Lech Walesa: 'I only fear God, and my wife'

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Still from Walesa: Man of HopeImage source, Akson Studio
Image caption,
Hope for the future: Robert Wieckiewicz as Walesa

In the space of a few months, Lech Walesa went from being an electrician in a Polish shipyard to one of the most famous faces in global politics. So how does he feel about the new film of his life?

Early on in the biopic Walesa: Man of Hope, a character describes Lech Walesa as being "full of contradictions and surprises".

Walesa, in the UK to promote the film at the London Film Festival, smiles when I quote the line back at him.

"I am a man of surprises," he says. "That's why I won. I surprised the communists, I surprised Yeltsin, I surprised many presidents."

And then, after a pause, he adds: "I had a lot of luck as well."

Walesa: Man of Hope is acclaimed Polish director Andrzej Wajda's companion piece to his Man of Marble (1976) and Man of Iron (1981).

Image source, Akson Studio
Image caption,
Robert Wieckiewicz did not meet the real Lech Walesa (seen in photo) until after filming

The film charts Walesa's life from the bloody suppression of the 1970 workers' protests through to the founding of the Solidarity union in 1980, the imposition of Martial Law in 1981, and the eventual fall of communism.

He won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1983 and was elected president of Poland in 1990 (although the film stops before this point).

Wajda has described Wałesa as "the most difficult subject I have ever dealt with" in his 55 years of film-making.

"I just don't see any other director making a movie about Lech that I would find satisfying. I have no other choice," he said in his director's statement.

Although Walesa is helping to promote the biopic, he kept his distance when it was being made.

"I didn't interfere and I didn't want to get involved with the film-making," he explains. "Wajda needed to finish off and underline communism."

In the film, Walesa is played by Polish theatre and film actor Robert Wieckiewicz whose on-screen likeness to the moustachioed union leader is uncanny.

Wieckiewicz's Walesa comes across as both a charismatic and contradictory figure. At one point his character admits: "I am a man of great internal anger."

The film picks up Walesa's life story in 1970 as the communist authorities put down the workers' protests, and Wałesa is forced to sign a paper agreeing to be an informer.

The following scenes showing his path to political maturity and its impact on his family life and relationship with his wife Danuta (Agnieszka Grochowska).

Wieckiewicz didn't meet Walesa as preparation for the role. Their first encounter was at this year's Venice Film Festival.

The actor wasn't concerned he was portraying such a well-known figure, and one who is still alive.

"For me he is just a man, a worker, a husband and father. Of course he is a leader and a very smart, intelligent man and Nobel prize winner," he says.

"So I approached this role in the same way as any other role. Read the script and try and capture the different levels of the character."

He remembers being a teenager in 1980 and hearing about the Gdansk shipyard strike on Radio Free Europe. He went to Gdansk on holiday and recalls the "atmosphere of freedom" in the Baltic seaport city.

"You could say whatever you wanted without censorship. For the first time in my life I could breath.

"Walesa was like a man from Mars, a super-hero. People understood him. He was like us. "

He acknowledges the post-presidential Walesa remains a controversial figure.

"He is not an easy man to manage. He doesn't want to shut his mouth. He is still active in political sense. Sometimes he says something tricky.

"Polish society is divided between people who still believe he is a hero and others who think he is a traitor."

He adds: "In the history of the world there are a lot of people who are icons - like [Nelson] Mandela - because they did something very important for other people in the world. Walesa is, in my opinion, among them."

Image source, Getty Images
Image caption,
Lech Walesa and actor Robert Wieckiewicz at the London Film Festival

Walesa remains enigmatic when asked what he thinks of his portrayal on the big screen.

"I have no opinion. I'm going to allow the viewers to make their minds up."

How hard did he find balancing his life as a family man with being a political activist?

"It was very hard because I always want to be the best. I'm not sure if it worked. I was born to be number one.

"I don't have regrets I didn't spend more time with my family because I've lived my life to the full and you can't look back in regret."

Walesa points out there could be "another 30 films" made about his life.

"This is one viewpoint, but there are many different viewpoints. This is only two hours of my 70 years.

"You could make a lot more films about what happened. Time will show whether this is a good film or not."

What is not in doubt from the film is in taking on the authorities, Walesa placed himself in great danger.

During the arrests and interrogations, how afraid was he?

"I'm a man of faith," he replies. "I only fear God, and my wife - sometimes."

Walesa: Man of Hope is out in the UK on 18 October

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