Agnieszka (Krystyna Janda), a young woman in 1970s Krakow, wants to make her thesis film on a famous bricklayer and Communist hero named Birkut, whose rise and fall occurred in 1950s Poland. Birkut was celebrated in song and poetry, with statues erected for him. He traveled around the country, demonstrating his bricklaying technique. He has been long forgotten, and it is a strange thing: to be so forgotten in just 20 years time. Agnieszka argues with her advisor in the opening scene that she wants to make the film to “learn my father’s history”. Communism has a sketchy attitude towards its own past. History is to be managed from on high, one day you’re a hero, the next day your statue is taken down, and nobody is allowed to speak your name ever again. What happened to Birkut? Agnieszka is a driven young woman, passionate about her topic, and will not be dissuaded from moving forward.
Man of Marble, directed by Andrzej Wajda, came out in 1977, just three years before the eruption of the Solidarity movement in Gdansk. There is a sequel, Man of Iron, about Solidarity. Wazda is a political filmmaker, interested in the history of his country, the lies it tells itself, and the collective search for truth. (It’s well worth it to seek out his fascinating 1962 film Siberian Lady Macbeth.) Born in the 1920s, Wazda is still alive, and still making films that ask questions about Poland’s past, questions that in many cases people do not want to look at. Katyn (2007), about the massacre of thousands and thousands of Polish soldiers by the Soviets in 1940, was nominated for an Oscar, and according to IMDB Wazda is currently in post-production for a film called Wałęsa. Wazda has been making films since the 1950s, in the chilly first years of Soviet control. Wazda has seen a lot.
Birkut, the famous bricklayer, has been so erased from Poland’s official history that Agnieszka finds making her film tough-going. What happened to him? Is he still alive? There must be people around who still knew him. She seeks them all out, trailing her tiny film crew behind her. They visit the museum in Warsaw, where she has heard that his famous statue lies in storage. “Why do you want to see those? The director doesn’t like anyone to go in there …” says the staff member. Behind a locked gate are all of the statues, piled up amongst one another. The statue of Birkut, a homoerotic nude statue, fetishizing his physical beauty and tousled hair, lies on its back. Agnieszka straddles it, pointing her camera at the torso, the head, all while the staff member is kept distracted.
The fact that nobody wants to talk about Birkut, or even admit his existence, is just fuel to Agnieszka’s fire. There’s a story there. And she is going to tell it.
Man of Marble has a Citizen Kane-like structure, even down to the use of newsreel footage to put together the historical record, and an encounter with his now-drunken waste of a wife. Birkut, like Kane, is a mysterious figure, hidden behind myths and legends, a public hero with a tarnished reputation. Newsreels show us who we was in the public eye in the 1950s. Agnieszka sits in the television station and watches two old newsreels, celebrating the rise of Birkut. One is called “A City is Born”, about the building of the city of Nowa Huta, and the famous steel mill there, and the other is called “Building Our Happiness”, about Birkut’s glorious successes. Much of this footage has either never been shown or hasn’t been seen in years. (One of the documentaries lists “Andrzej Wajda” as a crew member, a wink to the audience.) We see the films in their entire: we see Birkut (Jerzy Radziwilowicz) as a hopeful gorgeous young man, one of the thousands who left the farmlands to come and join the building crews in Nowa Huta.
Rousing political music plays and a narrator tells us of the hope of a generation, symbolized in this one figure, Birkut. All of the footage shows Birkut laughing and joyful, even during the one famous day when he and his crew laid 30,000 bricks in one shift, a record: it made Birkut famous. He travels around Poland, greeted at the train station by bands, and throngs of people handing him bouquets. It is because of people like Birkut that Poland will become industrial (because you know how the Commies loved their factories! If they could have paved the entire world, they would have).
The newsreels were directed by a now-world-famous director named Jerzy Burski (Tadeusz Lomnicki). His films have helped “put Polish cinema on the map”, and he wins awards at festivals, etc. He’s come a long way from making propaganda films for the Politburo. Agnieszka tracks him down, and interviews him about Birkut. Burski calls Birkut “my greatest stunt”. The story of Birkut emerges in flashbacks, and, like Kane, we move backwards and forwards in time. The film itself becomes a piece of investigative journalism: we see the piece of the story told by one narrator (who may or not be unreliable), and then we learn a deeper part of the tale, or a more nuanced telling of it, when we hear someone else’s version. It’s a great technique, and makes Man of Marble compulsively interesting. We must find out what happened.
