Sunday, 11 May 2008

Man of Marble (1977, Poland, Andrzej Wajda)

Although Wajda is most celebrated for his early war trilogy, which included 'A Generation', 'Kanal' (which I recently reviewed) and 'Ashes and Diamonds', equally acclaimed are his twin films that look simultaneously at Poland's Stalinist past ('Man of Marble) and examine Poland's present issues with organised labour and eventual political decline ('Man of Iron'). This screening of 'Man of Marble' was at the BFI Southbank, with 'Man of Iron' to be screened in a fortnight. Once I have seen both, I will be able to offer more lucid comparisons upon these two adjoining films.

'Man of Marble' examines the myth-making of Poland during the Stalinist regime during the 1950s, demonstrated in the use of "shock workers" or Stakhanovites as propaganda stooges and representations of the potential and achievements of Polish labourers. One such "shock worker" was Mateusz Birkut (Jerzy Radziwilowicz), a bricklayer who oversaw the completion of Nowa Huta, a new Socialist town outside of Krakow. Having disappeared into obscurity, he is now the subject of interest of Agnieszka (Krystyna Janda), a young film maker who is making her diploma film. She's a steely and determined young woman, considered the strongest female character in Wajda's films, who finds resistance in her attempts to extract the truth about Birkut from her academic professors (he is considered ambiguous subject material) as well as those who knew Birkut well.

Wajda then repeatedly alternates between Agnieszka's attempts to find out about Birkut as well as Birkut's own past, in both documentary footage and conventional reconstructions of events. Wajda's own recreation of 50s style propaganda is remarkably effective and I assume based exactly on the propaganda of the era. Wajda examines the trustworthiness and truth of the footage we see on screen; how it presents a version of the truth and how it is used to manipulate facts and its audience. This might not just apply to the propaganda footage that is shown. The recreations of Birkut's past are based on the interviews that Agnieszka holds with those who knew him, who may not necessarily be reliable in their memories of him. In the case of the event that ended his career as a bricklayer, when a scolding brick burned his hands, we cannot be entirely sure what took place. A friend, Witek (Michal Tarkowski) was officially blamed and latter arrested for treason, but the sabotage is not shown as such therefore we don't know what to believe.

Agnieszka is able to research Birkut successfully whilst he is a national celebrity but his decline is less well documented. He was discredited after an unapproved union address in which he claims that Witek was unjustly accused of treason, and therefore his portrait and statue, the representations of Birkut as an exemplary worker were removed. After which, Birkut fell into an alcoholic decline, abandoned by his wife, and thus obscurity. Perhaps aware of the potential political implications of the film, Agnieszka is thwarted by her superiors; she is refused access to film or camera and the work done so far is impounded (although it's suggested that films are only ever banned on technical grounds, whatever this means). Wajda concludes the film on an ominuous note, as Agnieszka finds Birkut's son, Maciej (also Radziwilowicz) working at Gdansk shipyards, a couple of years before the labour disputes that would have far reaching effects upon the eventual decline of Communist rule in Poland, and the same shipyards where it is implied that Birkut was killed by the authorities.

At it's simplest, 'Man of Marble' has been described as Poland's own 'Citizen Kane', and it's fair that the narrative is largely similar, as a journalist examines the rise and fall of a national hero/celebrity. However, Wajda adds a political dimension of his film and considers how propaganda, through national icons, was used to present a false impression of Polish success and how these national icons were removed and disappeared into obscurity when they fell foul of the authorities, although this information was not widely available of course. The faux-documentary footage that shows Birkut as a "shock worker" contrasts with the contemporary Poland in which Agnieszka is making her film. Witek, once imprisoned for treason, now runs Katowice steelworks, whilst Michalak (Piotr Cieslak), who observed Birkut's decline but seemed to have been on the level, now runs a strip club. It's as if Wajda suggested that contemporary Poland was a politically and morally compromised country and that individuals' standings with the authorities could easily change depending on which way the political wind was blowing. 4.5/5


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