Thursday, February 28, 2013

MAN OF MARBLE (1976) and MAN OF IRON (1981)

In two films director Andrzej Wajda runs the cinematic gamut from arthouse classicism to guerilla filmmaking in a race with accelerating history. Together, the films form a two-generation saga of disillusionment and resistance in Communist Poland. They're parallel stories of a father and son and two chroniclers. In Man of Marble (Czlowiek z Marmuru) we follow student documentarian Agnieszka (Krystyna Janda) in the footsteps of Citizen Kane as she watches old newsreels and interviews survivors to learn whatever happened to a once-famous hero of Polish labor. Her subject is Mateusz Birkut (Jerzy Radziwilowicz), once idolized for setting a record for bricklaying during the construction of the city of Nowa Huta. Birkut is the title character, supposedly immortalized in stone but soon to become an unperson, denounced as a foreign agent and saboteur. As Agnieszka penetrates the veil between film and reality, Wajda shows us some scenes twice. We first see Birkut's bricklaying feat as it was shown on in black and white in theaters: an exemplary story of heroic labor to build the new Poland. The reality, as remembered by living witnesses, is almost Fellini-esque in its absurdity as an audience gathers, a band plays constantly, and an announcer keeps score during the spectacle of bricklaying. The director's also careful to show us Birkut's moments of barely-suppressed annoyance as the newsreel camera gets in his face. Still, Birkut starts as an idealist truly committed to spreading a more efficient method of bricklaying, but everything goes downhill after an odd incident when his hands are burned by a superheated brick during one of his personal appearances. At the lowest point, he shows up during a show trial, in raw footage never shown until Agnieszka screens it, to implicate himself in the incident. Even the authorities find that too ridiculous to believe.

Man of Marble chronicles the sordid demise of whatever socialist idealism actually existed in Poland. The country never seems to have become the totalitarian dystopia of the typical American imagination -- the film, though partly censored, was actually released there -- but something has clearly gone terribly wrong, and may have been wrong from the beginning. If there was an idealism during Birkut's salad days, it was based on some belief that through propaganda people could be made to believe in a Communist future. By Agnieszka's time, you get the impression that nobody really bothers trying to convince anybody. By the time of Man of Iron (Czelowiek z Zelaza), which eventually picks up where Marble left off, it's as if Johnny Friendly's union from On the Waterfront runs the country. It's government by bullying control over jobs and favors rather than the totalitarian brainwashing of Orwellian nightmares. When the authorities decide that Agnieszka can't finish her Birkut documentary, she's reminded that the state paid her way through film school and provided for her in every way, and told that she owes the state loyalty in return, or else they'll make sure she never makes another movie. That's the logic that makes dependence a dirty word in political discourse: if you owe someone something, you can't question them. It shouldn't be so, but people in power tend to think differently. Agnieszka is ruined and eventually jailed.

 Before Wajda re-introduces us to Agnieszka he opens Man of Iron with the misadventures of  Winkel (Marian Opania). Winkel is pretty much Agneiszka's opposite: sloppy, alcoholic, cowardly. He is tasked by his superiors with researching the background of Maciej Tomczak (Radziwilowicz again), a Solidarity leader in Gdansk, for a hatchet-job TV documentary. Winkel is one of cinema's wretches, so abject in his alcoholism (Gdansk has gone dry during the 1980 shipyard strike) that he soaks paper towels with the booze from a broken bottle and squeezes the liquor into a glass to drink. He has no integrity but seems too cowardly to actually betray the independent union. As he conducts his interviews, we're reminded, since we first met Tomczak late in Man of Marble, that the agitator is Birkut's son. We now learn of Birkut's tragic last years. Still recognized as a workers' leader in the shipyard, he refused to lead the workers out in support of student protesters, including his son, during the global tumult of 1968. Two years later it was the workers' turn and Birkut died during a street melee. The government allows his family to bury the body, only to exhume and vanish it later. In protest, Tomczak erects a cross and lights a candle on the site near a bridge where his father fell.

Later, Winkel is snuck into prison to interview Agnieszka, who relates what happened to her since Man of Marble. She'd fallen in love with Tomczak and married him, with no less a personage than Lech Walesa the Solidarity leader (playing himself) as a witness. There's something exhilirating yet almost unseemly about the way Wajda embeds himself and his film in history as it happens. Man of Iron is one part Medium Cool, another part one of those old Mack Sennett one-reelers where he'd set Fatty, Mabel et al loose at some public event. The climax of all this comes when Tomczak is reunited with a liberated Agnieszka at the moment when the government recognizes Solidarity as a legitimate workers' representative. The reunion of the lovers seems to be shot as the historic speech is actually happening. Wajda's apparent freedom of movement is amazing, even considering that 1981 was another moment of dramatic liberalization in Poland until the martial-law declaration of December put Walesa in prison and drove Wajda into exile in western Europe (where he made Danton and other films). Wajda was careful enough not to close Man of Iron on that Capra-esque note of triumph. While the film does end with the lovers walking off together, we first see that Winkel, despite his best intentions, is not redeemed, or at least not forgiven by the victorious union. We also see a bullying party hack warn him, prophetically enough, that the agreement wouldn't stand, that the government had been under duress, etc. Winkel's last scenes strike discordant notes that serve the film well retroactively, but you do wonder why Wajda seems so unforgiving toward his creation. It may have simply been that Opania is so entertainingly wretched that you wouldn't want to change him.

Man of Marble and Man of Iron are historic films from near the front line of dissent inside the Cold War Communist bloc. While Wajda doesn't have a Wellsian pictorial imagination to match the Wellsian ambitions of the first film, both films make the most of dramatic figures in the drably epic landscapes of Gdansk and Nowa Huta. An optimistic romanticism surges to the surface by the climax of Man of Iron that almost requires the last Winkel scenes as a corrective. The contrast between Winkel and Agnieszka itself belies much of the rhetoric against totalitarian power; neither is purely a creature of state-controlled upbringing, since otherwise they'd be more alike. Character matters, in life and in art, and Wajda's commitment to character over ideology makes his diptych more richly realistic and more morally meaningful. These are anti-Communist films (capital C, please) that aren't simply arguments for free-market capitalism -- the heroes of the sequel, after all, are labor leaders. They transcend ideology in a way their audiences should emulate.

Krystyna Janda and Lech Walesa in Man of Iron;
it may have been a brush with greatness for both people.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

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