Man of Marble. Man of Iron. p.2
by Lisa DiCaprio

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


MAN OF MARBLE premiered in Warsaw on February 1, 1977. In 1980, during the strikes in Gdansk, Wajda visited the shipyard. A worker shouted to him, "Now you must make a film about our story — MAN OF IRON.” The workers thus directly commissioned Wajda's second film. Its production, from beginning to end, was completed in nine months. This resulted in a certain sacrifice in cinematic quality, as compared to MAN OF MARBLE.

MAN OF IRON no longer emphasizes Agnieszka in her search for the truth. In many ways, MAN OF MARBLE's success depended on her role. In earlier films, such as HUNTING FLIES, Wajda depicted women in an extremely derogatory manner. In MAN OF MARBLE, Krystyna Janda's extraordinary dynamism animates an otherwise long film. The alterations of role in MAN OF IRON disappoint not only feminists, but also those who appreciated the determination she brought to bear in the earlier film. In MAN OF IRON, Agnieszka does not appear until almost a third of the way through the film and then her role is to relate, through a series of flashbacks, her marriage to Maciek, their somewhat limited joint political activity, and Maciek's organizing at the shipyard which culminates in the formation of Solidarity.

The main character in MAN OF IRON is Winkiel, a spineless radio reporter once fired for assuming an inappropriate view of the 1970 strikes and later reinstated as a result of a friend's intervention. Now this friend, an official with the internal security police, strongly suggests that as repayment Winkiel accept a special assignment. The police will send Winkiel to Gdansk in order to prove that the CIA created Solidarity.

In an interview in Cineaste, Wajda discusses this issue of self-censorship:

“MAN OF IRON opens with a scene in the state radio station during the strikes in Gdansk. A woman is reading a script, ‘...but there are the ones who do not hope, who believe that everything is an illusion...’ A reporter comments, ‘the censor wont like this.’ He moves on to rehearsing a group of women who are to appeal as wives and mothers for the strikers to return to work. Precisely this tactic was used by the Polish government, following the declaration of martial law. It was employed especially to undermine the Piost strike where thousands of workers occupied the mine for two weeks. Access to the media was a crucial demand of Solidarity. Walls in Warsaw were often seen with the slogan, ‘DON'T BELIEVE WHAT THEY SAY ON TELEVISION — TV IS LYING.’”(7)

On reaching Gdansk, Winkiel's main concern is that Solidarity has banned the sale of vodka. He is not ideologically committed to his assignment, but refusal to comply would cost him his job as a reporter. The police specifically want compromising material on Maciek, implying that perhaps Maciek will be "removed." If Solidarity members attempt to create a martyr of Maciek, this material can be released in a social television program. The representative of the internal security police explains, "His father was involved in 1970. So counter-revolution runs in the blood."

As Winkiel is sent on his mission, he is warned,

"Warsaw does not realize how dangerous things are. They have forgotten one basic rule: we're not here to share power. Can you see this? Or, have you got it in for the workers?”

His superior concludes, "No one will own up to you. Avoid the shipyard — there you are beyond our protection."

Previous to the declaration of martial law, it was often said that two Polands existed: the old Poland typified by the rule of the Party in Warsaw, and the new Poland of Solidarity in the shipyard of Gdansk. Despite the warnings, Winkiel is irresistibly drawn to the “new Poland." Rather than create misinformation, Winkiel slowly becomes convinced of Solidarity's legitimacy. This, then, is MAN OF IRON's basic plot. Through a series of interviews and flashbacks, we follow Maciek's growth from a participant in the student movement of 1968, his decision to leave the polytechnic University and become a worker at the Gdansk shipyard, his attempts to convince the Gdansk workers to support the strikers at Ursus and Radom in 1976, and finally his role in creating Solidarity.

Maciek's political radicalization begins with the student movement of 1968. Mass student protest was sparked when the Minister of the Interior banned the production of a classic Polish play with anti-Russian overtones. In the protests that followed, hundreds of students were expelled from the universities, many lecturers lost their positions, and whole university departments were eliminated by the government. The students succeeded in shutting down all Polish universities. They appealed to the workers at the Gdansk shipyard for support, but in vain.

Maciek is unable to convince his father of the legitimacy of the students' demands. Birkut represents the suspicious worker who saw the student movement as a "palace revolt — a provocation." His hostile response reflects the very real position adopted by many workers at the time. These workers thought that the students were being used to further certain elements in the Party who were to the right of Gomulka and who wanted to use the disorder as justification for further repression. In retrospect, there seems to have been an element of truth in this suspicion, but it would be erroneous to characterize the entire movement in these terms. The hostility of the workers was also not entirely spontaneous, but in part orchestrated by the party itself. “Angry workers" were brought in from the surrounding areas of various cities, especially Warsaw, to beat up demonstrating students.(8) Birkut remains unconvinced by Maciek's arguments and concludes, "When the time comes, the students and workers will march together."

