Poland on Film
Poland’s Andrzej Wajda is by far the best known film-maker from the Communist world, and the one most honored in the West. In Western Europe, Wajda is ranked along with Bergman, Fellini, and Kurosawa as one of the “greats.”
All these directors bear the indelible marks of their national cultures, but Wajda’s career, in addition, has been tied directly to the history of Poland—and most particularly its recent history, that of the period during and following World War II. His latest film, Man of Iron, which carried off the top award at the latest Cannes Film Festival and was chosen to honor the closing night of the recent Film Festival in New York, is entirely and passionately devoted to Poland’s Solidarity movement.
Wajda burst on the international film scene in 1957 with Kanal, a story of the great rising of the Polish Home Army in Warsaw in the summer and fall of 1944 against the German Wehrmacht. The movie was widely admired in the West for its directorial skill, its excellent, acting, its romantic patriotism—and also the heroism of its characters. Most Western film critics, however, were never very clear as to just who these Poles were who rose so fearlessly against the Germans.
The Home Army was the fully armed anti-Nazi resistance movement under the command of Stanislaus Mikolajczyk of the “London Poles,” the wartime Polish government in exile. The army, hyper-nationalist and also anti-Communist, had only five years earlier fought the Red Army from Warsaw when Soviet troops had invaded Poland from the east. After the end of World War II, which saw the installation of a Moscow-directed Communist regime in Poland, and up until the events of 1956 (the Hungarian revolution, de-Stalinization in Moscow, the rise of Gomulka in Poland), the Home Army was invariably characterized by Polish Communist authorities as so much fascist scum. Thus the release of a brilliant and powerful film in which the soldiers of the Home Army had suddenly been converted into patriots and heroes set off a shock wave in Poland that is hard to imagine abroad.
For although the movie was about a rising against the Nazis, it posed the question of the Russians. The Warsaw uprising had been timed to take advantage of the advance of the Red Army from the east; Soviet troops were reaching the Vistula, on the opposite bank from Warsaw, just as the rising began. But the Russians had no wish to deal with a free Polish government, or a Warsaw which had liberated itself, and they did not move from their positions—just a few hundred yards away—during the entire battle. The RAF, flying all the way from Britain, did its best to support the rising with airdrops, but for three months the Russians sent not a man, not a bullet, not a loaf of bread, merely watching from the other bank of the Vistula while the Germans killed an estimated 370,000 Poles and left, of Warsaw, hardly a stone upon a stone.
The story of Kanal is of a platoon of soldiers of the Home Army who fight, descending into the Warsaw sewers (hence the title), and, one by one, all die. The Russians are never mentioned. Naively I once asked a roomful of Poles in Warsaw if Poles today were aware of where Soviet troops had stopped while the Home Army was locked in its last, doomed struggle with the Wehrmacht. My question was greeted with stunned silence. One Pole answered: “There is not a Pole alive who does not know where the Russians were during the Warsaw rising.” Meaning, on the other bank of the river, watching the Poles die.
Wajda did not stop there. His next film, Ashes and Diamonds, equally brilliant, equally emotional, went even further. Its hero is a wartime anti-Communist guerrilla who actually fights the regime being put in place in Poland by Moscow, assassinating a Communist Party Secretary on V-E Day. This hero was played by Poland’s leading film star, the extraordinarily gifted and appealing Zbigniew Cybulski (later to die in a tragic accident). The film owes much to the peculiar romantic magnetism of Cybulski himself, but his character, to say the least, is hardly treated unsympathetically. At worst he is a misguided patriot; but courageous, idealistic, fighting against great odds—for Poland.
Even a glancing summary of these two films gives an idea of the intense nationalism which infuses Wajda’s work. But it should be pointed out that making them did not really entail acts of personal bravery on Wajda’s part. The simplest way of putting the case is that the line had changed, and Wajda was taking advantage of it.
From the point of view of the Soviet ideology of 1956, the concessions made to Poland in that year of crisis were extensive. The collectivization of agriculture was halted, even reversed, leaving over 80 percent of the land in private hands. Small private business enterprises were authorized (with a limitation on the number of workers). Gomulka, a “right-wing deviationist,” was released from prison, to the cheering of vast crowds, to become First Secretary of the Polish Communist party and the new national leader. Compared to what had happened in Budapest, and how close the situation had been in Poznan and Warsaw, Soviet leaders must have felt that allowing the Poles to make movies honoring their national heroes—even movies tinged with Russophobia—was a small price to pay to assure Poland’s tranquility, and would even provide an emotional escape valve. This was a way of thinking markedly different from that obtaining in the USSR itself, but Moscow had decided that countries like Hungary and Poland had different cultural backgrounds and, within limits, were to be allowed vagaries which Would never be tolerated in the Soviet Union.
