Man of Marble. Man of Iron
Polish film and politics

by Lisa DiCaprio

from Jump Cut, no. 27, July 1982, pp. 7-12
copyright Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media, 1982, 2005

A new joke currently circulates in Warsaw, one of a number of what have become almost a new genre under the conditions of martial law:

"What is it when 10 people get together? A party rally. What is it when 10 million get together? A small group of extremists."

Just as Reagan has denounced the revolution in El Salvador as a Soviet plot, the Soviet Union and the Polish government have characterized Solidarity as a CIA conspiracy.

Andrzej Wajda's two recently acclaimed films, MAN OF MARBLE and MAN OF IRON, show how Solidarity, a movement encompassing almost a third of the Polish population, was neither a CIA plot, nor a "small group of extremists," but the logical consequence of the major working class revolts in post-WW2 Polish history.

Today, the Polish government's propaganda has reached such an absurd height that reference has been made to Solidarity as a "myth." In the face of such official obfuscation, Wajda's films will remain as a lasting chronicle of a movement which today has been forced underground but remains very much alive.

The Polish government understands well the "subversive" nature of MAN OF IRON and MAN OF MARBLE. During the Solidarity Congress in Gdansk, walls were plastered announcing the release of MAN OF IRON. Today, both films are banned. The Polish government unsuccessfully attempted to withdraw MAN OF IRON as Poland's entry in the Academy Awards. Wajda himself was originally placed in a concentration camp, then under house arrest, and is now in Paris directing a film about Danton. Krystyna Janda, who plays the principal character in MAN OF MARBLE, also lives in Paris, which has rapidly become the international center for Polish exile activity.

The truth, as Marx wrote, is revolutionary. The search for the truth, its dissemination among the Polish people, and its preservation in the face of official state repression, constitute the main themes of MAN OF MARBLE and MAN OF IRON. The truth that Wajda seeks to uncover is how a situation could arise in which the supposed "party of the working class" and the state apparatus become employed against the interests of the working class. Wajda confronts us with the reality of a "workers' state" in which workers who protest their conditions are denounced as "hooligans" and "anti-socialist" elements and shot and killed by the Polish police.

Many on the left today do not know clearly how to view Solidarity. This movement poses many questions in a sharp way: the role of the Soviet Union in Eastern Europe following WW2, the nature of the Soviet model of heavy industrialization, the role of the Communist Party in socialist society, the class character of the Soviet Union and Poland today.

For years, the left has raised these questions in a peripheral fashion: the declaration of martial law in Poland means that they can no longer be avoided. In Poland, we have seen the rise of the most significant workers' movement in Europe since WW2. Should we condemn this movement as counter-revolutionary, support it uncritically, or support it with critical reservations? MAN OF MARBLE and MAN OF IRON answer some, but not all, of these questions.

These are, above all, inspiring films which draw us into a historical process whose full ramifications are yet to be realized despite severe repression. The Polish workers have risen out of defeat before: they will rise again.

As spectators, we increasingly begin to feel participants in this drama which unfolds in MAN OF MARBLE with a young woman film student's search for Birkut, a once exemplary bricklayer later condemned to ignominy. Through the life of Birkut and later his son, Maciek, the focus of MAN OF IRON, Wajda surveys the principal revolts in postwar Polish history. The films make reference to these events: 1956 in Poznan, the student revolt of 1968, the 1970 strikes in Gdansk which left many workers of the Lenin shipyards dead, the 1976 strikes at Ursus and Radom and, finally, the establishment of Solidarity during the shipyard strikes on the Baltic Coast in 1980, and the historic Gdansk agreements which have now been reduced to mere scraps of paper.

Many have noted that Wajda's focus in MAN OF MARBLE is much sharper than in MAN OF IRON. This is due, in large part, to Solidarity's own limitations. While the Polish workers were very clear on what they did not want, they were less sure of how to construct a new future. Solidarity was a great social movement, encompassing millions with varying political views. The movement did not resolve many concrete questions, such as how to restructure the economy. However, despite distortions by the capitalist media, Solidarity did not aim to restore private ownership of property. It sought genuine social control of production by the working class. How to ensure such control could not be worked out entirely in the abstract, but only in the process of political activity. Jaruzelski's tanks terminated this process on December 12.


In MAN OF MARBLE, Wajda provides us with a view of Poland in which an impressive industrial infrastructure has been constructed, illiterate peasants have learned how to read, workers have been given new skills, and workers' housing has been built. Following WW2, the vast majority of Poland's industry and housing lay in ruins.(1) Heavy industrialization, however, has been financed at the cost of sacrificing basic consumer goods, an endemic problem in the Polish economy which has led to numerous food riots. While the nationalized economy remains in the hands of the state, the Polish workers, in whose name the state begins massive projects and makes political decisions, are not the masters of their society.