This unity, however, was not destined to be achieved for another eight years. The 1968 situation of workers’ failing to support students was completely reversed two years later, in 1970, when the shipyard workers of the three Baltic cities of Gyndia, Gdansk, and Szczcin went on strike. Their appeal to the students solicited only silence. While the workers marched past their dormitories, the embittered students refused to act.

We are informed that Maciek suffered deeply during this period. He is torn between his understanding on an intellectual level that the workers should be supported and his anger that they refused to aid students in 1968. A bloodied woman student awakens him at night to inform him that Birkut is dead and his body cannot be collected. It is blocked by tanks. We see a procession headed by a bloodstained flag where marchers carry the corpse of a murdered worker on a torn-off door to the city hall. This scene offers the most vivid symbol of 1970.

In a flashback later on, we see that as he was crossing a bridge, Birkut was hit by bullets whose origin was a mystery. In real life, workers were gunned down by fire from helicopters. In this flashback, Wajda also shows us how the dead workers were lined up in beds, covered with sheets, with only their bare feet exposed, to which an identification tag is fastened. A friend remarks,

"They buried Birkut like a dog. Later, they removed the marker on his grave. Maciek said that this was to obliterate all traces of the dead, so the people will forget."

Of this period, Edmond Baluka, a leader at the Szczcin shipyard later forced into exile in London, commented, “We now know how to go on strike. We don't know how to win a strike." The most visible political change caused by the strikes was the replacement of Gomulka by Edward Gierek. Later, a joke would emerge, "What is the difference between Edward Gierek and Wladyslaw Gomulka? No difference, only Gierek has not realized it."

Maciek anticipates that there will be no difference between Gierek and Gomulka. During a television speech given by Gierek on assuming office, Maciek becomes uncontrollably violent, and he throws a chair at the television. Concerned that he will be arrested, Maciek's friends attempt to restrain him and place him under care at a psychiatric hospital. The police arrive soon after Maciek is led away in an ambulance.

On the day of his release from the hospital, Maciek's friend asks a psychiatric worker, "Is he really crazy?” She answers, "No more crazy than our 30 million compatriots." In his ward Maciek informs his friend of his decision to leave the polytechnic university and work in the shipyard. He is determined that the truth will not be buried with the workers. Maciek is infused with the desire to avenge Birkut's death. When his friend responds, "You want to suffer," Maciek answers,

"No, I want to be free. I want to understand what my father told me and what he did."

It was, in fact, only in 1976, with the formation of KOR (Committee for the Defense of the Workers), that any real organizational unity was expressed between sympathetic intellectuals and the workers. This was, in large part, due to the closeness of the Ursus tractor works to Warsaw, which facilitated the intellectuals' support work. Gdansk workers, however, were originally reluctant to support the 1976 strikes at Ursus and Radom.(9) In a scene which brings to mind radicals arguing with American workers, Maciek attempts to convince the workers that common cause must he made. On break, the shipyard workers of Gdansk seem cynical, lethargic, and unresponsive. "Since 1970,” pleads Maciek, “all of Poland has been watching us.” A worker responds, “Nothing can change. We want to live normally and work in peace. I don't want to leave any orphans." Maciek answers angrily, "You mean you want to live as a slave."

Maciek also argues with his union representative to take up the defense of the Ursus and Radom workers. He is warned, "We won't support you the next time." To Maciek's protestations that he is a good worker, the official responds,

"Being a good or bad worker has nothing to do with it. Don't rock the boat. We'll probably denounce you if you go on."

In the old, official unions, Party appointees filled the most important positions as part of the system of Nomenklatura. These officials refused to raise economic and political demands. In all, over 300,000 posts of the Polish government — including positions in the media, universities, factories, etc. — became filled in this manner. This middle bureaucracy, which affects every facet of Polish social, economic, and political life, forms the foundation of Party rule in Poland. Solidarity thus raised objections to the system of Nomenklatura, particularly as it related to the appointment of plant managers.

Wajda's exposure of the official Polish unions' nature should remind us of our own unions' character. The AFL-CIO, which proclaims its “support" for Solidarity, operates similarly to these old unions. However, while the AFL-CIO objectively represents the interests of the capitalist state by maintaining U.S. workers' struggle within capitalism's framework, the official Polish unions functioned as the State's direct instrument. It is in this context that Polish workers raised the crucial demand for the recognition of independent trade unions.

