Janek Wiśniewski Padł

Poland’s 1970 shipyard protests occurred on 17 Dec. Janek Wiśniewski, the subject of the song above, was actually named Zbigniew Godlewski. He was 18 years old, lived in Elbląg, and worked at the Paris Commune Shipyard [now Gdynia Shipyard].

Before Godlewski’s identity was discovered, the image of his body being carried on a door through the streets of Gdynia became a symbol for the striking workers. He was given the “John Doe”-type moniker of Janek Wiśniewski and inspired poems and songs, most notably Janek Wiśniewski Padł by Mieczysław Cholewa [his rendition is here]. Cholewa’s version of the song is slow, its anger rising to the surface toward the end.

The version of Janek Wiśniewski Padł in the clip above is sung by Krystyna Janda at the end Andrzej Wajda’s 1981 film Man of Iron; she later performed the song at Solidarity’s 25th Anniversary Concert. Man of Iron is a slightly fictionalized version of some of Poland’s tumultuous events of 1968, 1970, and 1980, told from a very recent historical perspective and in a way that could be approved by censors. Here is a shot of Zbigniew Godlewski’s body from the film:

Janek Wiśniewski

This is an actual photograph of the event:

The subtitles in the clip above are a bit misleading. I’ve noted the main lyrical differences between Cholewa’s and Janda’s versions in the brackets below. Janda sings of a red ribbon, while the ribbon is black in Cholewa’s version. He also includes a more direct indictment in the verse that Wajda omitted from his film.

Boys from Grabówek, boys from Chylonia
Today the military used arms
Bravely we stood, accurately we threw
Janek Wiśniewski fell

On a door we carried him along Świętojańska
Against the cops, against the tanks
Boys, shipyard workers, avenge your comrade
Janek Wiśniewski fell

The bangers sound, the gas spreads
Blows fall on the workers
Children, elderly, women are falling
Janek Wiśniewski fell

One is wounded, another killed
Blood was spilled at dawn in December
It’s the Party shooting at the workers
Janek Wiśniewski fell

[Bloody Kociołek is the Tricity’s executioner
Because of him the children, women are dying
Wait, you bastard, we’re going to get you
Janek Wiśniewski fell]

Shipyard workers of Gdynia, workers of Gdańsk
Go home, the battle is over
The world learned about this, and said nothing
Janek Wiśniewski fell

Don’t cry mothers, it wasn’t for nothing
There’s a black [red] ribbon above the shipyard
For bread and freedom, and a new Poland
Janek Wiśniewski fell

But, the most important difference between the lyrics and the subtitles is that the song actually names different towns. Yes, “the boys” came from “all over” but, more significantly, they were different sorts of workers from very distinct communities. What makes this folk song so powerful and beautiful, in my opinion, is that it acknowledges Poland’s strong regionalism, and manages to indict everyone in the face of this unification of provincial factions.

The reality, of course, was not so simple. Lisa DiCaprio explained some of the events of the time, and those depicted in Man of Iron, in her essay in Jump Cut. But, an effective protest song touches the soul and rallies people together, and Janek Wiśniewski Padł still makes the hair on the back of my neck stand every time I hear it.


5 thoughts on “Janek Wiśniewski Padł

  1. I haven’t seen ‘Man of Iron’, but your juxtaposition of the frame from the film, and the historical “documentary”-still raises a provocative question: What lies inside the interstices between Memory and History? And — not something I’m necessarily sure (not having seen ‘Man of Iron’) this is something that the film has taken into its plan of inquiry: — What is the point of re-enacting an Image? This can radiate into hazardous material, hazardous because the danger of Pastiche lies dormant at every second.

    Granted, the risk of full-blown volcanization tends to increase when the History in focus is one of particular gravity, or of mass death. (Part of the reason why the only good films ever made about the Holocaust [which take it full on as their subject] number three: Resnais’s ‘Night and Fog’; Godard’s ‘Histoire(s) du cinéma’; and Lanzmann’s ‘Shoah’.) But there’s even something strange that happens in low-risk events, like, let’s say, making a film about Thomas Jefferson in Paris with his slave, or Vaclav Havel at 6 blowing out the candles on a cake. Or, for that matter, Spielberg’s terrible centerpiece to his mostly terrible career.

