Man of Iron (Człowiek z żelaza) (13th Kinoteka Polish Film Festival/Masterpieces of Polish Cinema) Review
This review contains plot spoilers for Man of Marble, which is not showing in the Martin Scorsese Presents Masterpieces of Polish Cinema season.
In 1976, Andrzej Wajda directed Man of Marble (Człowiek z marmur), in which a young filmmaker, Agnieszka (Krystyna Janda) investigates the story of Mateusz Birkut (Jerzy Radziwiłowicz), a State-promoted "Worker's Hero" from the early 1950s, who was later removed from official records. Interviewing people who knew Birkut, Agnieszka uncovers some uncomfortable truths, to the extent that she is removed from her own film. At the end of the film, she meets Birkut's son, Maciej Tomczyk (also played by Jerzy Radziwiłowicz), a worker at the shipyards in Gdańsk, who tells her that his father is now dead. Man of Marble was politically controversial, and was originally released in one Warsaw cinema with no advertising, but became a considerable popular success in Poland. It won the FIPRESCI Prize at Cannes in 1978 and, following a showing at that year's London Film Festival, had a UK cinema release on the arthouse circuit in 1979.
Four years after he made the film, Wajda became aware of the events happening in Gdańsk, with the workers on strike and the founding of the union Solidarity (Solidarność), and so quickly put together Man of Iron (Człowiek z żelaza), using the same scriptwriter (Aleksander Ścibor-Rylski) and many of the same principal crewmembers. He also reused the characters of Agnieszka and Maciej, following their story on from the final scene of Man of Marble, as well as Maciej's mother Hanka (Krystyna Zachwatowicz-Wajda, his wife). We also find out how Birkut met his end – killed during the riots in Gdańsk, during riots provoked by a sharp increase in food prices. As with the earlier film, the story was driven by a character's investigations. This time it is Winkel (Marian Opania), a television journalist ordered to dig the dirt on Maciej, leader of the strikers following the sacking of (the real-life) Anna Walentynowicz, who appears in the film as herself. As with Agnieszka in the earlier film, Winkel's awareness is changed as a result of what he finds.
There's a vitality to Man of Iron due to its grounding in current, urgent events, a sense that history is being made as we watch. The real-life leader of the strikers, Lech Wałęsa, also appears in the film as himself. He went on to win the 1983 Nobel Peace Prize and was Prime Minister of Poland between 1990 and 1995. In 2012, Wajda made a biopic of him, Wałęsa, Man of Hope (Wałęsa. Człowiek z nadziei), which, despite the title, is not really a third in a trilogy, though inevitably its subject matter overlaps with that of the present film.
Man of Iron won the Palme d'Or at Cannes in 1981 and was nominated for the Oscar for Best Foreign-Language film (losing to Mephisto, which also has Krystyna Janda in a leading role). I first saw it on its UK television premiere on BBC2 on 3 January 1982, two days after the TV premiere of Man of Marble, while martial law was in force in Poland and while Man of Iron was still showing in the legendary but now defunct London arthouse, the Academy on Oxford Street. I remember both showings vividly. Thirty-five years on, the events which drove the film are now part of history, a stage in the process which resulted in the country's ceasing to be a Communist state at the end of the decade. Some, including me, would rank Man of Marble as the better of the two, but Man of Iron still tells a compelling story and stands up well to this day.
Man of Iron is showing on 3 and 23 May at the BFI Southbank, London, as part of the Martin Scorsese Presents Masterpieces of Polish Cinema strand of the 13th Kinoteka Polish Film Festival. It is also showing at the Edinburgh Filmhouse on 30 May and 13 June.