Man of Iron (1981)

In 1976 the renowned Polish director Andrzej Wajda released a film called Man of Marble. Starring Krystyna Janda as Agnieszka, a young filmmaker based loosely on his assistant Agnieszka Holland, Man of Marble had a complex narrative structure modeled on Citizen Kane, a technique the cagey Wajda used to get around Communist Party censorship. Unlike Welles’ Jerry Thompson, Agnieszka was not looking for the secret past of a well-known man, Charles Foster Kane, a multi-millionaire press baron and politician, but rather the secret history of her country’s past as embodied by an obscure man named Mateusz Birkut. Birkut was a construction worker who had gotten his 15 minutes of fame in the 1950s for the Stakhanovite feat of laying a record number of bricks during the construction of Nowa Huta, a gigantic housing project outside of Kraków. Then he had simply disappeared from history. It was a clever approach. The Polish government couldn’t easily censor their best-known filmmaker’s decision to make a movie honoring a hero right out of the Stalinist tradition of socialist realism. Birkut’s difficult personality, however, the fact that he turned out to be an angry malcontent, allowed Wajda to criticize the corrupt Polish establishment without openly breaking with communism.

In September of 1980, 17,000 workers at the Lenin Shipyards in the Baltic port city of Gdansk went out on strike. Led by a 37-year-old electrician named Lech Wałesa, the Gdansk strike sparked a social movement with demands that went beyond wages, bread and butter to the idea of independent trade unions and multi-party social democracy. For a filmmaker like Andrzej Wajda the rise of Solidarity meant an almost western level of artistic freedom. Suddenly the Polish government had more important things to worry about than whether or not a movie toed the communist party line or not. Wajda, who was never really satisfied with Man of Marble, decided to remake it. Racing against time – he was much too smart not to realize that while the one party state in Poland was doomed, the end wouldn’t come in 1980 or 1981– he quickly assembled a film crew and a cast that included both Krystyna Janda and Jerzy Radziwiłowicz, who played Man of Marble’s Mateusz Birkut. Man of Iron, which came out in July of 1981, was released just in time. Although it would go on to win the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival, it was banned in Poland after Wojciech Jaruzelski’s December 1981 declaration of martial law, and wouldn’t be seen again in its home country until the end of communism in 1989.

If Man of Marble is the Polish Citizen Kane, the Man of Iron is the Polish Medium Cool, Haskell Wexler’s revolutionary film about the 1968 police riot at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago. Like Wexler, Wajda creates a fictional cast of characters then throws them into what will soon become an important historical event, filming while the story is still on the evening news, letting his actors get lost in a crowd of historical actors until they become part of the very history they witness. Unlike Wexler, who was a great cameraman but not necessarily a great screenwriter, Wajda is not only witnessing a genuine revolution (as opposed to a violent police riot). His characters have already been fully developed in an earlier movie. The result is something we haven’t seen since the Golden Age of Hollywood, when real life western legends teamed up with cinematic geniuses like John Ford, or the Second World War, when Sergei Eisenstein filmed Ivan the Terrible even as the Soviet Army was holding the line at Moscow and Leningrad against the Nazi invasion.

Man of Marble’s Agnieszka was a heroic character, an artist who wouldn’t compromise her principles to get ahead. Although she reappears in Man of Iron, she is replaced as the narrative anchor by a character named Winkel. Played by Marian Opania, Winkel is anything but heroic. Critical of the state as a very young man, Winkel has become not only a reliable propagandist for Communist Party television, but a wretched, self-hating alcoholic. He knows his life is a sham, but he can’t find the strength to rebel. After the strike erupts at the Lenin Shipyards, however, and all of Gdansk becomes a no-go area for the Communist Party, Winkel suddenly becomes useful, as a snitch. Indeed, even though he’s a 1970s communist journalist in Poland, Winkel seems remarkably like a corporate reporter assigned to cover Occupy Wall Street in New York in 2011. His employers at the television station, feeling that his past as a half-hearted dissident might get him into the Lenin shipyards – where the strikers have banned Polish state owned media – give him a bottle of vodka, a bag of money, rent him a hotel room, and assign him to dig up dirt on Maciej Tomczyk, Wajda’s fictional stand in for Lech Wałesa and, as it turns out, the son of Man of Marble’s Mateusz Birkut. For Wajda to put himself into the shoes of a compromised little worm like Winkel instead someone like Haskell Wexler’s rebel cameraman John John Cassellis is a radical move. Poland’s greatest filmmaker is abasing himself before the revolution, apologizing for the compromises he has made over the decades to get by the censors, admitting that there’s a fine line between documenting an uprising and being a snitch. It’s too bad those two little assholes at the University of Missouri couldn’t have recognized the same thing.

