Director: Andrzej Wajda
Our synopses give away the plot in full, including surprise twists
Gdansk, Poland, the early 1980s. Winkel, an alcoholic journalist is assigned to report upon the strikes by workers at the Gdansk shipyards, and to specifically undermine the efforts of these workers as they protest for fairness, justice and independent unions. The main focus of his report should be Maciej, the son of Matuesz, the shock-worker hero of ‘Man of Marble’. Through conversations with those who know Maciej, including a former university classmate and his imprisoned wife, Winkel learns about Maciej’s past – his disputes with his father during the student protests of 1968, his arrest and breakdown, how he found work at the shipyards and the role he now plays in the Solidarity movement.
The more Winkel learns about Maciej and the workers at the shipyards, the more he loses faith with his assignment and begins to sympathise with workers’ demands. He delays his report, though this fools no-one, and he is reminded of an accident he caused through drink-driving years ago, which is used as emotional blackmail to produce the report that is required. ‘Man of Iron’ concludes with documentary footage of the successful negotiations between the state and the Solidarity movement, from which they received their demands. Maciej then lights a candle at the spot where his father was murdered by the police a decade before.
Although Wajda is best known for his war trilogy of the 1950s (‘A Generation’, ‘Kanal’ and ‘Ashes and Diamonds’), his most historically important work emerged in the late 1970s and early 1980s, coinciding with a loose Polish film movement known as “the cinema of moral anxiety”, which was intended to awaken the public consciousness and depict life in Poland as it really was and not reiterate Communist propaganda. This also includes the work of Kieslowski, Holland and Zanussi and flourished during a brief artistic thaw. Wajda maintains that he never set out to make a sequel to ‘Man of Marble’, his 1977 film which focused on the making of a myth about a shock-worker “hero” and the reality behind this. He was encouraged to do so by the shipyard workers themselves, and given that the eponymous hero of ‘Man of Marble’ died at the Gdansk shipyard, there was an opportunity for a seamless transition between the two films.
‘Man of Iron’ almost acts as a documentary of the time. Unknown to Wajda when he began the film, the pace of history was to be quick and the production had to follow, capturing these historic events as they occurred before the introduction of martial law at the end of 1981, which interrupted Wajda’s domestic filmmaking output. Much like ‘Man of Marble’, it weaves between fact actual documentary footage and fact-based fiction (as Wajda notes in his prologue, these are fictitious characters but the situation is real), and both films use an Citizen Kane-esque template of a journalist discovering and charting the biography of a man who has fallen into obscurity (though of course Maciej is at the centre stage of history in the making). In both Wajda films, journalists are assigned to undertake a rudimentary assignment, to either rescue a former hero from obscurity or to disgrace his shipyard worker son, but both journalists discover that there is more to meet the eye than as initially appears. The shipyard workers of Gdansk are not the troublemaking agitators in the pay of international organisations as the regime would portray them, but looking only for fairness and justice. Since the pasts of both Mateusz and Maciej are constructed from how others remember them, there is a question of how reliable accounts are since not everyone has correct and proper motives. Wajda reaffirms to us that memories are not necessarily the truth, but just a version of it.
Much like ‘Man of Marble’, there is an examination of how valid documentary footage is, but also how use and control of the media, which is in the hands of the state, can be used again to depict a version of the truth that is satisfactory to it. Since ‘Man of Iron’ partly continues the ending of ‘Man of Marble’, Wajda reveals that Agniezka’s film about Mateusz was taken away from her because it discovered truths not palatable to the regime. When the authorities discover Winkel is stalling on his own film when he claims it is not finished, he is told that “editing’s not your job”. Therefore it does not really matter what Winkel hands in, it will inevitably be tailored to what was originally intended. Media is able to be manipulated though Wajda reveals at the start of the film that it was possible to slip subversive elements through which the authorities might not pick up on. This reflects the slight thaw of the era before martial law was introduced.
Although ‘Man of Iron’ was not originally conceived as a document of historical events, certainly by the time it reached Cannes in the Summer of 1981, that is how it would forever be remembered as it coincided with the rapid course of history in Wajda’s native Poland. Maciej himself should possibly be seen as a representation of Lech Walesa, who appears in the film blessing the marriage of Maciej and Agniezka (“I trust you will be a democratic couple”) and remains the only Nobel Peace Prize winner to feature in a Palme D’Or winning film. Interestingly, Wajda reveals how religion played an active role in the daily lives of most Polish, despite Communism being a secular ideology. The Catholic church was deeply involved in the rise of Solidarity, shown in numerous scenes where the shipyard workers pray. Wajda reveals the insecurity of the Communist regime in Poland and how of all the countries in Eastern Europe it was most susceptible. ‘Man of Iron’ remains an important film, a document of a declining regime and the collective action that accelerated it, but also an example of the clever interweaving of documentary footage and fiction to represent a historical significant set of events.