Although faced with both the Gdansk workers' relative passivity and the union's hostility, Maciek, like Agnieszka, remains undaunted. He represents the many courageous individuals who took great risks and suffered privation before Solidarity's formation. Only four years later, widespread cynicism would be replaced by optimism and an organization embracing fully one-third of the Polish population.

For his organizing activities at the Gdansk shipyard, Maciek is dismissed. Plastering up 100 posters on walls protesting the beatings at Ursus and Radom brings him a jail sentence of three months. To Winkiel, Agnieszka explains Maciek's vindication by the shipyard strikes of 1980. She asks,

"Do you know what it is like to work in a hull? If you don't know this, you don't know anything."

To reporters who question the workers' actions, Agnieszka responds,

"You are not afraid of jail if you are already there.”

She concludes her discussion with Winkiel,

"What Birkut said long ago was right. 'No lie can live for long.' I hope that you can find your way in the new Poland."

Winkiel's discussion with Agnieszka, set during the period of the Gdansk negotiations, makes him finally decide to renounce his role. However, Winkiel is not to be accepted in the new Poland. As he is leaving the hall where the Gdansk agreements were signed, Maciek's old roommate pulls out the hidden microphone from his coat. Now it is Winkiel who is “lost.” He has burned all his connections with Warsaw's "old Poland" but failed to earn the trust of Gdansk's "new Poland." The film rewards the proponents of the truth.

Wajda thus communicates a false sense of Solidarity's permanency. For example, Agnieszka assures Winkiel, "We cannot lose. They must come to an agreement with us." The scene of the historic signing of the Gdansk agreement includes the words spoken over the loudspeaker by Deputy Prime Minister Mieczyslaw Jagielski, "There are no victors and there are no losers." Only months later, at the July congress of the Party, Jagielski himself would be a "loser." He was forced to resign from his position, presumably because of his conciliatory position towards Solidarity.

Wajda also portrays Solidarity in a somewhat misleading manner as an essentially homogeneous movement in which divisions over tactics, which did exist, are not portrayed, even in an indirect manner. From MAN OF IRON, the viewer receives the impression that a peaceful, accommodationist, evolutionary solution could have been worked out between Solidarity and the Party's moderate elements. For example, the film shows the actual appearance of the Gdansk Party Secretary, Tadeusz Fiszback, who is shown reading a television speech and emphasizing, "We do not want another 1970." The Polish workers once said of Fiszback, “He was the only bastard who can sleep peacefully at night." Fiszback, widely regarded as the most important of the "moderates" who sought genuine compromise with Solidarity, has since resigned his position.

Workers recognized the inherent problem in relying on party leaders such as Fiszback. This was demonstrated during the unprecedented meeting in 1970 between the new First Secretary of the Central Committee, Edward Gierek, and the shipyard workers of Szczecin. During this meeting, a worker stated,

"Now the moderates who want to negotiate have the power, but the struggle goes on always, and if they lose, we are lost."

The "moderates" within the Polish United Workers Party did "lose." But the greatest loss was to the membership of Solidarity itself. For 16 months the very existence of Solidarity hung on a thread, ready to be snapped at any moment by the Polish government or Soviet tanks. The answer came on December 12. To view MAN OF IRON, however, one would not have any sense of the real fragility of Solidarity's position in relation to the Polish government. There is only one minor illusion to possible repression. As Winkiel is leaving the site of the signing, he is called over by a man in a car whom we may presume to be a member of the internal security police. With confidence, he says to Winkiel that the agreement is only "a scrap of paper."

Only months after the release of MAN OF IRON in the United States, Solidarity's agreements with the government were reduced precisely to "scraps of paper." How could this have happened so quickly and effectively? In Wajda's vision — and it was a vision shared by certain leaders of Solidarity — only the internal security police offered an organized opposition to Solidarity. Wajda shows this at the very beginning when the police tell Winkiel he must uncover links between the CIA and Solidarity because

"Warsaw does not realize how dangerous things are. They have forgotten one basic rule: we're not here to share power."