But whatever the special circumstances that allowed Wajda to make Kanal and Ashes and Diamonds, there can be no mistaking, either in them or in his later work, the extraordinary degree to which he encompasses within himself so many of his country’s most distinctive cultural traits. It is a historical fact, for instance, that the first great wave of industralization in Poland at the end of the 19th century, when most of Poland was still under Russian rule, was carried out mainly by Germans and Jews. With their captains of industry largely foreign (for the Jews, with their own culture and language, were not considered Poles), the Polish people retained, for lack of a “national” industrial and commercial class, what has been called a clear case of feudal “aristocracy identification,” placing inordinate importance on the military virtues of valor, patriotism, honor, sacrifice, manliness.
For another thing, during the century and a half preceding 1918, when Poland was not a sovereign state, it was often referred to by Polish writers as “the Christ of nations”—a phrase not to be forgotten in considering the case of Wajda. It is an eccentricity of Communist education in Poland today that schoolchildren are still taught about the victories of the formidable Polish Legions which fought for Napoleon, who—it was their understanding—had promised them a free Poland. In some of Napoleon’s campaigns a full third of his troops were Polish. Polish units were a large part of the French army that took Moscow. They fought desperately at Waterloo.
All these things are contained in the films of Andrzej Wajda: intense nationalism, exaltation of valor even to the point of martyrdom, aristocracy identification (one of Wajda’s wives was a countess of the ancien régime), disdain for materialism and the bourgeoisie, and even, I find, a hint of anti-Semitism. This is a configuration of temperament, it will be noted, encountered more often on the nationalist Right than on either the socialist Left or at the democratic Center. I should add that Andrzej Wajda is from a military family, the son of a career officer of the pre-war Polish Army, killed in combat in World War II.
Of the some twenty films Wajda has made for theatrical release since he became an international figure I have been able to see eighteen. In Ashes (1965, not to be confused with Ashes and Diamonds) he tells the story of Polish cavalrymen who fight for Napoleon from the bleak stone ridge of Somo-Sierra in Spain to the white snows of Russia. The title (the film is based on a celebrated novel) symbolizes what these valiant Polish troops were left with after Napoleon’s defeat: all that bravery, all that sacrifice, only to return to a Poland still ruled by foreign powers. Lotna (1959) is the almost incredible tale of the last great charge of the Polish cavalry—against German tanks in 1939. Although the slaughter was frightful, this battle too is memorialized by Wajda with fierce pride. Indeed, all four of his great war films (Kanal, Ashes and Diamonds, Ashes, and Lotna) end in defeat, death, and martyrdom, and while there is no question that Wajda is among the most ardent celebrants of military courage in movie history, his films also put one in mind of the romantic infatuation with death. The Polish language has a word, zal, which means a kind of longing sorrow, with something in it of the nobility of tragedy. There is much zal in Wajda.
He has made some films concerning Jews. Land of Promise (1974) shows the early industrialization of Poland at the turn of the century, mainly by German and Jewish capitalists. The exploited workers, of course, are 100-percent Polish (no Jews here), so the film, although nominally Marxist in theme, is not without a strain of xenophobia. The movie’s anti-Semitism, if such it be, lies not so much in the mere fact that the Jews in the picture are “capitalists,” but in the manner of their depiction: all are dressed in the Orthodox manner, with yarmulkes and side-curls, and all are wheedling, grasping, fawning, devious, avaricious. Rich though they are (and hence, one would have thought, appreciably acculturated), they speak Polish with heavy Yiddish accents, and use elaborate and somehow repellent gestures. The German capitalists, by contrast, are harsh but dignified, and far more flatteringly portrayed. I have no doubt that modern Poles, viewing the Jews in Wajda’s movie, would find them repugnant. For whatever it is worth, I, personally, cringed. The film was made a mere five years after the opening of a campaign of officially instigated anti-Semitism in Poland, generally attributed to the then state security chief, Mieczyslaw Moczar.
