Lech Walesa, Nobel laureate and former Polish president, returns to D.C. as a movie star


A movie still from “Man of Hope” directed by Andrzej Wajda. The film is about Nobel Prize winner and former president of Poland, Lech Walsea. (N/A/Akson Studio)

Lech Walesa is not the man he was 30 years ago, says the actor who plays him in the new Andrzej Wajda film, “Man of Hope,” which opened Thursday at AFI’s “European Union Film Showcase” and is Poland’s Oscar entry for best foreign film.

The Gdansk shipyard electrician who founded the Solidarity trade union and eventually helped crush the communist regime he defied “knows more about himself” these days, says his portrayer, Robert Wieckiewicz.

But when Walesa finally arrives at the Washington hotel where they’re staying, Poland’s first democratically elected president is still voluble, still volatile and, at 70, still having fun keeping ’em guessing, playing his own current role as revolutionary without portfolio for all its worth.

The president can’t do the interview after all, I’m told, even as he brusquely motions for me to follow him across the lobby to a cafe. But only for a minute, he says through his interpreter, seconds before ordering a pot of Earl Grey and inviting me to relax and take my time. In constant motion even when seated, he’s closing his eyes and rubbing them and using not just his hands but his entire arms to communicate.

Wajda faced quite a challenge in making this biopic, says its now-white-haired subject, who is far thinner than when he hopped over the shipyard in Gdansk to lead the strike. Sure, because the filmmaker had to squeeze such an abundance of material into 127 minutes. Walesa also declined to help Wajda, he says, because “I wanted to see how great people like this movie director see me and the revolution.’’

If you think the result pleased him just because he comes off in it — quite accurately — as the man who, along with Pope John Paul II, freed their country, the answer, as he says frequently and with vigor, is “nie, nie, nie”!

Initially, he didn’t much like the movie. (“Especially my portrayal,” says Wieckiewicz, who grew up revering Walesa and remembers when his dad and every man in Poland wore an enormous Walesa-like mustache.)

Walesa thinks the movie’s too reductive and shows him primarily as a worker and a father, when, he says, his “life was so much more bountiful than this.” But, he allows, smiling in between bites of biscotti, he has liked it a little better each of the six or seven times he has seen it, although who wouldn’t be irked that it shows his wife’s kitchen in a big mess, when anyone who knows Danuta knows she’s meticulous: “My wife is particular,’’ he says.

And in that way, at least, a lot like her husband.

Just as John Paul II was the right pontiff for his moment, Walesa says, the new man in Saint Peter’s old job is, too. “So the man at the top,” he says, pointing to the heavens, has in Francis someone who can lead the way in helping all religious leaders see that “in all faiths, God is the same.”

Asked if he will be in Rome when John Paul II is canonized in the spring, he answers: “I couldn’t do it any other way. He was my friend, and I am a practicing Catholic — of course a modern Catholic; my God is without a beard and uses a computer. I’m not in the Middle Ages.”

One of the most interesting moments in the movie, which is built around a long interview Walesa gave the late Italian journalist Oriana Fallaci, is one in which he tells her that he sees his post-revolutionary life as all downhill, because that’s the fate of revolutionaries. Did that prove true?

“Life creates new heroes,’’ he says, not unhappily, “and new heroes always find it easiest to beat up on the previous heroes. I call them young wolves. They say they would have done it better, and maybe they’re right, but they weren’t there.”

Thirty years ago, if someone had told him all that was ahead for him and his country, he “would have been the happiest man in the galaxy,” he says, but also heartbroken at all the opportunities that Poland, in his view, has wasted since gaining its freedom. In 1995, the man who had won the Nobel Peace Prize was narrowly defeated for reelection, in part because he came off as rude in his last debate: When his post-communist opponent held out his hand, Walesa didn’t take it, and told him he could shake his leg instead.

A man in love with paradox, his presidential campaign slogan was “Nie chcem, ale muszem” — “I don’t want to, but I’ve got no choice.” He supported both the Occupy Wall Street movement and Mitt Romney’s presidential campaign. “My classic saying,” he says, “is, ‘I’m in favor, even as I’m opposed.’ ”

In the United States, what would they call a politician who’s not really so much a flip-flopper as he is someone capable of flipping and flopping at the same time? He’s sad for our country, he says, because the whole world, himself included, had such high hopes for President Obama, who as he sees it has wasted his time meddling in the affairs of other nations, Iraq included, instead of trying to figure out what the next U.S. crisis is. “America should regain its moral leadership,’’ he says, throwing his hands in the air.

Asked if he misses his leadership role, he lets loose with another string of nies. “I’m leased and rented” these days, he says, traveling the world talking, which certainly remains a strength.

Back home, Wieckiewicz says, the view of Walesa is mixed: “In Poland,” the actor says, a little bitter for his hero, “success is what people will never forgive you.”

But here, in a showing on Capitol Hill of the movie about him, former senator Christopher J. Dodd (D-Conn.) told the crowd that he mentioned Walesa every time he addressed school kids. Somebody would invariably ask if one person really can make a difference, Dodd said, and he’d mention four who sure had: Mother Teresa, Eunice Kennedy Shriver, Nelson Mandela and Lech Walesa. After the showing, the crowd rose to its feet and turned to give Walesa a long standing ovation. In the upper balcony, he waved and gave a thumbs-up, just like he used to.

Melinda Henneberger has been writing about politics and culture for the Washington Post since 2011.
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