Man Of Iron

Man Of Iron

****

Reviewed by: Jeff Robson

It's almost 30 years since the Solidarity movement came into being – the first major challenge to the monolithic Communist dictatorships of the Eastern Bloc and, in retrospect, the first domino that eventually toppled the entire edifice.

That era can seem like ancient history at times, with the former Soviet Union and its client states now completely transformed and the spectre of the Cold War replaced by new global fears. But it is also one whose dramas were played out instantly on television screens, particularly by a Western media keen to highlight the chinks in the evil empire’s armour. I vividly remember watching it all as an idealistic adolescent, gripped by the courage and idealism of the strikers, the fear and confusion of a regime that saw itself threatened by the same principles and tactics that underpinned its founding ideology and the sheer sense of the stakes involved.

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Andrzej Wajda was a key figure in the period, through his status as one of the most respected Polish filmmakers of the post-war era and as a prominent supporter of Solidarity. Man Of Iron, made while the movement was at its height (and featuring a cameo by its leader, Lech Walesa) vividly conveys the immediacy and the passion of those dramatic times.

It won the Palme D’Or at Cannes in 1981 – but it caused Wajda to become persona non grata with the regime. His production company was forced out of business and martial law was introduced later that year to crack down on the protesters.

So Man Of Iron is a crucial historical document, but it’s also a great film. Angry, poetic, humane and moving; a political drama and a love story; a study of both idealism and compromise with a raft of stunning images and striking performances.

The central character is Winkel, (Marian Opania), a former radical journalist now working for state-controlled Polish television. He is selected by the party hierarchy to travel to Gdansk on the pretext of making a documentary about Maciej Tomczyk (Jerzy Radziwilowicz), one of the Solidarity leaders at the shipyard, but in fact to wheedle his way into the movement’s confidence and then find some dirt on Maciej, to be used in a propaganda broadcast.

He is chosen because of his reporting of an earlier shipyard dispute in the early Seventies, which led to the death of Maciej’s father. The film is, in fact, a sequel to Wajda’s 1976 masterpiece Man Of Marble, which focused on these earlier events (and makes Man Of Iron the only sequel ever to win the Palme D’Or, trivia fans).

Several characters from the earlier film reappear and it’s a great shame that Man Of Marble isn’t available on DVD as a prior knowledge of it, while not essential, would undoubtedly be useful. Man Of Iron is told principally in flashback and Maciej’s relationship with his father (another activist, but one who refused to support his son when he took part in student demonstrations) is at the heart of the film.

Winkel finds out more about this, and the rest of Maciej’s life, through interviews with friends, colleagues and ultimately Maciej’s wife Agniezska (Krystyna Janda), a filmmaker whose efforts to get documentaries about both father and son off the ground have made her a political prisoner. The more Winkel finds out about his subject, the more he comes to admire him – and the more he questions his own beliefs and status within the regime...

The narrative structure is elliptical and occasionally frustrating. Like many of Wajda’s films (including his most recent release, Katyn) there are frequent jumps in place and time and major characters are introduced with little scene-setting or ‘back story’ in place. But, in Man Of Iron especially, this reflects the fractured, elusive nature of any empirical ‘truth’ about a person or event. Maciej remains an enigmatic figure, always seen from a distance or through the lens of the past.

What is more important is what he represents – the constant and vital human desire to question and protest. In refusing to be silenced, or accept the empty assurances of the party placemen in the ‘official’ trade unions he symbolises the sheer bloody-minded courage that inspired a few ordinary people to risk ostracism, violence and imprisonment to stand up to one of the most powerful tyrannies in history, with no guarantee that anything would ever come of it.

It’s clear that Wajda is a passionate supporter of the movement, but he treats its enemies with understanding and some sympathy. Winkel is a former radical acutely aware of how his ideals have been worn down and seeking solace in a vodka bottle; his bosses are veteran Communists amazed at how these upstarts have the temerity to bite the hand that has fed them and unable to realise that they are exercising the same principles (equality, the right to free association, social justice) to which the regime now only pays lip service.

The performances are all excellent and the cinematography emphasises the grimy reality of life behind the Iron Curtain with every shot of rusted metal and sweat-stained nylon. The music is haunting and evocative, if occasionally a little overdone – some of the flashback scenes depicting Maciej and Krystyna’s burgeoning romance do stray a little towards shampoo ad territory.

But this is a film that wears its heart on its sleeve and its impossible not to get caught up in its sense of hope and belief in the power of ‘ordinary’ people to change things – and the fascinating personal histories that inspire these people. Like Winkel, Wajda may have set out to make a propaganda piece but the final results are altogether more profound and rewarding.

Reviewed on: 20 Jul 2009
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At the height of the Solidarity movement, a Polish TV journalist is assigned by the government to undermine an independent trade union leader.
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Director: Andrzej Wajda

Writer: Aleksander Scibor-Rylski

Starring: Jerzy Radziwilowicz, Krystyna Janda, Marian Opania

Year: 1981

Runtime: 153 minutes

BBFC: PG - Parental Guidance

Country: Poland

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