For all I know, Wajda has a completely clear conscience about Land of Promise, having made (seven years before Moczar’s campaign) a film that he considers firmly pro-Jewish, Samson. It is the story of a young Jew (handsome), facing the anti-Semitism of both pre-war Poland and then the Nazis. He flees the Germans in a fearful, furtive, and cowardly manner, but finally in a last redeeming act he overcomes his fear and destroys both a German military post and himself, even as Samson in the temple. Here are no blood-sucking moneylenders, no capitalist exploiters. In fact, here is a pious cipher, a figure principally of pathos. I once remarked to Wajda that until the last, redeeming act of heroism the Jew in this film had been deprived of all traits other than weakness and a cringing helplessness. Mildly surprised, he answered, “But that’s the way the Jews are.” Had he known any Jews? I asked. “No,” he said pleasantly.
So Wajda’s range of Jews runs from the pathetic cipher of Samson to the capitalist oppressors of Land of Promise. Readers will have no difficulty in recognizing that these two modes of conceiving Jews, in varying circumstances, can exist in the same mind. I mention Wajda’s attitude not from a desire to discredit him but to give the proper dimensions to his nationalism, which may be the most profound strain in his nature.
Some recent visitors to Poland have been distressed to find vestiges of the anti-Semitism endemic to the region; it would be comforting to be able to report that anti-Communism, the love of freedom, and passionate Polish nationalism had instantly expunged all evidence of anti-Semitism from the Polish people. Alas, it is not so. Be that as it may, it was spokesmen of General Jaruzelski’s “State of War” junta who, two days after the military crackdown of December 13, calculatingly encouraged anti-Semitism by warning of the “Jewish” influence in KOR and Solidarity.
Away from his favorite nationalistic and martial themes, Wajda, in my opinion, has always lost much of his vitality. The Innocent Sorcerers, his reflections on the decaying moral values of the young, had none of Wajda’s intensity and could have been made by any number of other directors. Hunting Flies, a toothless satire of Poland’s new elite, was equally undistinguished. In fact, until his rediscovery of the heroism of the Polish soul in Man of Marble and the brand-new Man of Iron, Wajda was sinking into a film-maker of little distinction. His recent The Young Girls of Wilko and The Orchestra Conductor (made, as it happens, between Man of Marble and Man of Iron), are, in turn, bland and psychologically hackneyed. In the latter film John Gielgud plays a great and longtime expatriate Polish symphony conductor who returns at last for a grand triumphal tour of his native Poland. His death in the last sequence, peaceful, happy, in his native land, waiting on the sidewalk among the throngs of young Poles lining up to buy tickets to watch him conduct, is of a quite unusual sentimentality. (Gielgud himself is of Polish descent—indeed, I am told, of Polish-Jewish descent—but how this might have colored Wajda’s view of the story I would have no idea.)
With Wajda no longer the point man of “political” Polish cinema, his position had come to be taken by others. Krzysztof Zanussi’s bitter attacks on the spiritual corruption of Poland’s new, highly affluent privileged class (Camouflage, The Constant Factor, Contract) are worth an essay in themselves, and have given him a reputation as the most compelling director in Poland today. Jerzy Kawalerowicz, who first came to world attention in the early 60′s with Mother Joan of the Angels, a reinterpretation in a Polish setting of Aldous Huxley’s The Devils of Loudun, withdrew for many years into administrative functions but returned in the mid-70′s with Death of a President, the story of the assassination of a socialist Polish president in 1922. The immense sympathy shown for a social-democratic political figure is certainly interesting, but perhaps the most fascinating feature of the film is the enigmatic role assigned to the near-mythic Jozef Pilsudski—the hero of World War I, proclaimer of Poland’s independence in 1918, in the period depicted in the movie a man out of power, biding his time, powerful, inscrutable.
The Polish Communist state had consistently vilified Pilsudski as a fascist tyrant. (He staged a coup d’état in 1926, establishing a military dictatorship.) But on November 11, 1981, for the first time under the Communist regime—and one month before the military crackdown—Warsaw celebrated the anniversary of Pilsudski’s 1918 proclamation of an independent Poland. Radios blared the marching song of Pilsudski’s legions, which had fought under Austrian auspices against Russia during World War I. Men paraded with photographs of Pilsudski pinned to their lapels as badges. A figure from the mythic past, Pilsudski suddenly appeared on Polish television in clips of pre-war independence celebrations. And—there can be no greater honor—on November 11 workers in a shipyard in Gdansk announced that they were changing the name of their yard to the Jozef Pilsudski Shipyard. In view of such a tidal wave of adulation, with his photograph enshrined in many Polish homes, it would seem that Jozef Pilsudski has not been forgotten by his fellow Poles, any more than they have forgotten where the Red Army halted during the Warsaw rising of 1944.