Wajda has chosen the ultra-modern steel complex of Mowa Huta to illustrate this point. As we will learn, it is here that a Polish film director first discovered Birkut. Birkut symbolizes the idealistic Polish worker who believes in and wants to work for the common good. However, the Polish internal security police blows what could have been a relatively minor incident — an accident during a bricklaying demonstration — out of proportion. Birkut's downfall from official favor has begun. His futile fight represents what is honest and forthright about the Polish working class. It will be carried out, in collective form, by the next generation which will win temporary victory by forming Solidarity.

Wajda constantly dwells on the theme of honesty, as he depicts a society in which the government, by various means, seeks to maintain the fiction of a socialist society. In a recent Monthly Review article, a Polish writer now living in Paris describes how official government propaganda serves as a form of "conceptual embezzlement."

“Not only are truncated versions of once powerful revolutionary slogans arranged in a shameless pastiche alongside chauvinist sentiments and medieval superstitions, but also the very meaning of the fundamental terms has been transformed beyond recognition. Thus for example the Polish word for ‘socialism,’ ‘socialization,’ and ‘internationalism’ today designate respectively the existing social order, state ownership and subordination to the interests of the Soviet Union. These examples form part of a general phenomenon of conceptual embezzlement which reaches deep into the vernacular.”(2)

Birkut's honesty finds its match in that of Agnieszka, played by Krystyna Janda. Agnieszka, a young film student, has chosen the Stakhanovite Birkut as the subject for her thesis film. She aims to unmask the official history of Birkut and, in the process, meets resistance from every quarter of officialdom.

Wajda's inspiration for the character of Agnieszka is the courageous contemporary Polish woman director, Agnieszka Holland. Her film, GORACZKA (FEVER), was the Grand Prize winner of the 1981 Gdansk Film Festival. In GORACZKA, Holland portrays the fate of a group of Polish-nationalist terrorists during the 1905 rebellion against the Russian occupying authorities. Although set in a historical context, the film conveys an indirect but very clear message concerning Poland's current subordinate position to the Soviet Union.(3)

MAN OF MARBLE has many of the characteristics of a political thriller as we follow the fictional Agnieszka in her search for why Birkut "disappeared." She begins by screening old newsreels, many of which have never been released to the public for "technical" reasons. In 1980, a special showing of such films, publicized as FROM THE SHELVES, was held in Warsaw.(4) The first film Agnieszka screens which never made its way out of the editing room is BIRTH OF A CITY.

In BIRTH OF A CITY, we see the construction of Nowa Huta in the 1950s. Dozens of men are lined up in the mud in a food line. There are no women to be seen. The men are housed in barracks. When presented with a single fish on a plate for lunch, they begin spontaneously to pelt the party official with the fish and succeed in driving him out. Birkut is one of these workers.

As Agnieszka's studio director becomes aware of the direction of her research, he attempts to dissuade her of the film project. He argues,

"No one has yet touched on the 50s. Why don't you deal with a subject that has no risk of ambiguity. A better project would be facts — facts are steelworks and their output."

Agnieszka and the film director are both in their thirties and represent the generation which has grown up in postwar Poland, 50% of Poland's current population. While Agnieszka symbolizes the idealist intellectual who is not satisfied with official answers, her director has sold himself to the existing order.

Undaunted, Agnieszka pursues her search for Birkut. In another film clip, she views huge posters of Birkut pulled down, dragged through the street and unceremoniously thrown away to be replaced by another figure. Intrigued, she searches for his statue and films it herself secretly in a museum warehouse. As she is leaving, the curator is puzzled but does not know what Agnieszka has done. The curator says,

"Those statues have not been exhibited for 20 years — we have much better ones on display now. We've got better sculptors here now. He had toppled over.”

ARCHITECTS OF OUR HAPPINESS provides Agnieszka with even more clues. We see Birkut at a 1950 New Year celebration at the Warsaw Polytechnic, where he and other heroes of labor are congratulated and honored. Birkut's life, states the film's narrator, "is a march from one triumph to another. He is a delegate to the Polish congress and an inspiration to our artists." We see Birkut in a museum admiring the new works of "socialist realism" and posing for a sculptor. The film voice states, “The Polish masses: a fitting theme for artists. The noble figure of man is debased and distorted in modern art." Next, Birkut is shown working out mathematical problems at night after work: "Only in Peoples Poland have these hands been provided with books and newspapers." The film also shows Birkut's marriage to Hanka Tomczyk, a gymnast, played by Krystyna Zachwatowicz, and their entry into their new apartment in Nowa Huta, built by Birkut and his comrades. This must seem ironic to Poles today, given the present housing shortage.

