Turner, an intriguing parallel emerges between these two leading European filmmakers, who both in their later years encounter the chapters in the lives of two men: the artist and the politician. Outside of this analogy lies another parallel in the skill of the language of the filmic image; from Leigh’s filmic paintings that come to life with the spark of movement to betray the canvas as holding time still, to Wajda’s merging of documentary with actual news footage, which momentarily reconnects us with the past. Both men use the image as a means of recreation to transport their audience into the worlds of their leading characters, but sparingly enough so that its restrained use permits them a self-strategized opportunity to evoke a greater sense of impression upon us, their gathered audience.
With his six decades of experience, Wajda seems to understand the value or even the need to keep this biopic self-contained, which he does by choosing a period and exploring that chapter within Wałęsa’s personal narrative. There is no need to give us his life, only select chapters, which is what we have here. Wajda equally appreciates the necessity to mine the depths of this chapter and expose his riches, presenting a character unafraid to admit his moral and personal frailties. Wałęsa: Man of Hope is a compelling piece of filmmaking from its opening scenes that mirrors Wajda’s own reflective position as filmmaker. Introducing Wałęsa (Robert Więckiewicz) within the context of an interview with foreign journalist Oriana Fallaci (Maria Rosaria Omaggio), Wadja allows for the past and present to come into stark contrast, and how an unsuspecting and unlikely hero can find himself centre stage in his country’s politics. As well as mirroring Wajda’s own position, the narrative places Wałęsa within and outside of his self, to the point that his past and present self merges. By removing a linear structure, we are afforded a more intriguing perspective of Wałęsa’s personal journey.
Despite a title that infers a sense of optimism, Wałęsa: Man of Hope is a drama with a cynical black lining. With the deftness of touch and without creating the impression of a forced offsetting of darkness and light, Wajda takes us behind the scenes to show us the beginnings of the men who are thrust into positions of power; who along the way encounter paranoia, suspicion and doubt. Wajda casts a flicker of light onto the few who are the glue that holds the progress for the many together, how people are susceptible to manipulation and how men are sometimes thrust into circumstances in which the boundary between free will and destiny becomes decidedly blurred.
The appeal of Wałęsa: Man of Hope perhaps lies in its presentation of a drama on a theme of freedom, and the struggle when confronted with adversity and expectation. Freedom has been and continues to be desired and fought for. Considered the linchpin of a person’s basic rights, much of the world still finds itself in the midst of the pursuit of rather than the possession of this simple privilege. In the landscape of a contemporary world which has witnessed uprisings and the proactive pursuit of freedom, Wajda’s latest film has the propensity to touch the sensibilities of an international audience. This holds true even for a Western audience whose naïve belief in a vast universal freedom has been shattered, and who have been awoken to the truth of an ongoing struggle that seems reluctant or impossible to draw the curtain on.
Watching Wałęsa: Man of Hope, one cannot help consider Jung’s observation of the propensity for positive and negative consequences to derive from their opposites. Out of the Soviet shadow emerged a heroic and powerful story of the individual capable of being a force of change to reshape the future. Yet, one equally witnesses the propensity for people to pursue self-preservation, which threatens to undermine progress and allow the injustice to be a perpetual shadow.
In Wałęsa: Man of Hope, filmmaker Andrzej Wajda shows the wisdom of age, sidestepping judgement to instead observe a story that played out like a chess match, but one whose stakes were higher than the claim to have won or lost a game. As the film comes to a close one senses a realisation present that the game between opposing forces is never over. Just as day turns to night and the shadows border the light, the struggle for freedom may be a perpetual one that is destined to haunt humankind. In the face of such struggle, men such as Wałęsa are beacons of hope worth remembering for future conflicts.