As Polish movies advanced into the 70′s, the “cinema of moral dissent” (as it is called in Poland) became progressively concerned with contemporary themes, but one great piece of the past, the Stalinism of the early 50′s, remained unexamined. Wajda had been trying to get permission from the authorities to make a film on the subject since 1962. Almost a decade and a half later he got the go-ahead, and in 1977 brought out Man of Marble. Once again Wajda had an overnight sensation on his hands. Tickets were being scalped at several times face value. In less than three months three million Poles had seen the film—this was more people, proportionately, than in America were to see Superman, or Grease, or Kramer vs. Kramer. It was common knowledge that the movie had been censored. Great numbers of people had even heard which scene had been cut. But special guidelines were issued to the press on just what could be written about the film.
It will no doubt strike outsiders as strange that a movie-maker who had been allowed to glorify Poland’s anti-Communist Home Army of World War II and even represent as a hero a man who guns down a Communist official should set off such an uproar by attacking the Stalinist “errors” of the early 50′s—which the Russians themselves had already attacked and which were now universally acknowledged. But as the Yugoslav dissenter Milovan Djilas could explain, criticizing Stalinism from another Communist country can be a very tricky business. After all, the hero of Ashes and Diamonds could be viewed as a misguided idealist who had not yet seen the blessings which Communism would bring to his homeland. But in the 50′s Stalinism was there, a foreign system forced with utter ruthlessness on an unwilling Polish people. This was what the Russians had brought.
Moreover, much had happened in Poland between 1962, when Wajda first submitted his screenplay, and 1977, when Man of Marble was released. No fewer than three times—in 1968, 1970, and 1976—dangerous waves of strikes, demonstrations, and violence had broken out; in 1970 such a wave had driven the government of Gomulka from power and replaced it with one led by Edward Gierek. Man of Marble was released mere months after the strikes of 1976 had uneasily subsided. Poland was a powder keg.
It is worth noting in this connection that Angi Vera, the most morally eloquent attack on Stalinism ever made in the cinema and a beautiful and moving film in its own right, was produced in Hungary, a country which has enjoyed uninterrupted domestic tranquility since 1956, has revamped its economy extensively—to a degree, on Western models—and now has next to the highest level of material prosperity of any country in the Soviet bloc. After the first drastic concessions made following the 1956 crisis, none of this has been true of Poland, where orthodox, Soviet-style economic planning has been in place, and has been disastrous. Angi Vera is a superior film in every way to Man of Marble, but the impact of Wajda’s film in Poland was prodigious, for it was the film Poland was waiting for.
When Andrzej Wajda was a student at the Cracow Academy of Fine Arts in 1948, the first movie to “deeply impress” him was Orson Welles’s Citizen Kane, and in Man of Marble he used Citizen Kane’s key narrative technique as the central structural device. Agnieszka (Krystyna Janda), a young film student with a brash, self-important manner, has decided in the mid-1970′s to reconstruct a true picture of the Stalinist past by making a television documentary retracing the life story of one Mateusz Birkut, a celebrated Stakhanovite worker of the first years of the Communist regime. Lauded, covered with honors, the subject of two hero-worshipping documentaries of the period, Architects of Our Happiness and Birth of a City, Birkut suddenly disappears from the public record in 1952. What happened?
In the Citizen Kane manner, Agnieszka goes about interviewing everyone who ever knew Birkut, his ex-wife, his former fellow workers, gradually piecing together his story, which is told in a series of. flashbacks. The young Birkut is a peasant of most extraordinary idealism. Caught up in the industrialization program which was the centerpiece of Communist planning after the war, he becomes a champion bricklayer, inventing new techniques, increasing output. As he sets new speed records and is honored as a Stakhanovite, he is warned by his buddy Witek that he may be making some enemies as well, but this somehow does not get through to the naive Birkut, who goes on setting ever faster records for bricklaying, happy to be “building socialism.”
One of the themes of Man of Marble is that Stalinism destroyed many of the nation’s most ardent idealists, but there is nevertheless something cloying and never-never-landish about Birkut’s naiveté. It was a well known fact, after all, that Communist governments were using the achievements of the Stakhanovites to raise production work norms, and that for the average laborer this often resulted in less pay for the same work. Stakhanovites, presented by the state propaganda services in the manner of war heroes, were privately resented by fellow workers, often attacked physically, and on occasion, even in the Soviet Union, murdered. In Birkut’s case, one day during an attempt to set still another speed record, his fellow bricklayers pass him two white-hot bricks, burning his hands hideously and maiming him.