    BTW, I’m with you on the lyrics — you can never trust subtitlers. Half the time the person doing them is “in a rush”, and isn’t exactly a peer of Pevear/Volokhonsky, let alone hoisting aloft the Nabokov ‘Evgeniy Onegin’ as a paragon. I know this because I deal all the time with the subtitles on the checkdiscs of the films we release, constantly editing the work of, then sending back the revisions to, the in-house subtitler-of-that-language at the authoring-house we work with. The “shortcut” / “this specific-detail doesn’t really matter” attitude is INFURIATING, and — at least as far as I’m able to infer on such red-flag occasions, given my knowledge of the language or [if it’s not French or German] obvious inferences I’m able to make reasonably about what’s being spoken / is written onscreen and what’s presented in the subtitles — I stand for NONE of it. So I’m grateful for your presentation of the precise translation here; it’s really the only valid attitude. I mean, if one really cares. (As I see it, the whole counterargument regarding ‘ease-of-readability given the amount of time the subtitle has to flash on and off’ should be of practically no concern to either the subtitler, the filmmaker, or the DVD producer.)

    FYI: The male lead of ‘Man of Iron’ is Jerzy Radziwiłowicz, one of the greatest actors in the world, and who has also enjoyed a successful career in France. He’s the male lead in the masterly ‘Secret défense’ [‘Top Secret’] from 1997 by Jacques Rivette (my favorite living filmmaker next to Godard, Rohmer, Jerry Lewis, and Philippe Garrel), and in Rivette’s second-to-most-recent feature, the 2003 ‘Histoire de Marie et Julien’ [‘Story of Marie and Julien’] — in my opinion, one of Rivette’s greatest masterpieces. Both are Netflixable.


  2. Regarding paragraph 2 in my comment, I also just wanted to add that the cinema is something mysterious, in that (in one sense) the rules of ‘citation’ do not apply to it, or let’s say jibe with it, the same way they might in a historical novel. This doesn’t mean the “biopic” is a useless endeavor (although as far as Hollywood and the foreign-language-Oscar-films approach it, it always ends that way), but like I suggested, material of a historical origin takes on a much more… electric resonance when it’s being rendered cinematographically. This doesn’t mean that the only way to present a story of a life or of an event is with some kind of “Brechtian” treatment, but it does serve to emphasize that in cinema a filmmaker has to be aware of two things: the plasticity of the image, and Grace. (Which I won’t belabor a definition of here, although it is a deep and very REAL part of the ontology of cinema, but will cite Godard, from his ‘Histoire(s)’: “The cinema: neither an art, nor a technique; a mystery.”) It’s the difference between Pialat making ‘Van Gogh’ (or, for that matter, Minnelli making ‘Lust for Life’), and Ed Harris making ‘Pollock.’

    On a tangent (or parallel?) note, the filmmaker Pedro Costa said to me recently that “maybe there are some things the cinema was never supposed to be able to show.”


  3. Craig, the mental image of the body being carried on a door is one of the most powerful shared memories of post-WWII Poland. It’s something I “remember” although I wasn’t born yet. In fact, my “memory” of this is so strong that I’m convinced that I “know” it was a cherry wood door — a simple mistake, as Wiśniewski translates to “Cherryson.” I really feel that I remember seeing it in this way. But, Wajda often mixed historical footage into his films, so I don’t know why he chose the reenactment for this.

    BTW, there is a street in Gdynia named for Zbigniew Godlewski and another for Janek Wiśniewski — that’s how powerful this “John Doe” legend is.

    Also BTW, Lech Wałęsa plays himself in Man of Iron; you can see him in the very beginning of this clip. One of the things that fascinates me about this film, as opposed to the much more readily available Man of Marble [in which Radziwiłowicz plays this character’s father, and which I also recommend], is that the events depicted in this film were so recent that our understanding of them was still being shaped [and Wajda’s film not only shaped our understanding but, to some extent, the events themselves]. The film was released in July; in December, Martial Law was declared, which was the major step backward hinted at in the film.

    And why Man of Iron was ever allowed to be created is a major mystery to me. Why would the government allow Wajda to tell the shipyard workers’ story? What kind of ineffectual oppression is that?

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