I Comed, or How I Wrote a Screenplay about Lech Wałęsa for Andrzej Wajda

Janusz Głowacki
I Comed, or How I Wrote a Screenplay about Lech Wałęsa for Andrzej Wajda
  • Świat Książki, Warszawa 2013
    130x240, 240 pages
    ISBN: 978-83-7943-323-0
    Translation rights: Świat Książki

The first sentence of the author’s introduction to this book goes like this: “I wanted to explain that I’m writing this book mainly out of stinginess, because about twenty scenes that I wrote and several of my ideas never went into the film”. Of course he’s talking about Wałęsa: Man of Hope, Andrzej Wajda’s feature film about the colourful hero of the events that led to the fall of communism in Poland, who rose from being an electrician to a trade union leader, winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, and first president of the independent Polish Third Republic.

The great Polish director commissioned a screenplay from Głowacki, a master of irony and tragicomedy, as well as a witness to the events at the Gdańsk shipyard. That is highly relevant: the premise here was that Wajda’s film-making genius would be combined with Głowacki’s intelligent satire, which would not only – so it was assumed – result in an original picture, but should also protect the whole venture from slipping into hagiographic pathos. In accepting Wajda’s invitation, Głowacki was convinced that the filmmaker whom he admired was aiming for an artistic movie. It took a while for him to realise that the result was going to be what could be termed an “educational” film, aimed in the first place at foreigners and young people. So here Głowacki describes how he gradually lost control of his own version of the story, and generally how it came about that Wałęsa is, and at the same time isn’t his work, on the literary level of course. This unusual, paradoxical situation pervades and organises the book. And perhaps this is its most interesting aspect – it shows how it’s possible to claim and at the same time deny authorship, and how to understand the legendary phrase, “for, and even against”.

Thus the book is about the history of a misunderstanding. At its foundation there seems to have been a different view of the title hero. Głowacki is fascinated by Lech Wałęsa as a “royal” figure, like one of Shakespeare’s kings, and thinks about him in a literary way, as well as via literature. This is how he expresses – and on the very first pages – the key issue, which is the question of whether in the 1970s Wałęsa was a secret police collaborator with the code name Bolek. Głowacki tells us that for his version of the story – for any version at all! – it would be better if the hero had a flaw, or were battling with some inner dilemma. And there absolutely had to be a mystery. In an early version of the screenplay this mystery was built around the fact that Wałęsa was inexplicably three hours late for the August strike, which he was meant to be leading; the framework of the story was going to be his journey – from leaving home to reaching the shipyard. Meanwhile Wajda’s view is different; in Głowacki’s words the aim of the film “is to bear witness to history and to provide a civic lesson”, “so that the young people should understand at least something”. And so the artistic rationale caves in under pressure from the needs of political persuasion and, as it were, educational aims.

In the three years that he worked on the screenplay, Głowacki encountered all sorts of unpleasantness, such as accusations of “treachery”. There was always someone asking him if he’d have the courage to work in the theme of Bolek, while at the same time suggesting that the screenwriter was sure to run out of character. Głowacki subdues these disagreeable things in his characteristic way, with venomous irony and provocative cynicism. He notes: “Indeed I am not a moralist, but I do have certain hard and fast principles, and no one will ever, not even by threatening my loved ones, force me to falsify history for nothing”. Incidentally, he gives a highly engaging account of the relevant bit of Polish history, citing dozens of amusing anecdotes about artistic and public life in communist Poland.