But the Stakhanovite system is not criticized itself—even by this “daring” movie. Instead, in the next plot turn, Witek, Birkut’s best friend, is accused of sabotage for having passed him the hot bricks (which he certainly did not do). During a melodramatic, rigged “show” trial, Birkut is called upon to give false evidence against his friend but, in a turgid scene, refuses, and both are sent to prison. In 1956, Birkut, Witek, and thousands of others are released, but whereas Witek—with the best of political credentials now—uses his connections to rise in the world, becoming a major construction executive, Birkut, permanently disillusioned, disappears.
It is at this point in her research that Agnieszka excitedly shows what material she has gathered to her professor at the television school—for she is just a student, remember. This documentary is to be her graduation thesis. The professor, presumably feeling that the material is politically too “sensitive,” tells her that so far her footage is unsatisfactory and uninteresting. What’s more, there is a hole in it you could drive a truck through. The film is all about Birkut, but she has not found Birkut. And not only has she not found him, but she knows nothing about him since he disappeared some twenty years before, has no idea what he himself thinks about all this. The professor tells Agnieszka that her cameraman and sound man are to be taken away and that she will be issued no more film stock. Her documentary is cancelled.
All along, Agnieszka’s tone with her professor has been extremely self-righteous, but now she begins to hector him in a manner I am certain Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein of the Washington Post never used with their editor, and which seems quite lunatic in Poland. For Wajda not only took the mechanical structure of his film from Citizen Kane, he and his screenwriter, Aleksander Scibor-Rylski, were inspired by the utterly fanciful notion that Poland in this period of the mid-70′s could have had something equivalent to American “investigative reporting.” The American inspiration is acknowledged in the script when the professor brushes off Agnieszka during one of her earlier sanctimonious tirades with an impatient, “Enough of this America business!”
The story has its denouement, puzzling to some Western critics (what with the pervasive censorship and self-censorship), but clear to Polish audiences, clear enough to bring them to their feet singing the national anthem. Agnieszka, without camera or crew, continues her search for Mateusz Birkut and finally picks up his trail in the port city of Gdansk, now world-famous as the birthplace of the Solidarity free trade-union movement in 1980 but already famous to Poles as the scene of bloody riots ten years earlier which had brought down the government of Wladyslaw Gomulka, and during which police had killed scores—some say hundreds—of striking shipyard workers.
At the entrance to a shipyard where one of the bloodiest police actions had taken place in 1970, Agnieszka finally finds, not Mateusz Birkut, but his son Maciek (played by the same actor who plays the father). Maciek tells her somewhat cryptically that his father is dead, and at first refuses to help her further. But then we cut to the film’s final shot, as Agnieszka, with Maciek firmly in tow, marches triumphantly down the corridor of Warsaw’s television building on the way to her professor’s office. The exuberance of her stride, and the stir created in the adjoining offices as the two pass, are unequivocal. The son of the celebrated Birkut has been found! The music swells. The truth about Mateusz Birkut, and about Stalinism, will finally be told. The film, in short, has a happy ending.
The famous “censored scene” near the end of Man of Marble is worth comment. According to Wajda himself, it shows Agnieszka and Maciek looking in vain for a grave at the Gdansk cemetery. Not finding Mateusz Birkut’s name on any tombstone, Agnieszka leaves a bouquet of flowers at the cemetery gates. It is an indication of. how not only films but even authors’ statements about their films are altered according to changing political circumstances in countries like Poland that Wajda, pre-Solidarity, could say quite clearly, “It was not my purpose to hint that [Birkut] might have died during the upheaval of 1970,” while post-Solidarity we find him saying equally clearly about the same graveyard scene, “This, of course, means that Birkut was killed during the 1970 strikes in Gdansk.” The latter, obviously, is the correct interpretation, as Wajda went on to explain: “Even those on my side in the ministry did not feel the film could be released with this scene in it. The scene was impossible for even them to accept.”
And there was more to it than this. Various witnesses of public as well as private screenings of the film report versions in which we see tanks rumbling through the streets of Gdansk during the strikes of 1970; in which Agnieszka and Maciek actually find Birkut’s tombstone with “Gdansk-1970” marked on it (some say with a specific date during the strikes); and, by contrast, one version in which the whole last reel is cut—not only the graveyard scene evoking 1970, but Gdansk, Maciek, the shipyard, the triumphal march through the corridor of the television building, the whole ending. In this version the film stops abruptly without ever picking up Birkut’s trail after 1956.
