New biopic 30 years in the making to reveal ‘unknown life’ of controversial 1970s politician Edward Gierek
A hotly anticipated film about Poland’s 1970s communist-era leader Edward Gierek is to hit cinemas in January.
The filmmakers of the biopic named simply Gierek say it will reveal previously unknown details of the First Secretary’s private life.
For Poles, Gierek remains a divisive figure. For many, he brought a little colour to Communism and his time, the ‘Gierek decade’, is remembered with nostalgia.
Under his rule, millions of new homes were built, Poland’s first motorway was opened and the cold breath of the security apparatus thawed.
For others, he was just another communist perpetuating the hated Soviet domination. Whatever relative prosperity existed was paid for by a system of expensive foreign loans, which by the end of the decade caused the economy to plunge.
However, according to the film’s producer Janusz Heatcliff Iwanowski, no one knows his real story.
In order to find answers, Iwanowski spent 30 years collecting material for the film, including the account of a banker who lent money to Eastern Bloc countries, the story of a secretary who observed the Gierek era from the inside, and the memoirs of an advisor who helped Gierek change and modernise the Polish economy.
Iwanowski said: “This will not be a political film. We show Edward Gierek behind the scenes in a way that people have not seen before.
“Family relations that have never seen the light of day are an important part of the story, and Gierek himself will surprise many viewers.”
The film is set between 1970 and 1982, from the moment Gierek became Communist Party First Secretary up to the end of his internment during martial law.
Gierek took over as First Secretary on the wave of protests in December 1970 on the coast and in many Polish cities after the sudden price increases imposed by the authorities. The protests were bloodily suppressed by the army and saw 45 people killed and more than 1,500 injured.
In need of a new face, Gierek was regarded as a more worldly man than his predecessor Gomułka. He spoke French and had worked abroad. He was perceived as someone who could carry out reforms in Poland.
Born in 1913 near Porąbka, now a district of Sosnowiec, he left Poland with his family in the early 1920s to France to improve their financial situation.
Eventually, the family settled in the north of France in Leforest near Lille. In 1931, Gierek started his political career by joining the French Communist Party. Three years later, he organised a strike in a mine in Leforest, for which he was deported back to Poland.
In 1936, he emigrated again, this time to Belgium, where he again worked in a mine and was an active member of the Communist Party. It was in Belgium that he learned to speak fluent French.
During World War II, he joined a group of Polish-Belgian partisans. After the war, in 1948, he returned to Poland, where he continued his political career.
In 1952, he was elected to the Sejm for the first time and from there his career accelerated, becoming First Secretary for the Katowice Voivodship in 1957 and First Secretary of the whole party in 1970.
His first years as leader were marked by industrialisation and the improvement of living and working conditions.
He opened communist Poland to new Western ideas and loosened censorship, turning Poland into the most liberal country of the Eastern Bloc.
He used foreign loans to build over 1.8 million new flats and develop the heavy steel and coal industries in his native Silesia.
He was also responsible for starting the production of the Fiat 126 in Poland and the building of Warsaw Central railway station, the most modern European station at the time of its completion in 1975.
In 1976, Gierek opened the first fully-operational Polish highway from Warsaw to Katowice, which is still known today as the Gierek Highway.
However, by the end of the 1970s, Poland was plunged into economic decline. The country was so heavily indebted that rationing was introduced due to shortages as the government was unable to pay off the loans.
In 1980, he gave the Solidarity trade union official status in the Gdansk Agreement. In the crisis that followed Gierek was removed from office like his predecessor.
When General Jaruzelski introduced martial law in Poland on 13 December 1981, Gierek was interned for two years.
He never returned to politics and lived almost totally forgotten in Ustroń until his death from a mining-related lung infection in July 2001. Even the then president and prime minister, former communists Aleksander Kwaśniewski and Leszek Miller, did not attend his funeral.
In the film Gierek is played by Michał Koterski. To prepare for the role, the actor gained 17 kilograms and took French lessons.
Koterski said that playing Gierek was the biggest acting challenge he has had to face so far.
The impressive cast features Małgorzata Kożuchowska, who plays Gierek’s wife Stanisława, Jan Frycz as Primate Stefan Wyszyński and Cezary Żak as Leonid Brezhnev.
Gierek’s son, the former MEP Adam Gierek, has watched the film and commented about it enthusiastically.
“My father was an emotional man, and I think that Koterski portrays these emotions 100 per cent,” he said.
The film will appear in cinemas on 21 January 2022.