Andrzej Wajda likes to quote Lech Walesa when describing why he is making a film about his lifelong friend, who led Polish dockworkers in challenging the Soviet Union, eventually bringing on the fall of the Iron Curtain in 1989. “I don’t want to,” says Wajda, “but I must.”
Walesa used the line to describe his role in heading the historic Solidarity movement from the Gdansk pier. And if Wajda really doesn’t want to take the project on, he’s doing a remarkable job of hiding his regrets.
The 85-year-old director, who has made more than 50 features, has just begun shooting “Walesa,” adapting material from a book by Janusz Glowacki and focusing on the first 20 years following the rise of the civil rights movement known to Poles as Solidarnosc.
The Polish media, which has been eagerly anticipating the project for years, is abuzz.
“My aim is to show Polish people the truth,” says Wajda. “If it’s accepted in the Western world, that’s a bonus. But my aim is primarily here.”
Wajda has long been willing to take on subjects of historic proportions that other filmmakers shy away from. His 2009 feature, “Katyn,” told the heartrending backstory to the most notorious massacre of Polish heroes in recent history — the mass execution of the Polish army’s elite officer corps who had moved east in 1940 to join the Soviets in battling the invading Nazis.
The crime, covered up for decades, claimed Wajda’s own father.
His new film will show some a Lech Walesa they don’t yet know, but will also surprise many who think they know all about the docks demonstrator-cum-president.
The interrogations Walesa underwent while being held in prison following the riots of 1970 are just one example.
“You can divide the life of Lech Walesa into parts,” Wajda says. “The first is when he was standing at the gates in Gdansk. The second part was when he cooperated with martial law.”
The helmer and mentor to students at the Wajda School of filmmaking in Warsaw believes that the young, naive Walesa’s agreeing to meet with authorities was important because it provided him a platform for conveying the wishes of ordinary Poles.
“The third part was when he faced the authorities at a round table, and they were forced to make an accommodation to the working people.”
But, like many important figures in the pro-democracy movement around the former East bloc, Walesa’s transition to political leader was hardly smooth.
“The moment he became president, people came out and said, ‘Why is he the one to be president? Maybe I should be president. I am maybe better educated.’?”
Wajda says Walesa should have gotten more in touch with the people standing behind him. He believes Poles’ love of vigorous argument was also a factor that undermined Walesa’s authority.
That said, Walesa proved prescient in his ability to outmaneuver what was then the most omnipotent power in the region, the Soviet Union.
“There are some who have talent for politics like others have talent for filmmaking,” Wajda says. “They see further into the future. Walesa’s talent in politics was remarkable. So many people were saying what should we do? When I went to the shipyard where the negotiations were taking place, I approached him and said, “Are you sure you aren’t going too far with this? Do you know what you’re doing? What if the Russian tanks come?”
He said, “There will be no tanks.” And that’s just how it ended.