It is now clear that "Warsaw," which stands for the government, did not forget this "basic rule." The relation between the Polish working class and the government stands as one of class antagonism which, ultimately, could only be resolved by one side or the other’s winning.(10) This antagonism has been revealed in the five revolts of the Polish working class since WW2. After each revolt, the Polish government first denounced the workers as "hooligans, criminal elements, imperialist agents and provocateurs." Soon afterwards, however, it was forced to admit the existence of very real, even fundamental problems. Most revealing was Edward Gierek's December 20th televised speech given when he assumed the position of First Secretary of the Party. Gierek admitted:

  1. that in formulating its policies the government had not been in the habit of taking account of reality;
  2. that it had neglected to consult the working class and the intelligentsia;
  3. that it had ignored the principle of collective leadership and democracy in the life of the Party; and
  4. that it had failed to maintain close links with the working class and did not speak a common language with the working people.

Solidarity itself could not have made a better case to justify its existence. By his own account, Gierek condemned the Party as an organization alien to the Polish workers. The Party, however, had not only been removed from taking account of reality; it has acted with violence to protect its political power and privileges. Wajda's selection of documentary footage in both MAN OF MARBLE and MAN OF IRON does not reveal the full extent of the Polish government's repression of the workers.

In 1970, revolts occurred in the three Baltic cities of Gdansk, Gdynia, and Szczecin. Birkut is shown murdered in Gydnia. Estimates of casualties in the three cities reached into the hundreds, as the government employed tanks to spray machine gun fire into the demonstrating workers. According to a Swedish account, reported in the New York Times, the Gdansk death toll alone was 300. According to Monthly Review:

“The trouble began with shipyard workers who held meetings in their places of work and then proceeded to Communist Party headquarters with what we may surmise were mixed motives — some to vent long pent-up anger. Being met with repression rather than attempts at explanation, they attacked and in some cases destroyed Party buildings, police stations, and other symbols of authority. Large crowds were involved — one report from Szczecin estimates 10,000 people — and the army was called in to restore order."(11)

In contrast, Wajda's depiction of the 1970 strikes is limited to processions of workers and scattered battles with the police. This is not to suggest that he recreate a scene of 10,000 marking on the Party headquarters in Szczecin. However, the overall effect of Wajda's selection of documentary footage is to minimize the really massive scale of the workers' revolt.

Wajda also does not mention the decisive follow-up strike by women textile workers at Lodz, which finally forced the new government of Gierek to rescind price increases. Wajda's neglect of women's role in Solidarity is also evident in his misleading depiction of Solidarity's formation. In MAN OF IRON, Maciek describes the first hours of the Gdansk strike to a reporter: At 6:00 a.m. on August 14, workers from departments K1 and K3 of the Gdansk Lenin shipyard put down their tools. They had two demands: the reinstatement of long-time activist, Anna Walentynowicz, and a wage increase of 1,000 zloyts.(12) A crane operator, Walentynowicz had been fired for her underground activities in the Baltic Free Trade Union, an organization formed by a Gdansk group in April 1978. The official explanation for Walentynowicz' firing was that she had "deserted her work post." Maciek relates how Walesa secretly scaled the shipyard gate to address the workers. "And then," says Maciek, "we knew that everything would be all right."

In fact, had all decisions been left to Walesa, Solidarity would have never come into existence. In Solidarity: Poland in the Season of its Passion, Lawrence Weschler analyzes the first crucial moments of Solidarity:

“August 15: Communications blackout: all phone lines to Gdansk are cut. In the town, transport is suspended. Over 50,000 workers are on strike.”

“August 16: False reports of the strike's resolution almost sabotage the workers' united resolve: Walesa himself wavers, initially accepting concessions on the monument, reinstatement of fired workers, and a big pay increase. Within moments, realizing that many workers are willing to stay out for more, he changes his mind. But the strike leaders no longer have access to the loudspeakers.”(13)

At this point, Alma Pienkowska,(14) a nurse from the shipyard infirmary, reaches the shipyard gates and cries out to the Lenin shipyard workers that the workers in other enterprises, who had struck in sympathy, had been betrayed by the decision to end the strike. Pienkowska's impassioned speech creates a furor among the workers and, sensing their mood, Walesa annuls his decision. Two weeks later, the strike movement has spread to all of Poland. The government is forced to negotiate an agreement on the formation of independent unions with the right to strike. Solidarity is born.

Despite the weaknesses enumerated above, MAN OF IRON will remain an important chronicle of the principal events which led to Solidarity's formation. What Solidarity stands for has been so distorted by the Western media, that its real aims as a movement of workers for the control of production has all but been obscured. This suits the propagandistic aims of Western bourgeois governments. The Left must take a stand on Solidarity, and if Wajda's film contributes to the clarification necessary for Left support, it has served its purpose.

