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Andrzej Wajda spent a career spanning over 60 years at the forefront of cinema in Poland, producing politically engaged films throughout the various upheavals of late 20th century Eastern Europe. He gained prominence in the 1950s and 60s for his deeply allegorical and symbolic works, which shed a light on the political repression of Communist Poland in subtle but devastating ways. He utilised historical narratives and literary adaptations to surreptitiously comment on contemporary politics in his native Poland, whilst consistently pushing the boundaries of expression.
His films thus revelled in their ambiguity, and displayed the influences of the French New Wave, as well as the avant-garde cinema of the early 20th century. His political engagement reached a sustained peak in the 1980s as he committed himself to the Solidarity movement and made several films which reflected the burgeoning desire within the Polish populace for political and economic freedom, such as Man of Iron and Danton. This forced him into a confrontation with the authorities, who attempted to bankrupt his production business, a piece of intimidation he steadfastly refused to be cowed by.
Wajda’s most notable success in the early years of his filmmaking career was a trilogy about life in Poland during World War II, A Generation, Kanal and Ashes and Diamonds, whilst his allegorical tale The Promised Land, which utilised a depiction of 19th century corruption as a means of critiquing the Soviet system, propelled him to fame in the West. It is however his ‘Man’ trilogy which remains perhaps his greatest achievement and which at the age of 87 he has remarkably managed to complete. These three films; Man of Marble, Man of Iron and Walesa: Man of Hope, offer an invaluable counterpoint to the official history of Poland in the 20th century, and remain profoundly relevant representations of the country’s traumatic path to self-determination.
Wajda’s Man of Marble offers a potent portrayal of the machinations of Soviet propaganda, and is astonishing in its candid attack on a system that, at the time, dominated Polish cultural life. It focuses on the Polish bricklayer Mateusz Birkut, who was utilised by the Soviet propaganda machine as a Stakhanovite symbol of efficiency and production within the Communist system in the 1950s. Despite Birkut’s fame he has been largely forgotten just two decades on, and a young student filmmaker named Agnieszka, played by Krystyna Janda, is committed to tracking him down. Birkut’s fate is a commentary on the fickleness and superficiality of the state endorsed idolatry to which the he was exposed. It deconstructs the mythology of the Stakhanovite movement and subverts its ideological claims, with even the title being an ironic comment on the tendency to build statues to Stakhanovite heroes, including Bikrut. Agnieszka’s attempts to locate Bikrut are fruitless, but she does find his son Maciej Tomczyk, who works in the Gdańsk Shipyard and who relates the fate of his father. Wajda struggled for almost two decades to get this film made, and even then was forced to subject it to the censor’s scalpel. His accomplishment with this film are inextricably linked to the political context in which it was released, whilst its perspicacity in prefiguring solidarity, as well as its meticulous subversion of the propaganda machine, make it an incomparable document of late 20th century Poland.
Whilst Man of Marble prefigured the Solidarity movement, Man of Iron was firmly ensconced within that movement and embodied many of its aims, and the difficulties it faced. It follows on from the earlier film in relating the story of Maciej Tomczyk, who is now revealed to be the individual who kick-started the Gdańsk Shipyard strike, a key moment in the emergence of Solidarity as a political force. It also clears up the ambiguity which shrouded the end of Man of Marble, by explicitly stating that Mateusz Birkut died in the shipyard clashes of 1970: an early manifestation of worker rebellion against poor conditions, low pay, and political disenfranchisement. The film offers a counterpoint to Maciej’s rebelliousness in the form of a journalist working for the Communist regime’s radio station. The duality between the two characters expresses the divided nature of the Polish populace, and the divergent perspectives of the masses and the authorities, whilst also neatly encapsulating the role of propaganda in the ideological battle between Solidarity and the Communist state. Whereas in Man of Marble Wajda was forced to temper his critique of the government and occlude his most radical criticism in ambiguity, Man of Iron is an outright attack on the Communist apparatus, as it was produced during the brief relaxation of censorship which came about with the forming of Solidarity in 1980. It was widely acclaimed, particularly in the West, and was nominated for an Academy Award as well as winning the Palm d’Or at Cannes.
In 2013 Wadja returned to finally complete his trilogy with Walesa: Man of Hope, a biopic of Lech Wałesa. Although this no longer focuses on the fate of Maciej Tomczyk and instead broadens its canvas to include the whole of the Solidarity movement, the film is very much of a piece with its two predecessors, both thematically and in terms of narrative. There was an implicit suggestion in Man of Iron that Tomczyk was a symbolic representation of Walesa, a suggestion that is reiterated in Walesa: Man of Hope. As the film reveals, Lech Wałęsa was, like Tomczyk, a worker at the Gdańsk Shipyards, who participated in the 1970 demonstrations against Communist rule, a formative experience which he would use as motivation ten years later when another uprising occurs in which he takes the lead role. His part in this revolt propels him to the forefront of the political conflict in Poland, and he is proclaimed a figurehead for the impoverished working community throughout the country. Walesa leads the Solidarity movement through early years of hopeful activism, and the subsequent authoritarian backlash, to eventually become the first president of the new Polish democracy. The film depicts Walesa, played with vigour by Robert Więckiewicz, as an unflappable and down to earth leader, who finds authority thrust upon him rather than seeking it out, and who embodies the fight for freedom and self-determination which were so key to the first two parts of Wadja’s epoch defining trilogy.