In 80 Million, the 2011 film from Waldemar Krzystek, Ocean’s 11 meets the Solidarity Movement in 1980s Poland. It’s fast paced, witty, fun and easy, yet driven by an idealism which the American blockbuster lacks. Directed by Waldemar Krzystek in 2011, it’s set the tone for a new way of approaching Poland’s experience of communism.
‘We didn’t want to make another monument’, said lead actor Wojciech Solarz (playing Stazsek, a young journalist and printer) in the discussion following the Ognisko screening of the film last week. ‘We wanted to show normal people, not heroes. We now have the distance to tell such stories with a sense of humour. There are 10,000 such stories across families in Poland. I hope this is only the beginning of telling them.’
One such instance of humour is a line by Anka, a violinist supporting Solidarity and Stazsek’s wife, who fills a friend in with their baby’s development: ‘He’s well, he already knows how to say “mummy”, “daddy”, “Lech Walesa’”.
Well, it’s not all bright and bubbly – it’s still a film depicting the fight against a totalitarian regime. The plot tells the story of four young men who are friends and take part in the Solidarity movement at its beginnings from1981 to 1982, writing articles, printing posters and going to marches.
But they also do some more surprising things. They catch and take pictures of the militia painting swastikas on graves at night to prove these acts of vandalism weren’t performed – as a supine national television service had it – by Solidarity members (any resemblances to contemporary propaganda methods aren’t purely incidental: they’re tested means). But the main act driving the plot – and determining the title of the film – is the ‘theft’ of 80 million in cash.
In actual fact, it’s not exactly a theft – the money has been given to the Solidarity movement by Western organisations. Instead, it’s a withdrawal of more cash than permitted by the government, interpreted as robbery by the compliant media and police. Of money which then gets hidden with the Archbishop…
Repeatedly throughout the film you hear and see action explicitly through a camera lens, demonstrating how the Secret Services followed these young men and their relatives about and tried to figure out their actions. There’s no privacy, only constant surveillance and the attempt to escape it through coded language, faked car registrations, snatched rendezvous in bus stations.
One thing surprising in the film is how many of the system’s supposed representatives – militia men, a chief of bank, a bank employee – have themselves lost belief in communist rule. But it’s told subtly, through half-smiles and cheeky glances, delayed reports to the police, as well as through major plot twists.
The film’s inspired by real events and stories. ‘The woman at the bank visited the set,’ actor Maciej Makowski told us. ‘She said she’d never seen such huge eyes as on the man looking at the 80 million. But the action was less ‘nervous’ and tense in real life,’ he added. ‘The main characters partied more and got distracted by “pretty girls”‘.
35 years after the beginnings of Solidarity, and over 70 following the tragedies of World War II, Polish film is gaining the detachment passing time allows in. Indeed, with films such as Jacek Bromski’s Ticket to the Moon (2013) and The Eccentrics: The Sunny Side of the Street (Majewski, 2015), both of which take a less fraught and leaden view of life in communist Poland, lightness seems to have become almost a movement in recent Polish films – and perhaps 80 Million was the film that began it.
This screening of Waldemar Krzystek’s 80 Million (2011) was part of the ongoing monthly cultural programme at Ognisko Polskie, South Kensington.