A lesson in Poland’s history…

…in movie form.

On Monday, when most of the Western world celebrates Armistice Day (and Japan celebrates Pocky Day) Poland has its Independence Day.

But that’s not the reason for this post. The main reason is that I’ve stumbled on YouTube upon an old TV movie, “Squaring the Circle” which I saw for the last time as a politically curious teenager back in Poland, on a secretly pirated VHS tape. I didn’t understand as much of it as I do now, and I don’t understand as much of it now as I probably should… but it’s a great movie for more reasons than one.

First, the cast and the crew are amazing in their own right: the script was written by the inimitable Tom Stoppard, the director was Mike Hodges – of Get Carter and Flash Gordon fame. The star-studded cast included Bernard Hill (Lord of the Rings), Richard Crenna (Rambo), Tom Wilkinson (Full Monty) and other classic British actors of the era. The script is a typical Stoppard: a mixture of hard historical observations, swift dialogue and comic surrealism. The production is very theatrical – all sets, apart from the Black Sea beach, are built in one studio, which plays at the same time a communist party assembly, Walesa’s private apartment, and a striking shipyard.

The characterizations are stunning, although that can probably only be appreciated by a Pole, or a historian of the time; you’ll have to take my word for it, but the characters are instantly recognizable to anyone who paid attention to Polish politics in the 1980s and early 90s. Not only the big star Walesa, but more obscure (abroad) characters like Kuron, Mazowiecki, Gwiazda – and even the communist leaders of the time – are played beautifully, with all their idiosyncrasies and ticks replayed to the dot; what makes it specially touching now is that most of these people are today, sadly, dead (Mazowiecki had just had his funeral last week).

Second reason why the picture is so important is as a historical document. It was made in 1983/84 – when the Martial Law had barely been lifted, when many of the main characters were still in prison, before Gorbachev and Perestroika, before anyone knew how things would end (in fact, there was still a very real possibility that it would all go tits up) – and, crucially, before the political wars of the 1990s destroyed the image of Solidarity and obfuscated the events of 1980/81. In that manner the movie is almost like a Gospel: a second-hand account of historical events, but as close to eyewitness as was ever possible. Nobody in Poland could make such a movie at the time, and by the time we could, it was too late: the hindsight, pettiness and personal animosities have obscured the truth. Not to mention, we didn’t have a Tom Stoppard to write it.

To anyone interested in Europe’s history of the late 20th century, this is a treat. To anyone interested in Poland’s recent history and politics, this is an obligatory viewing.

Part 1:

Part 2:

Part 3:

Part 4:

Part 5:

Part 6:

Part 7:

Part 8:

Part 9:

Part 10:

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