The rise of Solidarity, retold

Another week, another film review. Its run here in Edinburgh is sadly limited - I caught one of only two showings at the Vue Cinema on Leith Street - but if opportunity allows I recommend a look at Polish director Andrzej Wajda's tense dramatisation of the founding of the Solidarity movement, Lech Wałęsa: Man of Hope.

Without Wałęsa there would have been no Solidarity, without Solidarity there would have been no workers uprising in late 1970s Poland, without the relative success of that revolt in forcing the Polish dictatorship to grant certain economic and democratic concessions there would have been no liberalisation of the Soviet Union under Gorbachev, and without Gorbachev there would have been no Velvet Revolution across the Eastern Bloc in the late 1980s. Soviet-style communism would probably have collapsed one way or another if none of these things had happened, but not as suddenly as it did.

Robert Więckiewicz as Lech Wałęsa

So Lech Wałęsa's story must rank as one of the most extraordinary of the last century: that of a jobbing electrician from the Gdańsk shipyards whose steadfastness in developing a movement in full gaze of a brutal police state exposed the Eastern Bloc's underlying fragility, and effectively removed the first brick in the Berlin Wall some ten years before the reunification of Germany.

But while Wajda's admiration for Wałęsa is clear, the film never descends to hagiography. The director knew Wałęsa in the 70s and 80s, and depicts him - with the assistance of a brilliant performance by leading actor Robert Więckiewicz - just as he remembered him during those years: courageous, principled, stubborn, cocksure and not a little vain. It's a warts-and-all portrayal that illuminates the essence of Wałęsa's charisma: a serene confidence that, in spite of everything, so to speak, 'all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.'

In one interview about the film Wajda said:

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.

That serenity had much to do with Wałęsa's deep Catholic faith. The film acknowledges the centrality of Catholicism in Wałęsa's life, and the importance of Pope John Paul's 1979 visit to Poland (and subsequent support for Solidarity) without sentimentalising the role of religion in facilitating the collapse of the regime (many members of the Solidarity movement were inspired by political radicalism as much as Catholicism).

The film's cinematography is also impressive. Shot with a limited palette of subdued blues, browns and yellows, and on location at the shabby shipyards of Gdańsk, the atmosphere of creeping decay is convincing, reminding me of the portrayal of 1970s East Germany in The Lives of Others and, curiously, the washed-out industrial landscapes of the English midlands as featured in The Damned United. And there's all the fag smoke, tattered plaid shirts, worn jeans, corduroy, beards and sideburns one would hope from a movie set in the 70s (the protagonists of the Gdańsk docks staking a curious sartorial territory halfway between Battleship Potemkin and Woodstock).

Another technically accomplished element is the seamless interjection of archive footage into the film's narrative. This is hard to do well in these kind of biopics, grainy old news coverage tending to contrast jarringly with the scenes cut by the director. But here the transitions are quite seamless, archive film blending neatly with Wajda's choppy, ellipitical camerawork, which moves between colour and black and white.

So, worth a viewing, I think. Although sadly given the film's fleeting appearance in mainstream cinemas it will probably have to be on DVD.

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