Agnieszka resolves to find the original director of this film, Burski, and she meets this internationally acclaimed cineaste in his luxurious home. People rumor that Burski used Birkut as the springboard for his career. Burski tells her how he organized a spectacle to film at Nowa Huta — to show a crew laying 30,000 bricks in a single shift — so as to make a newsreel to promote the Stakhanovite campaign. Birkut creates a new bricklaying method by which he assumes responsibility for only the outer layer of bricks while his assistants fill in the rest. Birkut is sincerely committed to the construction of workers housing. However, as the project begins to assume a somewhat sensational quality, he begins to become resentful and rejects the additional food he is given, saying, "I'm not a prize goose to be fattened up.”

As the day approaches, more preparations are made. A band is commissioned to play for the entire shift. Polish radio is on hand. As Birkut, his partner Witek, and helpers walk towards the site, Burski begins to criticize how they walk and makes them rehearse. He shouts, "Don't shuffle, stride, loose limbed — like real workers!" Birkut accomplishes the feat, and all but collapses before Burski can film him accepting a rose — small compensation.

Given his popularity at this point, how is it the Party later condemned Birkut to ignominy? In a flashback, we see that Birkut and Witek have been sent by Party officials throughout Poland to demonstrate the efficacy of their bricklaying method. This was part of the Stakhanovite movement, in which "shock workers" were employed to raise production. The movement originated in the Soviet Union in the 1930s, then was applied by the postwar Polish government. Piecework and rates were used as an incentive to increase production. Essentially a form of speed-up, this campaign elicited hostility and resentment from certain sectors of the working class. In the film, Birkut receives a hot brick passed to him by another worker. First it passes through the hands of Witek, but as Witek is wearing gloves he does not feel the heat. Birkut's hands are seared. Screaming, he is carried off to a hospital.

Rather than acknowledge internal opposition to Stakhanovism as exemplified in this incident, the Polish Party officials choose to characterize it as external sabotage, a convenient method of dismissing workers' discontent. In 1956, for example, workers on strike from the ZISPO engineering plant in Poznan demonstrated in the streets demanding bread. They shouted, "Enough! We cannot go on like this! Turn aside from the false road!" Workers were shot down, denounced by the government initially as imperialist agents and "provocateurs.” Later the government was forced to concede that legitimate discontent spurred the Poznan riots. In MAN OF MARBLE, Witek and Birkut are tried and convicted as spies.

Burski suggests that Agnieszka find Witek. "He has been rehabilitated and is now high up at Katowice." As preparation for meeting with Witek, Agnieszka convinces the reluctant head of the film school to let her view a 1952 classified Polish Film News production, TRAITORS OF THE DOCK, where the film narrator states that Birkut and Witek were part of a “sabotage ring bent on falsifying plans and striking at champion workers." This “ring" is said to have had connections with foreign intelligence.

Agnieszka succeeds in locating Witek at Katowice, the huge steel mill which produces 50% of all Polish steel, one of the principal sites of resistance following the declaration of martial law. Located near the city of Krakow, Katowice was specifically built by the postwar Polish government to counter what it viewed as petit bourgeois strongholds. Today pollution from the great steel works threatens many of Krakow's irreplaceable medieval architectural structures.

It is not a coincidence that Wajda chose to place Witek in Katowice. Unlike Birkut, Witek succeeded in ingratiating himself with the official bureaucracy, a symbol of the working class opportunist. By compromising and forsaking his principles, he has been rewarded with a managerial position in which he no longer has to perform manual labor. This is underscored by Wajda placing the discussion between Agnieszka and Witek in a helicopter, which offers an impressive aerial view of the steelworks. Wajda thus emphasizes the connection between the emphasis on heavy industrialization, the hallmark of the Polish government’s claim to socialist construction, and political opportunism. A rail line connects Katowice directly to the Soviet Union and is used for transporting steel out of Poland, symbol of the subordination of the Polish economy to the Soviet Union. The coal-mining region of Katowice served as the political base of Edward Gierek, who succeeded Gomulka following the strikes of 1970. Production at Katowice is organized to serve the two masters of the Polish working class: the Soviet Union and Polish bureaucracy.

Witek asks Agnieszka, "What makes you interested in the 1950s?” Agnieszka commands, "Begin with Birkut. You all owe him something.” Through a series of flashbacks, Witek fills in the details of Birkut's unsuccessful attempt to bring his case to justice. We see Birkut accompanying Witek to the office of the Internal Security, where Witek disappears. The interrogator then maintains that he never saw Witek. The film depicts the alienation of the working class, as represented by Birkut, from the internal police whose presumed function is to "safeguard socialism.” Today, the budget for security is three times more than that allotted for Poland's entire steel and machine industry.