In a country that had experienced three dangerous political upheavals in eight years, the extreme anxiety provoked by the suggestion that the Stalinist “errors” of the early 50′s were not a closed book but were producing continuing disturbances can be inferred from the fact that with Man of Marble released in its present, comparatively mild, form, and a giant commercial success, the mere sight of the shipyards of Gdansk so horrified the 1977 Communist leadership that Poland’s Vice Minister of Culture, the head of the country’s film industry, was promptly dismissed. Shortly afterward his superior, the Minister of Culture himself, was moved to a less important position and expelled from the Politburo. All this because of a movie? The answer, it seems, is yes. (Nothing happened to Wajda, who, an “artist” and an international celebrity, was not held responsible.)
It may be unfair to single out one film critic, but Vincent Canby of the New York Times wrote in March 1979, on the occasion of a screening of Man of Marble during a Wajda Festival at New York: “In removing references to the workers’ strike in the port of Gdansk in 1970, the Polish censors have—unintentionally, I asume—undercut and neutralized Mr. Wajda and made the movie seem far more bleak and pessimistic than he probably intended. The movie that we see is about a heroic life that failed.” Canby wrote regretfully that inclusion of the missing scene recalling the Gdansk strike of 1970 “would have emphasized Mr. Wajda’s concept of the continuing nature of the social struggle.”
Passages like this make one realize how hard it is for many Americans to grasp the nature of a Communist society. Evidence of the “continuing nature of the social struggle,” which would have cheered Vincent Canby up no end, could hardly have been expected to gladden the hearts of Communist officials when this struggle meant Polish workers fighting police and challenging the authority of the Communist party. One year after Canby wrote, such a movement, now under the name Solidarity, blasted Gierek from power, shook the Communist world to its foundations, and opened a crisis of giant proportions. Very heroic, all of this, very brave, but Edward Gierek was hardly pleased, and if it had been within his power he would certainly have prevented it. The feelings of General Wojciech Jaruzelski can be judged by his mid-December declaration of a State of War. It was obviously far easier for the Gierek of 1977 to admit bleakly to “heroic lives that failed” under Stalinism in the 50′s than to acknowledge an active and continuing challenge to his own regime in the 70′s. How could he have even entertained the notion of legitimizing such a challenge? (One also wonders, since Vincent Canby found Man of Marble’s portrait so gloomy, how he himself would characterize Poland under Stalinism. Heroic lives that succeeded?)
There are less thoughtful reviewers than Canby, however. When Man of Marble was finally released commercially in America in early 1981, some critics hailed it ecstatically as an explanation of Poland’s Solidarity movement. In fact, with its happy ending, its upbeat, “truth will out” conclusion, all ending well in this imperfect but promising Poland of 1977, Man of Marble is so little an explanation of the Solidarity movement that Wajda was already rushing madly to make amends by completing a successor movie, Man of Iron.
Man of Iron could well be called “Everything You Wanted to Know about Man of Marble but Didn’t Know Enough to Ask.” Or, more flattering but also more apt, “Everything You Wanted to Know about Man of Marble but I Wasn’t Allowed to Tell You Then.” It must be something of an embarrassment to Vincent Canby, who, in 1979, had hailed the earlier movie as testifying to “the vitality of contemporary Polish life,” called its hero “the unrelenting conscience of the revolution,” and praised Wajda as “a humanist who refuses to restrict himself to the short view that sees only what is currently acceptable.” (These remarks were omitted when Canby’s review was reprinted in 1981.)
In the new film we have a reprise of the same triumphal march through the corridors of Warsaw’s television building that gives Man of Marble its happy ending. Agnieszka enters the office of her boss-professor. She expects him to be pleased, bowled over. She has filled the hole! Now, via Birkut’s son, they will be able to reconstruct the missing part of Birkut’s life, what happened to him in the Poland of more recent times. But Agnieszka’s professor isn’t pleased at all. In fact, he is acutely displeased. He not only refuses to authorize a resumption of her documentary, but confiscates her press card, expels her from his school, and severs all her connections with Polish television. She is dismissed and jobless. So much for Man of Marble’s happy ending. So much for investigative reporting and “truth will out” in pre-Solidarity Poland.
The film opens at Gdansk on the Baltic coast in the summer of 1980. The historic shipyard strike, which will lead to the Solidarity free trade-union movement, is already well under way. “Who’s ever seen our unions bucking management?” cries an angry striker. “Why don’t they defend our interests?”