Dariusz Nowacki


The Journey, or Idea No. 1

So as we all know, Wałęsa was late for the strike in defence of Anna Walentynowicz that he was supposed to be leading. And he was about three hours late or more. Bogdan Borusewicz, who had got everything ready, with the help of Joanna and Andrzej Gwiazda, Krzysztof Wyszkowski and many others (because the list of heroes of August never stops growing), said that if that strike had ended in disaster, he’d have made Lech account for that delay, but after such a victory…
    And Wałęsa himself is enigmatic about why he was late – saying there was something he had to do at home, that his youngest daughter had only just been born, but hadn’t yet been registered… Of course, there was also the version close to the heart of the tragically deceased Anna Walentynowicz, heroic activist for the Free Trade Unions, one-time close friend of Lech, and later quite the opposite – which says that Wałęsa was an agent, and had dashed off to the regional Party committee and the secret police for instructions, and then as he was late the police had driven him there in that motor boat.
    And the Journey, as journeys are, is a tension-inducing thing, both metaphorical and metaphysical. There’s no doubt about that, either in books or in films, including Kerouac, and the beatniks, and Steinbeck in Mice and Men, and Scarecrow, and Vanishing Point. And we’re all on some sort of journey, running, crawling, riding, flying all the way to the end. It’s true that Maxim Gorky wrote that if someone’s made for crawling, he isn’t going to fly. But that’s a bit off the mark, because a caterpillar does however metamorphose into a butterfly, and something like that happened at the Shipyard. Of course, plenty of Poles think that either way, we’ve been flying for centuries, and flying high too. Gombrowicz once wrote a parody of a children’s counting rhyme that went: “One two three four, every Jew’s a lousy cur! Every Pole’s a golden bird. Out you go”. But while the golden birds are golden birds, the rest of us drag along, carrying our childhood on our backs, like in Kantor’s Dead Class, or the recent past, and fears about the future push their way in too. And so I thought of trying to write a “Wałęsa’s Journey” of this kind in flashbacks.
    It’s also curious in that we know almost or absolutely nothing about those hours of delay, in other words with a touch of audacity and risk one could make something up, invent some fabrication of one’s own, which could appear more interesting and more genuine than the so-called official truth. There’s a British film called The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner, in which the main character never stops running, though now and then he remembers something, and by the end we know why he’s running and why he’ll never get there. So I thought perhaps those few hours of delay were easily enough for an entire film, which is to be at most two hours long.
    And this sort of journey would be full of fear, and doubt, and tension, about whether he’ll manage to get there, because the secret police won’t allow what’ll happen if he gets there, or what’ll happen if he doesn’t. And finally the important thing is that he did get there. Meaning to say the Polish word for “I came”, Lech Wałęsa once said “przyszłem”, instead of the correct form, “przyszedłem”, which is like saying “I comed” – and when someone corrected him, apparently he replied: “It doesn’t matter if I comed or came, what matters is that I gotted there… or got there.”
    Chesterton put it beautifully when he wrote that in England people travelling by train to Victoria Station dream about various miracles on the journey, but actually the greatest one of all is that the train really does get to Victoria Station.
    And then Lech Wałęsa, being trailed by secret policemen, gets to the wall, jumps over it and hangs in mid-air… permanently. It’s a freeze-frame.
    For a while I had an idea in my head of starting the film with the casting session for the role of Wałęsa. Each of the hopeful actors would have to jump over the shipyard wall in padded work clothes. In the process, one of them would do a Fosbury flop, explaining that that’s how you jump nowadays. But I never mentioned it to Andrzej. And I was cunningly trying to avoid scenes at the Shipyard.
    At first Andrzej liked the idea of the Journey, and had the very fine notion of the picture (the freeze-frame) being taken by a chance tourist, whom the secret police catch, and then they destroy the negative. Then it would cut to the Congress, in other words, “We, the People” – Kazimierz Dziewanowski’s brilliantly inventive start to the speech Lech Wałęsa made in Washington. Because in the United States those words from the Declaration of Independence are sacred, every child knows them. And who could have a greater right to say “We, the People” to the congressmen than this folk leader, this peasant-turned-king, this Catholic Moses, who had led the Poles across the sea of communism to liberty? Well, not alone, not on his own of course. But a great victory, just like a great defeat, has to have a single face. Partly to facilitate things. So in Congress there was an understandable standing ovation, apparently greater than those afforded to foreigners such as Winston Churchill and General de Gaulle. Not bad at all.
    So after this speech I thought of showing a trio of secret policemen – whom we’d have met in the course of the action, because they were dealing with Wałęsa – so I’d show this trio watching the broadcast on TV and nostalgically, but threateningly saying:
“Look at that jackass putting on airs.”
“He sure got away with it.”  
“Relax. We’ll get him yet.”
The last remark in particular might give some viewers a thing or two to think about.

So for example

It’s the fourteenth of August 1980, five in the morning, before the heat sets in. It’s quite grey even, but the sun is starting to disperse the mist. Lech W. is standing in an open window on the first floor, gazing at the dismally sad landscape. Three grey, four-storey blocks joined at the sides, a rubbish heap, a carpet-beating frame, a rickety Warszawa car, a Trabant and a garish green Syrenka. And Lech W. is smoking, tapping ash into a flowerpot, smoking and tapping…
    But before the Journey begins, I thought we could try to give some indication of the fact that the film’s being made in 2012. And that we know more than can be fitted into a 90-minute, at most two-hour telling. So a sort of taster, a summary of what has already happened and what’s about to happen. Like a sort of prologue, after which we go back to Lech W. in the window.
    Either way, I gave it a try. I had a few ideas – the first was a bit long.

Prologue Nr 1

August 1980, a crowded street, women, men, hard, worn-out faces, like something out of Breughel, among them Lech W. – aged thirty, under surveillance by undercover agents mixing in the crowd, who are a step away, but just observing and exchanging short communiques via microphones hidden under their jacket lapels. These are not entirely realistic shots. They should be made to look strange from a distance, dream-like. Maybe like in Andrei Tarkovsky’s films – there’s a black sun shining, or something like that. Or like the opening scenes of Lars von Trier’s Melancholia. And then suddenly a crowded bed, with six children sleeping in it, a big strong man comes up to the bed, wakes up a six-year-old boy, Leszek, and says: “It’s your name-day, so you’ve got a present, you’re going to herd the cows”, and then he hands him a stick and the stick changes into a billiard cue; it’s the start of the game, so the balls are pressed together in a tight block or a triangular frame, looking impossible to move, something like the Warsaw Pact; opposite there’s the white ball, seen from a perspective that makes it look very small; there might be intermittent voices speaking a mixture of Russian, German and Czech; then we see Lech W. – as an adult – holding the billiard cue, he leans over the table and shoots, the white ball flies like a missile, the triangle scatters about the entire table; soon after, we see an enthusiastic crowd of shipyard workers carrying Lech W. aloft, he shakes his fists in a characteristic gesture; then we see Lech W. with Danuta by his side, taking the presidential oath, which only lasts a few seconds, and we can’t hear the words, or just: “I swear to the Polish nation”; this frame passes into another crowd, at night, carrying an effigy of Lech Wałęsa on a gallows, there are signs and shouts saying: “Bolek to Moscow!”, and the effigy goes up in flames.
    And then we go back to the first image, in the street, as Lech W. pushes his way through the crowd more and more nervously, he starts to run, the undercover agents set off in pursuit, now we can see that he’s running up to the shipyard wall, he jumps over it and is suspended in mid-air. Freeze-frame.
    And then the main title: “Wałęsa, a film by Andrzej Wajda”, and we go back to the window in August. Because I’d already convinced Andrzej that is wasn’t We, the Polish Nation, but Man of Hope that hadn’t yet appeared.

Translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones