It leaves a hollow and melancholic feeling when it takes a director’s death to inspire you to watch one of their films. But when the director’s output is revealed to be so extraordinary, it is rapidly replaced with a joyous and celebratory mood instead.
This had happened to me once previously with the great Iranian director Abbas Kiarostami, when it took his death in July for me to watch one of his most acclaimed films, ‘Taste Of Cherry’ (1997). In the case of Andrzej Wajda, who died on October 9, I had previous seen – and loved – ‘Kanal’ (1956). So while he was not completely new to me, I certainly did not expect ‘Man Of Marble’ to reach the same exceptional heights as it did.
The eponymous man of marble is Mateusz Birkut (Jerzy Radziwiłowicz), a bricklayer in 1950s communist Poland. He is a highly honourable man who is motivated by an aspiration to house the people of his nation, and desires nothing but the best for his country. After leading a team that lays a remarkable 30,000 bricks in one day for a propaganda publicity stunt, he becomes a heroic figure for the public to idolise.
Giant posters of him are unveiled, and statues are made in his honour (hence the marble of the title). However, after he realises that he may just be being used as a pawn in some wider game, he protests, resulting in his disappearance from records.
Instead of the film following Birkut directly, it is set two decades subsequently and is framed around a film student, Agnieszka (Krystyna Janda), working on her diploma film. Against much of the advice of her supervisors, she has set upon making a documentary about Birkut, and investigating what happened to him. The film (and Agnieszka’s film-within-a-film) thus becomes a search for an individual, and most importantly, the truth about this individual.
Her search involves various sources and interviews: newsreel, the director of the 1950s propaganda he starred in (now an acclaimed director in his own right), a strip-club owner, Birkut’s previous wife, and an Art Garfunkel look-a-like. All the while, she learns that he is an individual far more complex than the one-dimensional ‘icon’ portrayed in the propaganda.
This plot device at the centre – with elements of Birkut’s story being revealed to the audience piece by piece, as Agnieszka discovers them – is crucial to the success of the film, and alludes to another cinematic masterpiece: ‘Citizen Kane’ (Orson Welles, 1941).
Both of the central performances – by Radziwiłowicz and Janda (in her debut film) – are extraordinary. Janda in particular is electric at the centre, with a punky attitude to her superiors, enthusiasm and intrigue for the story she’s following, and sheer determination to get her film made. She is the kind of individual who shoots film without a tripod, and who wears double denim and flared trousers without giving a shit.
It is rather astonishing that the film was made in the first place given the subject matter – the superficial and specious nature of communist propaganda. The Polish censors did meddle with the script though, removing a prescient section about an uprising in the Gdansk shipyard.
This delayed the project by a decade and a half. Much of what was cut out would form the basis for a sequel, ‘Man Of Iron’, in 1981. The central plot of the film – about a filmmaker struggling with her superiors who are preventing her from making the film – can clearly be seen in Wajda’s own struggle to get the film made.
Beyond the engrossing and gripping story, the film focuses on many of the most interesting themes that cinema can deal with. Films about the act of filmmaking have always interested me, and here, Wajda takes this to a meta-extreme. Here, we have a film about a filmmaker making a film, interviewing a filmmaker about films he had made. Got that?
Similarly, the nature of propaganda is fascinating. The propaganda makers re-shoot sequences of Birkut’s bricklaying feat, to best capture it. Birkut is unwittingly manipulated and used for the service of propaganda and ‘facts’. This blurred line between truth and fiction is a permanently relevant idea. You only have to look around today at various political developments to see that this is still the case.
Man Of Marble also looks into the gap that exists between heroism as perceived in the media and public imagination, and the individual who stands behind it all. This was a theme in many Westerns, where the myth and legend precedes the individual themselves, notably for my personal favourite John Ford film, ‘The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance’ (1962). Here, the stories told of Birkut and the statues made of him, may have been made of marble, but he as a man was made of something greater far than marble.
From a historical viewpoint, the film is also interesting for its remarkable clips of Polish propaganda of the 1950s – clips of generals and politicians with ridiculous moustaches marching to even more ridiculous music. And even stranger scenes of parades featuring giant papier mâché heads (à la Frank Sidebottom), of Western leaders as rats and other verminous animals.
Many elements of the film are laughably dated. Thankfully not in a cinematic sense, but in appearance instead. The costumes perfectly resemble the image of seventies Poland I had in my head. The aforementioned double denim and flared jeans was just one of several crimes in the film. The colour scheme of interior decor is often brown, brown, and more shades of brown. And the funk score, by Andrzej Korzynski, also invokes a strong seventies vibe, and is reminiscent of the work of Dario Argento’s regular collaborators, Goblin.
But despite the occasional fashion crime, the excellent cinematography means the film is superb to look at, and has been particularly beautifully restored. Wajda is a director who certainly knows how to shoot and frame a shot to make it exciting, gripping and stunning, regardless of subject matter. The same was true of Kanal, a film about Polish underground resistance in sewers during the Warsaw uprising. The shimmering monochrome light reflecting of the curved walls and water, evoked similar scenes in ‘The Third Man’ (Carol Reed, 1949).
For me, what Man Of Marble establishes is that Andrzej Wajda is one of Poland’s great cultural titans (no, don’t laugh). The reason this film, and so many of his others, are important is that they go beyond the confines of their own story, and become allegories for Poland as a nation during exceptionally turbulent periods of its history. And based on my experience of Wajda, I do not think it is any exaggeration to talk of him as some kind of voice of the nation. True it is only on the basis of two films, but Wajda is rapidly becoming one of my favourite filmmakers. Herzog, Kurosawa, and Almodovar had better watch out …