Polish history captured by a man who was there

by Kaori Shoji

Special To The Japan Times

He may be 88 years old and the director of 54 films, but Polish film giant Andrzej Wajda is still evolving as a storyteller. His latest, “Wałesa: Man of Hope,” opens in Tokyo on April 5 (as “Wałesa: Rentai no Otoko”) and marks his further foray into the realm of history as entertainment, following “Katyn” in 2007. “Wałesa” is the final chapter in Wajda’s “Man” trilogy of films based on the Polish Solidarity movement that was led by Lech Wałesa and, as such, it’s a proper send-off, charged with passion and crammed with action.

“That is exactly what I intended,” says Wajda in a phone interview with The Japan Times. “Some people may feel that not all of it is accurate, or perhaps I made Lech Wałesa too much of a hero. But unless I shift the course of my filmmaking to suit the needs and desires of young people who have little awareness of Solidarity or Wałesa, the stories I want to tell will just remain buried. So I wanted to make ‘Wałesa’ almost a spectacle instead of just heavy-handed history. At the same time, I wanted to create the figure of Lech Wałesa as I remembered him, to show the world how he acted, the kind of incredible, youthful energy he had. I witnessed him as a young man, and his decision to take his own fate and the fate of the Polish workers into his hands.”

Wajda himself joined Solidarity in 1981, after decades of battling the Polish communist government over politically risqué points in his filmmaking, including his famed trilogy of “A Generation,” “Kanał” and “Ashes and Diamonds,” all of which dealt with being young and longing for freedom in occupied Poland during World War II.

Wajda had been an activist long before he became a filmmaker (he joined the Polish Resistance at the age of 16), and Wałesa was a personal friend before the two officially joined forces in Solidarity.

“The 1980s was a very interesting time for me, for Wałesa and all of us in Solidarity,” says Wajda. “There were two truths going on in Poland. The first was in the newspapers and TV — that was the official version, where the government used the media for propaganda. This was really boring. The second, the truth that people really wanted to see, was in cinema. When people wanted to know about their country, about people and the world, they went to the movies.”

As the 1980s drew to a close and the Berlin Wall went down, life in Poland changed dramatically. “The collapse of the Soviet Union still has major repercussions and very deep meaning for me,” says Wajda. “I still marvel over the fact that Poland is a free nation. To think that I could live and work in a free Poland … Well, let’s just say the color of this dream has never faded.”

Having said that, Wajda admits that as a director and an artist, sometimes he feels that it was easier to tell his tales in a more restricted environment. “Back in the socialist era, we had so many stories to tell about social injustice, the worker’s plight and so on. Everything was clear-cut and all our ideas had a political slant. But after democracy set in, everything became more complicated. Writers and directors got more personal. They now wanted to talk about the self, about emotions and personal lives rather than sociopolitical issues.”

Wajda is no stranger to crafting stories of a personal nature. On one level his new film tells the story of the home life and marriage of Wałesa (Robert Wieckiewicz) and his feisty wife Danuta (Agnieszka Grochowska). A recurring scene between them involves the often-arrested Lech putting his wristwatch and ring on the kitchen table and telling Danuta to sell them if he doesn’t come back from his ordeal with the police. As the years go by and the number of the couple’s children increases (eight in total), that little exchange becomes more of a ritual than anything to actually act on. As Wajda says: “Wałesa’s personal life was fascinating for me, because he seemed to mature and grow before my very eyes.”

Another man who deeply interested Wajda is Kabuki actor Bando Tamasaburo. Wajda cast Bando in the double role of Prince Myshkin and his love object Nastazja in “Nastazja” (1994), based on Dostoyevsky’s “The Idiot.” The same year, Wajda founded the Manggha Center of Japanese Art and Technology in Kraków.

“I saw in Bando the same factor that fascinated me so much about Japanese culture,” says Wajda. “That factor is imagination. The Japanese combine creativity and imagination in a way that Europeans never think of doing. The way Bando imagined and then conjured Nastazja was amazing. He didn’t base her on any actual woman but an ideal, imagined figure of femininity. He could transform into that figure easily, but when it came to morphing from Nastazja into Myshkin, he dreaded it. He could imagine the man, but he feared having to become him. I could see that fear. I could see him struggling, then overcoming it, and that moved me. As with Wałesa, when a man takes a leap to become something else, it is a very profound moment.”

For a chance to win one of three pairs of tickets to see “Wałesa: Man of Hope” at a Tokyo theater, visit jtimes.jp/film.