Tag Archives: Krystyna Janda

Man of Marble (1976)

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.

Przesłuchanie (1982)

Przesłuchanie is Polish film about a woman who stands up to her Stalinist torturers to protect a man she doesn’t love, and who, as she later finds out, was dead before they arrested her.

Filmed in 1982 during the brief period of cultural liberalization before the declaration of martial law, Przesłuchanie, or, The Interrogation, was banned in Poland for most of the 1980s. Nevertheless, director Ryszard Bugajski encouraged the circulation of illegal copies on VHS, and it became an underground classic before being shown at the Cannes Film Festival in 1990. Little seen today, at least partly because the Cold War ended and Poland is no longer communist, it’s as relevant in the age of Barack Obama, Gitmo, and the Bush torture/surveillance state as it was in the days of Wojciech Jaruzelski

Krystyna Janda, who won the Palme d’Or for Best Actress, stars as Antonina ‘Tonia’ Dziwisz, a nightclub singer. One night, during a raucous performance in front of a joyous crowd of largely working class people, she looks down off the stage to see her husband flirting with another woman. She gets drunk, then goes off with two young men, hoping to forget about her misery in the adulation of two of her fans. But they’re not her fans. They’re secret police officers.

The next morning Antonia wakes up in jail. Her two year journey through Stalin’s prison industrial complex — Antonia is arrested in 1951 and gets out of jail in 1953 — has begun. At first Antonia thinks she’s just another drunk who got picked up for disorderly conduct, that she’ll be out in a few days. After they take her to Lieutenant Morawski to be interrogated, she realizes that she’s facing something far more serious. The only problem is she that quite sincerely has no idea why they arrested her. Antonia is no saint. But she’s completely apolitical. Why would the secret police be interested in her?

Every day Antonia goes to Lieutenant Morawski to be interrogated. Every night she goes back to her cell, where she lives a half-dozen other women, almost all of whom have been detained for reasons as mysterious as her own. There’s also Witkowska, played by the well-known Polish film director Agnieszka Holland. Witkowska the Communist no more belongs in a secret police jail than Antonia, but, unlike Antonia, she has no “bourgeois” illusions about guilt or innocence. Subjectively, she explains, she’s innocent. Objectively she’s guilty, having once been assigned to give a tour of government facilities to an American communist who turned out not to be a communist at all, but, a western intelligence agent. The best thing Antonia can do, she says, is to confess to some crime, any crime, lest the secret police believe she’s guilty of something even worse.

Lieutenant Morawski and his even more thuggish colleague, Major Zawada Kapielowy, certainly want Antonia to confess to a crime, but they’re even more interested in her sex life. “Are you going to ask me about the first time in grade school I ever kissed a boy?” she asks Kapielowy. “Yes,” he says, not joking. He and Morawski are, in fact, mainly  interested in her sex life. A man she had once had a casual hookup with had been a member of the “Home Army” (the anti-communist resistance during the German occupation), or, maybe, he hadn’t. We never really find out out much about Antonia’s one night stand. He’s mainly an excuse for Kapielowy and Morawski to break her rebellious spirit, to cow her into becoming a good Stalinist just like Witkowska the Communist. Eventually he becomes an excuse for Antonia to assert herself against the tyrannical state.

“The obedient and well behaved don’t always get rewarded,” she says to Morawksi, who asks her what ideal she has that keeps her so defiant. “That’s really the only thing I believe.”

Call it totalitarianism as slut shaming, and slut shaming as totalitarianism. Krystyna Janda’s performance as Antonia is as good, or even better than Michael Fassbender’s performance in the very similar Hunger or Daniel Day Lewis’ as Gerry Conlon in In The Name of the Father. Poland may be a conservative Catholic country, but Polish cinema often produces female heroes far and away more three dimensional and vivid than American cinema does. All you have to do is watch The Interrogation through and try to imagine how ridiculous Angelina Jolie would have been in the same role to realize what a talented an actor Janda really is. Antonia runs the entire gamut of emotions, from utter despair to defiance without a missing a beat. Janda, who was in her late 20s when they filmed The Interrogation, very credibly ages from a vital young woman when arrested to a tired, demoralized middle-aged woman when she’s released shortly after Stalin’s death. Above all, she manages to convey the bewilderment, then despair, and ultimately the defiance of an innocent woman targeted by the state. When she finally just laughs at her torturers, we want to stand up and applaud.

Przesłuchanie is set during the early 1950s, but it’s clear that its target is Wojciech Jaruzelski as much as Stalin. Przesłuchanie is not a work of history but an act of defiance. Ryszard Bugajski and all of the actors knew that the Communist Party would eventually crack down on Solidarity and reassert their authoritarian control. This is no subtle dig full of ambiguity like Wadja’s Man of Iron. It’s a slap in the face of people who would, ultimately, prevent it from being distributed in Poland and greatly impede its success in the west. Indeed, while western critics did promote anti-Communist films like Wadja’s Danton, they seemed to shy away from this one. Why? Maybe it hits too close to home. Antonia’s imprisonment and torture isn’t peculiar to Communist Poland. Far from it. What American filmmaker would dare make a similar film about Gitmo?