As Winkel half heartedly attempts to carry out his job as a provocateur an informer, he follows the same path Agnieszka did in Man of Marble, uncovering the buried past, Citizen Kane style, through a series of extended interviews, learning the history of Maciej Tomczyk the way Agnieszka learned the history of Mateusz Birkut. Winkel’s first interview is with Dzidek, an old friend of Maciej from his university days who Winkel once helped to land a job in television. We learn about Maciej’s stormy relationship with his father. Played by the same actor, they are lookalikes. Wajda manages to use body doubles, cutting, pasting and editing to make their arguments look realistic. In 1968, we learn, there was a general strike by Poland’s university students, a strike Mateusz and the workers at the Lenin Shipyard refused to support because they were sure it would fail. Two years later, in 1970, a similar strike by the workers themselves failed, partly because the university students decided to sit it out. They were still angry the workers hadn’t supported them in 1968. After Winkel moves on from Dzidek to Wiesława Hulewicz, an elderly woman who witnessed the events surrounding the strike in 1970, we learn the secret that Wajda was never able to tell us in Man of Marble, that he could only hint at lest his film be suppressed by government censors. Mateusz Birkut had not only been murdered, along with dozens of other strikers, by the police. The communist party had dug up his grave and moved his body in order that his final resting place couldn’t become a rallying point for future dissidents. In the 1950s, Mateusz Birkut had his 15 minutes of fame as a Stakhanovite worker. When he proved himself to have too much integrity to be used for state propaganda, he was sent back into proletarian obscurity. When he tried to organize his fellow workers, he was shot, then thrown into an unmarked grave, disappeared as though he had never existed. Such was the fate of independent minded proletarians under Polish communism.

When Winkel moves on to Maciej’s mother and then finally Agnieszka, who had married Maciej, we learn how he became the driving force behind Wajda’s fictionalized Gdansk strike, even as his alter ego, the historical Lech Wałesa, became the driving force behind the real Gdansk strike. I don’t know enough about Polish history to discuss how close the fictional Maciej is to the historical Walesa, or how differently their efforts as organizing their fellow workers may have been, but Maciej’s political agitation takes on an added urgency. If the 1980 strike fails the way the strikes in 1968 and 1970 did, he may be headed for the same end as his father, a bullet in the head and an unmarked grave. Wajda quite obviously had no way of knowing in the Summer and Fall of 1980 how the Gdansk strike would end, if Solidarity would succeed in establishing itself as an independent, non-governmental trade union or not, but he ends on a hopeful, if sobering note. Agnieszka is released from prison and Solidarity pressures the Polish government into recognizing them as a legitimate labor union. We also learn during a meeting between Winkel and his now ex-boss that the government has no intention of keeping the agreement they just made. Indeed, that’s what happened. Wojciech Jaruzelski declared martial law in December of 1981, banned Solidarity, rolled back the artistic freedom that Wajda enjoyed while filming Man of Iron, and subjected Poland to a final 8 years of neo-Stalinist rule before the Berlin Wall came down in 1989.

Nevertheless, we also realize that the one-party state is doomed. By the time Winkel is finally unmasked as a snitch, he’s no longer a snitch. He has thrown in his lot with the uprising and quit his job at the TV station. We can see why. Throughout Man of Iron, we observe how a doomed struggle for democracy, civil liberties and artistic freedom is more rewarding than to be on the side of the oppressors, even if the oppressors win. I do not know if Wajda was familiar with Haskell Wexler’s work, with either his fictionalized documentary Medium Cool, or his ground breaking use of natural light in Terence Malick’s Days of Heaven, but his decision to film Man of Iron mostly just before sunset and just after sunrise indites that he was working along the same lines. Wajda shoots his party bureaucrats and state propagandists mostly indoors, mostly under artificial lighting. The effect is to flatten state power, to make the oppressor look drab. Initially we Winkel under the same lighting. As he takes his spiritual journey through the past and present in Gdansk, however, we begin to see him more and more “in the same light” as Maciej and Agnieszka, in the “golden hour” just before the sun comes up and just before it goes down. We remember the film’s opening, a woman reading a poem by Czesław Miłosz. We realize that the film has come full circle. Winkel no longer has a job. But he has moved from the matrix of the communist state into the world of flesh and blood, from the a way of seeing the world imposed upon you by power and propaganda into seeing the world with your own eyes.


Hope is with you when you believe
The earth is not a dream but living flesh,
that sight, touch, and hearing do not lie,
That all things you have ever seen here
Are like a garden looked at from a gate.

You cannot enter. But you’re sure it’s there.
Could we but look more clearly and wisely
We might discover somewhere in the garden
A strange new flower and an unnamed star.

Some people say that we should not trust our eyes,
That there is nothing, just a seeming.
They are the ones who have no hope.
They think the moment we turn away,
The world, behind our backs, ceases to exist,
As if snatched up by the hand of thieves.

One thought on “Man of Iron (1981)”

  1. Reblogged this on Writers Without Money and commented:

    If Man of Marble is the Polish Citizen Kane, the Man of Iron is the Polish Medium Cool, Haskell Wexler’s revolutionary film about the 1968 police riot at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago.

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