Birkut even goes to Warsaw to argue for Witek. There he confronts a cold, impersonal figure who is a high official in the public security. The bureaucrat informs Birkut,

“We are in the middle of an ideological struggle. We know of the case and will inquire of it. Think of it as a political struggle. Mistakes happen and if this is a mistake, we will set it right. Don't take things into your own hands. Leave it to us. Trust the People's Justice."

Birkut returns to Gdansk and attempts to raise the question of Witek at a union meeting. He genuinely views himself as an active participant in society, not a passive observer. Birkut assumes that in a "workers' state," the grievances of the working class deserve serious attention. At the meeting, Birkut shouts, "A dreadful injustice has been committed." Trade union officials cut off his microphone. A chorus begins: "Socialism will prevail by force of example, onward stout workers."

Cut off from his work and comrades, Birkut becomes demoralized and turns to drinking. Alcohol is a serious problem among the Polish working class. Its consumption is, in a sense, actively encouraged by the government to provide a diversion from existing social reality. Birkut temporarily joins a gypsy band. During one drunken episode, Birkut expresses his anger by throwing a brick at the office of Public Safety. He is eventually brought to trial with Witek, found guilty, and imprisoned.

Although not stated specifically, it is implied that Birkut was released in October of 1956 as part of Gomulka's so-called "liberalization." His arrest and prison term are attributed to "errors and distortions." (I have been told that the main cemetery in Warsaw is filled with gravestones on which it is stated that a worker or party official was shot and then "rehabilitated" in the 1950s. The cemetery provides a survey of the various turns in official party policy.)(5)

While Witek accepted his unfortunate fate and proceeded to live his life without reference to the past, Birkut was unable to find his way in the "new Poland" of Gomulka. At the same union hall where he was once forced off the platform for insisting on a full discussion of Witek's case, Birkut is now applauded. Confused by the new turn of events, Birkut wanders through the streets of Nowa Huta. Birkut, one of the original builders of the city, is now an outsider. Here, Wajda is representing the disillusionment of the idealistic non-party worker. He implies that the "locals" are those who succeed in reconciling themselves to a position of political powerlessness. They have no vision of a better society and live only for each day.

Agnieszka's final interview takes place with Birkut's wife, Hanka, who now lives in a luxury apartment. Like Witek, she has chosen the path of opportunism which, as in the West, brings its material rewards. While Birkut was in prison, Hanka denounced him as an imperialist agent. She prostituted herself to a bar owner in Zacopane and became an alcoholic. At one point, Hanka's husband offered Birkut a "position." He was to be responsible for bribing various officials. This is a reference to the "arrangements" Poles must make in order to survive, given the level of their salaries. Corruption permeates every facet of Polish society. Birkut, of course, refused the offer. Hanka does not know what has become of him. She does know that he worked at one point at the shipyard at Gdansk where Birkut and Hanka's son, Maciek, also did, but under Hanka's name — Tomczyk.

As Agnieszka is preparing to leave, Hanka's husband comes in, curses her for drinking again, and begins to beat her. Hanka thus provides a contrast to Witek. Her guilt for denouncing Birkut has transformed her into a pathetic woman, deprived of any positive sense of identity. She is, fundamentally, unable to reconcile herself to the corruption by which her husband provides her with material luxury. Hanka's deterioration also underscores the oppressed position of women in Poland, who, as in the United States, are confined to the lowest paid, most menial types of work.(6) To live well, Hanka must attach herself to a man with "connections."

Again exhibiting her undaunted determination, Agnieszka goes to Gdansk to find Birkut's son. She arrives as the shift is changing. Thousands of workers are pouring out of the shipyard, which employs a total of 16,000. In a somewhat implausible scene, Agnieszka recognizes a young worker who resembles Birkut. An aerial view of the imposing Gdansk shipyard provides a prophetic image of events to come, unknown to Wajda at the time MAN OF MARBLE was produced.

Birkut's son, Maciek, is at first reluctant to discuss his father, but Agnieszka succeeds in winning his confidence. Maciek reveals that his father is dead. How he died is unknown.

The final scene of MAN OF MARBLE shows Agnieszka and Maciek marching down the corridor of her film school. Since she has succeeded in "producing" Birkut's son, if not Birkut himself, the film director should allow her to proceed with the film on Birkut.

Originally, Wajda conceived of an ending to MAN OF MARBLE in which Agnieszka finds the unmarked grave of Birkut, a victim of the police shootings of striking workers at the Gdansk shipyard in 1970. This, however, was seen as too provocative. Before the emergence of Solidarity a decade later, official Polish history eliminated any reference to the 1970 strikes. Its memory was kept alive, unofficially, through the workers themselves.

(MAN OF IRON, continued on page 2)