Andrzej Wajda has always been a difficult filmmaker to pin down ideologically. Almost 90, he made his first film, A Generation, under Poland’s Stalinist government in the early 1950s. His greatest work, Ashes and Diamonds, was released in 1958, two years after the death of pro-Moscow hardliner Bolesław Bierut. He continued to make films in the 1960s and 1970s under Poland’s more moderate form of communism, went into exile in the 1980s, then returned to Poland in the 90s, eventually making the openly anti-communist Katyn in 2007. Wajda knows how to bend with the political wind.
Man of Marble, made at the beginning of the Solidarity era, looks ahead to the fall of communism, yet back to Orson Welles and Leni Reifenstahl. It is perhaps, the greatest film ever made about making a film, if only because it’s a botched film about a botched film. The script, which had languished in pre-production limbo since the 1960s, finally got made in 1976. Yet Poland, in 1976, was still ruled by an authoritarian government, and Wajda had to allude to the fate of his proletarian hero, not put it up on screen. He would fill in the gaps in the sequel, Man of Iron, which he made in 1981, just before Wojciech Jaruzelski’s declaration of martial law, but it is the confrontation with censorship and repression that makes Man of Marble such an intriguing failure.
The first thing to keep in mind before you watch Man of Marble is that the Germans completely destroyed Poland during the Second World War. There was barely a structure in place when the Soviet army finally liberated Warsaw in 1945. The old city center had to be restored using using drawings by an 18th Century Italian painter. The iconic Palace of Art and Culture, built from 1952 to 1955 by Russian, not Polish workers, was a “gift to the Polish nation”from Joseph Stalin himself. There was a severe housing shortage.
Man of Marble, which is set in the 1970s, opens with Agnieszka, a film student played by the 23-year-old Krystyna Janda, trying to convince her thesis advisor to let her make a documentary about a man named Mateusz Birkut. In the 1950s, Birkut had been a bricklayer, a young peasant who had moved from his parents’ farm in the country to work on a gigantic industrial housing project just outside of Krakow, the new model city of Nowa Huta — think Coop City in the Bronx, only four times as large, and complete with its own steel mill — a Robert Moses sized project which would eventually house over 200,000 people.
Man of Mable is structured as a series of flashbacks, told from the point of view of the not always reliable narrators Agnieszka interviews for her film. Back in the 1950s, Jodla, the local Stalinist apparatchik, realized that the construction of Nowa Huta had value as communist propaganda. So he allowed Jerzy Burski, a filmmaker, to use Birkut as part of a publicity stunt. The average bricklayer could lay a little under 2000 bricks in one shift. If he could push a team of 5 bricklayers into putting down 28,000 bricks in one shift and film it, Burski explains, it would be a propagandistic coup, a vindication of socialist collectivism over capitalist individualism. Birkut and his team don’t lay 28,000 bricks. They lay well over 30,000 bricks, and Birkut becomes another Aleksei Stakhanov, a genuinely proletarian hero of the communist party. But then something happens. Burski’s film which he had intended to call Building Our Happiness, never gets finished. Mateusz Birkut disappears from history.
Agnieszka becomes Wajda’s Jerry Thompson, determined to track down the ultimate fate of Mateusz Birkut in much the same way Thompson wants to find out why Charles Foster Kane uttered the word “Rosebud” on his deathbed. But Mateusz Birkut is a faceless construction worker, not a newspaper tycoon, and communist Poland is not the capitalist United States. Where Jerry Thompson was working to satisfy a celebrity culture that wanted every bit of information it could get on Charles Foster Kane, Agnieszka is pushing against an authoritarian government that doesn’t like to admit mistakes. Thompson eventually fails. Kane’s childhood sled, Rosebud, is thrown into the furnace. Agnieszka succeeds, tracking down Birkut’s son, and learning that his father was killed in the massive wave of strikes and protests that erupted in Poland in 1970. That we have to wait for Man of Iron to find out exactly what Agnieszka found out in her quest is part of what makes Man of Marble such a a fascinating movie. Agnieszka’s film, like Burski’s, is buried by the communist authorities. But it’s not the distribution of the finished product that counts. It’s the process of discovery, the making of the film itself, that has value.
Looking back at Man of Marble 40 years after it was made, and 25 years after the fall of communism, what strikes me is that, whether intentionally or not, Wajda managed to predict how the neoliberal Eastern Europe that would follow communist Eastern Europe had its seed in communism itself. Even if by accident, he made something more than simple anti-communist propaganda. He made a film that demonstrates how secrecy, authoritarianism, and grandiose publicity stunts poison genuine idealism. Birkut, who sincerely believes in the Polish working class, is sent down the memory hole. Jerzy Burski, on the other hand, becomes a famous filmmaker who jet sets back and forth to Caan. Michalak, the sleazy secret police officer who destroys Birkut in the 1950s, becomes a sleazy nightclub owner and pornographer in the 1970s. Wincenty Witek, Birkut’s best friend whom Michalak frames as a saboteur, is rehabilitated and becomes a senior communist official.
Birkut, in effect, becomes a bit like one of those heroes of the anti-Vietnam-war movement who never married Jane Fonda, never got into the headlines, and never sold out to “the man.” Unlike Witek, he won’t compromise his principles. Like Mario Savio, he has brief moment of glory followed by decades of hard work, anonymity, and poverty. He participated in the bricklaying stunt because building Nowa Huta was something he genuinely believed in. But after the Polish communist party reveals itself to be an authoritarian fraud, he chooses an unrewarding life of petty rebellion over opportunism, conformism, and prosperity. Agnieszka, who bears a striking physical resemblance to a young Leni Riefenstahl, had intended to become the anti-Leni Riefenstahl , to lodge a protest against totalitarian propaganda by deconstructing the official legend of the proletarian superman Mateusz Birkut. Instead, she finds a man of genuine integrity.
Final Note: The jazzy techno soundtrack of Man of Marble, which is supposed to represent the shiny new world of the 1970s, is so bad is almost ruins the film.