We cut back to Warsaw, where a malign machination is afoot. In the first movie the central character is a television journalist, in the second a television journalist once again. But whereas in the earlier film Agnieszka is the spirit of virtue, struggling for truth and justice, in the new film the TV man is the spirit of corruption, seeking to demean all that is good and honorable. Once an idealist himself, until broken by the system, Winkiel (Marian Opania) is now a weak, cynical, alcoholic hack. He is sent to Gdansk to do a series of interviews which will discredit this new trade-union movement, but is told to avoid the leading organizers (such as Lech Walesa himself), and instead to go after the people in the “second line.” The target of opportunity is a young fellow named Maciek, which is to say Birkut’s son, a man whom we conveniently already know.
Winkiel goes about interviewing Maciek’s friends, colleagues, and old schoolmates, all of whom give the most glowing account of him, and finally finds Maciek’s wife, who turns out to be none other than Agnieszka from Man of Marble. In the earlier film a smart dresser of the blue-denim school, she has now given up stylish clothes, journalism, and other vanities of this world to fight alongside her husband and Lech Walesa for the Polish workers.
As can be seen from this twist alone, Man of Iron, the new film, is strongly symbolic in nature, abandoning plausible realistic characters in order to cram in as much as possible of recent Polish history. As Winkiel proceeds with his interviews, we are given, as before, flashback after flashback, but this time illustrating Poland’s recent convulsions. In 1968, influenced by the “Prague Spring” taking place right next door in Czechoslovakia, Polish students had staged massive demonstrations demanding liberal reforms. Polish workers, however, did not budge, and Birkut and his son (then a university student) have a heated confrontation when the father refuses to organize shipyard workers to support the students. In 1970, the shoe is on the other foot. The Gdansk shipyard workers strike and battle the police, but the students do not support them; this produces another father-son confrontation. Later in this same 1970 crisis the father is shot down by the police, which produces a seizure of guilt in his son, who leaves the university to work in the shipyards. (We are shown authentic news footage of the 1970 riots in Gdansk, with tanks in the streets and police clubbing strikers most savagely.) The next wave of anti-government riots are in 1976 at Radom, an engineering center, and at the Ursus tractor factory just outside Warsaw. This time even Gdansk does not move.
Gdansk. Warsaw. Radom. Ursus. I am not sure a viewer entirely unfamiliar with these events will be able to reconstruct a clear picture of the travails of Poland over the past dozen or so years merely from watching Man of Iron, but the burden of the film is plain enough. In fact it is spelled out in so many words: workers, students, all Poles everywhere, must join forces against a state which, although it governs in their name, does not represent them.
Man of Iron includes much news footage of events in Gdansk in 1980 and 1981. We see a gigantic open-air mass in front of the shipyards with a Catholic priest praying in Polish, “Hail, Mary, full of grace,” and even Lech Walesa himself leading prayers devotedly, “Let us pray to Our Lady for the strikers, to give them unity, to give them strength and courage this day. . . . May God be with us.”
They are tense and moving scenes. We also see Walesa in historic confrontations with leaders of the Communist party, and even as a bit actor in some small fictional sequences, notably as best man at the wedding of Maciek and Agnieszka.
But in contrast to the specious happy ending of Man of Marble, the new film ends grimly. Although the closing sequences show the acceptance by the new government of Solidarity’s demands, and the acknowledgment of Solidarity’s independence of the Communist party, there is a shot of an old-guard Communist official saying cynically of the new agreement, “It’s just a piece of paper signed under duress.” The implication could not be more clear. The Communist party is going to bide its time, waiting for the moment when it can strike back, destroy or emasculate Solidarity, and restore its position as the unique master of the state and of every institution of society. Unfortunately the events of last December appear to vindicate this grim view.
In such stirring and heroic circumstances it would be very agreeable to report that Man of Marble and Man of Iron are film masterpieces. They are not. In Ashes and Diamonds, Wajda told a sweeping tale permeated with a dark romanticism whose power for Western audiences was scarcely diminished by the fact that many of the film’s political allusions must have escaped them. Wajda, moreover, had the services of Zbigniew Cybulski, the gifted young actor. He gave Cybulski his head, and Ashes and Diamonds was the result.
Man of Marble, the earlier of the Man films, is a horse of a different color. It is an expose of Stalinism, a polemic melodrama; this is an artistic genre at which Wajda is less adept than, say, Costa-Gavras, whose own exposé of Stalinism, The Confession, made admittedly from the safety of France, is a far superior film. (It goes without saying that Costa-Gavras’s and Wajda’s purposes are quite different, as can be judged from the fact that, soon after The Confession, Costa-Gavras made State of Siege, a shameless hagiography of Uruguay’s Tupamaro guerrillas.) And Man of Marble compares even less well with Hungary’s Angi Vera, which is not a polemic melodrama at all but an astonishingly nuanced and realistic picture of the character changes and crises de conscience undergone by a group of young working women chosen to go to the Communist party school, and to be future officials of the Stalinist state, in the first days of Hungary’s Communist regime.