It emerges that the “30,000 bricks in one shift” was engineered by Burski as a publicity stunt, agreed to by the Communist Party, as propaganda for the working class and the feat of building Nowa Huta. We have seen the newsreel footage, now we get the backstage story in flashback. We see Birkut being groomed, like a movie star: he’s given a shave and a haircut, he’s fed like a prize steer. He and his bricklaying team start over to the pile of bricks, and they are made to do it again, Burski calling out a direction, “Walk more like workers!” It’s a deeply cynical scene. Birkut seems unaware of the level to which he is being used. The crowds watching the bricklaying stunt are exhausted by heat and deprivation (although in the newsreel we only saw them cheering and clapping), and the band, hired to play during the shift, are drunk and collapsed on the hillside and have to be exhorted to “keep playing”. Burski, looking back on it, is proud of how well the stunt went over. It helped make his name as a director.
There are multiple levels of artificiality in Man of Marble, which is a quest for truth, but also an examination of the power of film-making (for good or evil). First of all, we are watching Man of Marble, a film. That’s the top layer of artificiality. Then, we watch a newsreel within this film, the second layer. Then, beneath that, we watch the “making of” that newsreel, a third layer, and beneath all of that is the final layer of artifice: The “making of” flashback shows that the entire event being filmed was phony, a set-up from start to finish. So what is real? What are we to believe?
Agnieszka tracks down Birkut’s associates, one being a man named Michalak (Piotr Cieslak), who had been Birkut’s Communist Party minder during the time of Birkut’s rise. Michalak now runs a strip joint in Krakow, and is sleazy and corrupt, a far cry from the cleancut man we see in the flashbacks. He doesn’t want to talk to Agnieszka. In such a political culture, everyone has sins on their conscience. Communism required full participation of all citizens. But she gets him to tell his part of the story. Birkut, a celebrity, travels around Poland, trailed by Michalak. At one work-site, a tragic and suspicious event occurs: Birkut, head of his work crew, is handed a red-hot brick, and he is not wearing gloves. His hands are burned, his bricklaying career is over. Was it sabotage? Birkut is devastated, saying to his comrade Witek (Michal Tarkowski) afterwards, “Why would a worker do that to another worker?” Witek replies, “We’re cranking up the quotas. Not everybody likes that.” These comments get both of them in trouble.
In a creepy scene, Birkut and Witek are summoned to Communist headquarters in Krakow, and Witek vanishes from an office where there is only one means of egress. What the hell happened? Did Witek de-materialize? Was he thrown out a window? Birtuk demands an explanation. Where did he go? Birtuk, who still doesn’t quite understand the reality of Communism, who doesn’t understand what State-Control really means, begins a quest to find out what happened to his friend, an investigation that mirrors Agnieszka’s current-day quest. Birtuk, an insider, finds himself increasingly isolated. A giant poster of his head is removed from the main square. Birtuk’s out. He will never be mentioned publicly again.
Birkut goes mad. He drinks to excess. He hires a band of gypsies to follow him around, and shouts at them to “play the bricklayer’s waltz”. Furious and helpless, he throws a brick through the windows of Communist Party headquarters. His friends denounce him. He is sent to prison for three years and when he comes out, things have changed. He tries to reconcile with his wife, even after he learns that she publicly denounced him.
Man of Marble has a gritty energetic atmosphere, reminiscent of the paranoid political thrillers so popular in the 1970s, and a very unfortunate soundtrack, cheesy pop-rock accompaniment, supposed to anchor us in the modern world, but (ironically) dating it terribly. The acting is good, with Radziwilowicz as Birkut giving us a heartbreaking portrait of a man crushed by the State, the State he loved and trusted and believed in. Krystyna Janda, however, doesn’t encounter a simple moment that can’t be over-complicated by random behavior: she can’t stop herself from adding gestures, head-snaps, dramatic poses. She doesn’t just smoke. She acts the shit out of smoking. She can’t just sit in a chair. She has to twist herself up and around, looking around her on hyper-speed (“see me sitting?? See me listening?”). She can’t just walk into a room. She has to swoop in, hand on forehead, hip cocked to the side, so that we can “see” her sense of urgency. Her acting was distracting, to say the least, and it’s unfortunate, because she’s the lead, she’s our guide. I remember on the first day of rehearsal for a play I was cast in, the director said to us, “You don’t need to prove to me that I was right in casting you. You’re in. Relax.” In every moment, Janda is trying to prove herself, and it’s not necessary. You’re already cast. Relax.
But the story is the thing here. Wazda has made finer films, to be sure, but Man of Marble is a fascinating document of a country trying to put together the pieces of its own wiped-out recent past.
Considering the issues portrayed in Man of Marble, and considering its cynicism and honesty, it’s hard to believe that it was made at all. Prophetically, the penultimate scene in Man of Marble takes place outside the Lenin Shipyards in Gdansk, where Solidarity started, helmed by Lech Wałęsa. There are the gates, the gates that would be world-famous not even a decade later.
The winds of change roar through Man of Marble. It is “the moment before”.