Since the declaration of martial law on December 12, 1981, precisely this question has been asked: Can Jaruzeiski's tanks destroy all of what Solidarity accomplished and stood for? Since the first days of repression, an underground organization has functioned, supported by a wide circle of sympathizers. The Polish workers are preparing for a spring offensive under the slogan, “The Winter is Theirs. The Spring is Ours.” However, the outcome of this offensive does not lie with Solidarity alone. To an important degree, it will be determined by the response of the world proletariat — including the workers in the United States.

As Daniel Singer, the author of The Road to Gdansk and a leading authority on Poland, said in a recent interview published in The Guardian:

“It is vital for the Left to take the lead in supporting Solidarity. The workers of Eastern Europe must not be led to believe that the only vision of socialism they have is the Russian tank or Jaruzelski's tank. It would be very damaging for the chance of having a socialist solution in Eastern Europe if the workers in Poland have the impression that the only people who stand by their side at this hour are the Reagans and Thatchers while we are silent.”(15)


1. At the end of the war, Poland was left with only 38% of its industrial capacity, 35% of its agricultural resources, and 30% of its housing stick.

2. Michael Szkolny, "Revolution in Poland," Monthly Review, June 1981, p. 2.

3. Lawrence Weschler, Solidarity: Poland in the Season of its Passion (Simon and Schuster, New York, 1982), p. 113.

4. Ibid., p. 49.

5. This was related to me by Richard Knauss, a member of the Solidarity Film Commission and an editor of the political journal, Nowa. Knauss now lives in New York.

6. Women in Poland are so burdened by the daily necessities of life that they have little time for political activity. Only 6% of the delegates to the Solidarity Congress were women. The crane operator Anna Walentynowicz has said that the main reason why she has been able to be so active politically is because she is a divorced woman without family responsibilities. The Polish government has encouraged women to remain in their traditional roles. Addressing Polish women in 1977, Edward Gierek noted in the official newspaper, Trybuna Ludu (August 3, 1977):

“A particularly important social function of women is motherhood, the organization of family life, and the stressing of the social value of the family … In your hands is the happiness of Polish families, the future of our children, and the future of our nation.”

In 1980, a small group of women at Warsaw University issued a number of feminist demands. Their fate today is unknown.

7. Cineaste, 11:1 (Winter 1980-81).

8. Wajda omits to mention that during this period, the government employed anti-Semitism to disorient the workers. Gomulka launched an anti-Semitic campaign, which resulted in the expulsion of thousands of Jews. Today, only 6,000 Jews remain in all of Poland, yet the government again resorted to anti-Semitism during the first days following the declaration of martial law. It has been commented that this is “anti-Semitism without the Jews." Wajda's failure to make reference to the government's use of this issue in 1968 is a serious omission, especially given the history of Poland.

9. The 1976 Ursus and Radom strikes were sparked by the government's attempt to raise food prices. In an attempt to buy the acquiescence of the Polish workers following 1970, Gierek sold the Polish economy to the Western banks. The standard of living of the working class increased rapidly between 1971 and 1975. This inflated economy crashed in 1976. Again, the workers were called on to sacrifice through increased food prices and, again, they responded with strikes.

10. Contrary to the official statements of Jaruzelski that Solidarity was planning "a counter-revolutionary coup d'etat," the question of actual seizure of political power was never seriously posed in a consistent way by Solidarity. There were moments when the question gained more immediacy, such as in March of 1981 following the Bydgoszcz inciden, in which three Solidarity members were brutally beaten by the police.

In retrospect, it seems that Solidarity almost entirely focused on the possibility of Soviet intervention and underestimated the role of the internal state apparatus. For example, real preparations were made in the event of a Soviet invasion. A scenario was conceived in which the population would immediately "disappear." Workers would refuse to go to work, road signs would be altered to create confusion, and nameplates on apartment buildings would be falsified. Russian troops would be forced to carry out production. However, the declaration of martial law by the Polish government itself was unexpected, and it came to many as a shock. One of the illusions destroyed by Jaruzelski's actions has been the role of the Polish army.

11. "The Lessons of Poland," Monthly Review, February 1971, p. 4.

12. Soon three additional demands were added to the original two: the erection of a monument to the workers killed in the shipyard strikes of 1970, cancellation of the meat price increase, and the right to form independent unions. Later the five demands were expanded and became the famous 21 points of Gdansk.

13. Ibid., Solidarity, p. 172.

14. In all likelihood, Pienkowska is today one of the 200 women activists placed in concentration camps by Jaruzelski.

15. The Guardian, "Opinion and Analysis," March 10, 1982, p.18.