Tuesday, 22 November 2016

Man of Marble (Człowiek z marmuru) 1977


Taking Orson Welles' Citizen Kane as inspiration, Andrzej Wajda managed to produce not only what is arguably his finest film, but also what many believe to be the definitive Polish masterpiece in 1977's Man of Marble


The film has two parallel storylines; the first follows Mateusz Birkut, a bricklayer who rises up from the masses, ascending to the idolatry role of State-promoted 'Worker's Hero' in the Stalinist 1950s when, rebuilding Poland following WWII, he and his team breaks a record for laying 30,000 bricks during an eight-hour shift. Whilst the second, set in the present day of 1976, sees Agnieszka, a young and independent Polish woman, directing a film about Birkut for her diploma, obsessively pursuing every one who knew the man for every step of his tale, including his highly secretive fall from grace into obscurity.


Wajda's film seeks to expose the very real nature of human beings beneath the myths and legends of a media construct and the falsities inherent in Soviet propaganda. But whilst Wajda is keen to acknowledge Stalinism for the cruel disaster it so clearly was, he is more sympathetic to the idealism born from the ordinary men and women who were determined to make the dream work. It's this approach which makes the ultimate betrayals and disillusionment all the more affecting and crushing. 



In lead actor Jerzy Radziwiłowicz, Wajda finds the perfect canvas to display all the complex traits he requires in the story. There's a down-to-earth nobility to Radziwiłowicz that is vital for Birkut to convince. The actor doesn't play the hero, he instead plays just the ordinary man who was picked out from the rank and file. He's good-natured, polite and a little green, but the strength of virtue he clearly possesses, which is subsequently mined by the Communist overlords as the ideal for the cause, is one which is simply a quality of humanity in general. 



In contrast, Agnieszka is very much a product of her own time, one which refuses to fall for establishment lies and looks to the future and the distant glimmer of glasnost on the horizon. The irony of this forward-thinking is of course that it is perhaps the hard work that has already been undertaken by the previous generation of Birkut has granted her such freedom and defiance. But there's also gender politics at play here as it's worth remembering just how groundbreaking a character like Agnieszka was for Polish cinema at the tail end of the 1970s and how she is a world away from the basic cipher of the journalist character from Citizen Kane. Portrayed by Krystyna Janda, Agnieszka  is a sexy as hell, chain-smoking, long limbed blonde who carries a sailor bag around containing all her worldy possessions, though her real possessions are the fierce intelligence, stubborn persistence and dogged determination she displays when it comes to discovering the truth. It's a strong independent depiction of a modern, professional woman and Wajda, together with Janda rewrites Polish cinema's depiction of women in the same way he created an iconic poster boy in Cybulski on Ashes and Diamonds in the 1950s. 



Ultimately, both Agnieszka and Birkut are pawns in a bigger game, tolerated for as long as they are politically useful. The difference is that Birkut ultimately had nothing to counteract this realisation with and faded away (his actual fate would be revealed in the sequel Man of Iron) whereas Agnieszka knew that the story doesn't end simply because the means are taken away from her.



Wajda's masterpiece came about because of a brief blossoming in Polish cinema in the mid 70s that saw the Ministry of Culture request more focus be made in tackling contemporary social realities, as opposed to historical period costume drama (they were seemingly blind to the fact that  period pieces allowed political filmmakers like Wajda to get their message across by drawing veiled parallels between the past and the present) Coined 'the cinema of moral anxiety', it proved to be a very short, but wonderful bloom as by 1981 Martial Law was instigated, stifling such creativity, criticism and freedom of speech, casting a nation once more into the oppressive gloom as the USSR played its last hand of bluff.



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