In any event, huge as was the stir created by Wajda’s Man of Marble in Poland, its impact in the West was bound to be far smaller, coming as it did not only after Angi Vera (in its commercial release in the U.S.), but, obviously, long after such literary works as Solzhenitsyn’s The Gulag Archipelago.
Although it might just be personal taste, I also find Jerzy Radziwilowicz, who plays both Birkut and his son, no more than earnest and competent. Admittedly, it is a tall order to make a plausible character out of the naive, idealistic goof of a young Birkut, who cannot even seem to understand why his fellow bricklayers should resent him. As for Krystyna Janda, who plays the bumptious, investigative documentarist Agnieszka, I find her whole characterization grating as well as misconceived, and think she would have done well to study the performances of Robert Redford and, particularly, Dustin Hoffman in All the President’s Men to see how much wheedling and cajoling even Woodward and Bernstein had to do. And that was America.
Man of Iron, the new film, is something else again. All that documentary footage. Catholic priests praying for the workers of Solidarity. Walesa and his troops. Walesa as a bit player. The news-reel footage (formerly closely guarded) of the bloody riots of 1970. This is compelling stuff. And then there is the fictional framework with all its walking symbols, allegory, ideological debate, appeals for unity. Wajda has never before made a film anything like this, and I am not certain Man of Iron is a feature film in the conventional sense. It is like some kind of pedagogical pageant, or Polish passion play. But I agree wholeheartedly with Peter Osnos, a former Eastern Europe correspondent, now national editor of the Washington Post, when he writes (in the New Republic) that Man of Iron should be seen “for what it is—an unparalleled opportunity for outsiders to glimpse the sensibilities behind the headline-making events in Poland.”
Wajda is a curious case. Romantic to the core, a fervent nationalist, through all the rigors of life in a Communist state he has always remained in his secret soul an aesthete. He has lived for his art. The givens of life in a Communist society must have seemed immutable to him—the state, art defined as the servant of the state, censorship, the state controlling all facets of society—but within these stringent limits his art was what counted. When the upheaval of the last year and a half annihilated many of these limits, and Wajda for the first time in his life was gulping the intoxicating air of freedom, his whole approach to the cinema, by his own testimony, was thrown for a loop. His great films have been celebrations of his nation’s heroism—seen from an “aesthetic” distance, of course—films actually made when his nation was in a miserable condition living under the control of an alien conqueror. But when Polish heroism burst forth again under his very eyes, Wajda seemed swept by such storms of emotion as to leave him clutching desperately for an appropriate form to express himself. Life, for Andrzej Wajda, had suddenly transcended art.
His reaction, perhaps only temporary, was to devalue his craft. “Not the most important thing in the world,” he said of the cinema. He would like to run for office in the Solidarity movement, he said, play a role in the history of the new Poland. In the high emotions of the times, he underwent another kind of conversion as well. He suddenly attached much of his romantic ardor to the “working class.” “When we learned Marxism [in Poland] we were taught that the working class was the most important,” he said, “But no one believed it. And now they do. For 26 years I felt I was alone. . . . And now, since last year, I feel connected to an enormous movement of ten million members (Solidarity). I am truly conscious that what I do will make only a minimal difference, and that it is a great movement that will decide my life.” Such feelings of mystic union are often unstable. How Wajda’s allegiance to Solidarity will weather the present events in Poland is far from clear.
And there is something else. It is not widely known that in 1976, the year of the riots at Radom and Ursus, while he was making Man of Marble, Wajda was approached to sign a petition protesting an official move to write the leading role of the Communist party into the Polish constitution. Wajda refused to sign. “I was wrong,” he said later with deep feeling. “I can never forgive myself.” But that was when Solidarity was at its height.
Some men are born to be heroes, others merely to sing their praises. It is no great insult to Wajda to wonder if he might not be a member of the second group, celebrants who live out their heroism vicariously, when there are no tanks in the streets.
This was a curious answer in itself, since Wajda had been close for many years to a number of Poles of Jewish or at least partly Jewish descent. I can only assume that since none of them seemed in any way weak or cringingly helpless—rather the contrary—Wajda did not think of them as Jews.