It’s always strange to see the subject of a movie alongside the person who portrayed them, more so when the story in question doesn’t exactly reflect well on them. In 2001, Jan “Lewan” Lewandowski was arrested for running a Ponzi scheme that robbed over 400 people of millions of dollars. In 2017, eight years after his release from prison, he was in attendance at the Sundance premiere of The Polka King, a film based on his life. When an audience member asked the filmmakers how much of the film tracked with what had happened in real life, Lewan shouted out, “Pretty much true!”
The ideology at the heart of The Polka King and the documentary that inspired it, The Man Who Would Be Polka King, is that of the American Dream: Jan Lewan came to America with nothing except aspirations of becoming a star. But this is a dream that falls somewhere between how we regard Bernie Madoff and how we regard Tommy Wiseau. The story is played as tragic, but while it’s easy to sympathize with Lewan’s rise and fall, it’s impossible to ignore that it was built on lies, and caused many people a lot of pain.
Lewan was born in Nazi-occupied Poland in 1941, and came to the United States in 1971. He worked pumping gas, collecting garbage, and lifting carcasses in a meat factory to support his musical aspirations. Ultimately, he settled in Pennsylvania, where he met his wife, Rhonda, and began building a polka empire. As his band grew in popularity, he took them on tour, and even hosted trips abroad, taking investors on excursions to Poland and to Rome to meet the pope.
If this story sounds too good to be true, it’s because it was. To support his business, Lewan sold unregistered promissory notes and promised returns of up to 20 percent. When the Pennsylvania Securities Commission told him to stop, he fabricated the number of investors he had to throw them off his trail. But the beginning of the end truly came with Rhonda’s bid to win the Mrs. Pennsylvania pageant, and an accident not too soon thereafter. Rhonda won the competition, but an investigation into tampered votes cast suspicion on Jan, who began losing his investors’ good faith. When his tour bus crashed, killing two of his band members, any chance he might have had at paying investors back dissipated completely.
It’s the kind of insanity that is stranger than fiction, and makes it difficult to reckon with the real Jan Lewan. Lewan is only human, and there’s no black and white scale by which to judge him. Despite all that we know that he’s done, it’s still horrifying to hear people say it’s a pity that his cellmate didn’t cut deeper into his neck, and it’s impossible not to feel pity for him as Rhonda recounts the car crash, recalling that Jan had said he would kill himself if his son died from the injuries that he’d sustained in the accident. Yet, it’s also difficult to feel too much sympathy for Lewan when, despite his penitence during his trial, he puts the blame for what happened largely on the people around him. (He also reportedly began writing his autobiography as soon as he went into jail, which is the kind of behavior you’d expect from a man still thinking about his brand and image.)
The Man Who Would Be Polka King, directed by Joshua Brown and John Mikulak, also reveals a man slightly more self-aware than his music would have you believe. The documentary opens just prior to Lewan’s hearing. “Last words are, I love everybody; I will do anything to make everybody happy,” he says into the camera. He’s still in salesman mode, smiling as he speaks, but there’s something in his demeanor that hints at something more complicated. And there’s just as much resignation in his voice as there is bitterness when he adds, “And this is another moment which probably quite a few people are gonna be very happy [about], when I go behind bars.”
The Polka King has a slightly harder time being even-handed simply by virtue of being a movie rather than a documentary, and the narrative demands that come with the territory. There are undeniably moments in which Lewan, played by Jack Black, comes off as heroic, but director Maya Forbes does her best to keep the ship on course. As Lewan, Black repeatedly returns to the confessional booth to ask for forgiveness for what he’s doing, and when his son is injured in the car crash, he sees it as God’s punishment.
The most telling moment of the film comes when the credits roll on The Polka King, as the image of Jack Black singing as Lewan is replaced by that of Lewan himself. The song—a polka rap that Lewan composed while incarcerated—is missing a crucial portion. In its full form, there’s a verse that goes, “The only crime I did commit was wanting to be famous. No one was hurt, and I did nothing heinous.” That it’s absent suggests an awareness of the effect of Lewan’s actions, and how impossible it is to absolve him of any culpability.
That Lewan seems to take the account as a fair portrayal brings up its own questions. But, as his Polka King counterpart says, “This is America. We all get second chance.”