Man of celluloid

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Thanks to a new high definition restoration, Polish director Andrzej Wajda's iconic 1976 film "Man of Marble" has the chance of a second life.

Wajda became famous in the 1950s for his war trilogy which included the masterpiece "Ashes and Diamonds". These were tragedies of the human condition in the face of profound moral dilemmas. His heroes often struggle for freedom or dignity against overwhelming odds. Wajda's stories are deeply embedded in Polish history, yet they have a universal message appealing to a wider audience.

The idea for "Man of Marble" was sketched out around 1962. However, in the post-Stalinist stagnation of 1960s Poland, such a script could not pass through the sieve of censorship. The film went into production only in the next decade. By then a new team of communist apparatchiks had taken power in the wake of a workers' insurgency which had been bloodily suppressed in December 1970.

The new leadership, led by Edward Gierek, was determined to exploit the easing of Cold War rivalries between the Soviet and Western blocs. Allowing Wajda to begin work on "Man of Marble" was meant to be a showcase for a new, more benign communist Poland.

The film tells the story of Mateusz Birkut, a typical Polish worker, who, during a period of rapid industrialisation, moves from his village to the construction site of a huge ironworks. He becomes a Stakhanovite - regularly exceeding production norms in his bricklayer's job and facilitating greater exploitation of his fellow workers.

Birkut gets burned and is unable to work. He is marginalised and ends up on a collision course with an unjust system. We get to know this story through the eyes of Agnieszka, a young director making a film about Birkut. In this way Wajda is able to make the film relevant to 1970s Poland, revealing the social injustices inherently embedded in the Communist system.

The authorities were aware that the film would be potentially subversive. This threat was supposed to be neutralised by telling a story from the past, from which the new Polish regime had supposedly broken. The events of the year 1976 proved those hopes to be in vain.

At the same time "Man of Marble" was being shot a wave of strikes and protests swept Poland as workers reacted to the announcement of a rise in food prices. At the Ursus factory near Warsaw workers blocked an important railway line; in Radom they went onto the streets and burned down a Communist Party headquarters. It was obvious that workers' exploitation by the Communist state was not a thing of the past.

Many workers were brutally beaten, arrested and sentenced to several years in prison. Some intellectuals started to organise themselves in order to help those affected by state repression. They established KOR (Committee for the Defence of Workers), providing legal and financial aid. That year the seed of the future Solidarity movement was sown.

Against this context "Man of Marble" premiered in February 1977. The authorities understandably felt very uneasy about the film. They only allowed it to be screened in a few cinemas. Curiously the name of the film was censored, so in newspapers one could only read about "closed screenings" of an unnamed work. Nevertheless many people saw the film, which became an important part of the collective consciousness.

In truly prophetic style, Wajda ended his film in the Gdansk shipyard. There Wajda's heroine Agnieszka found Mateusz, Birkut's son. According to the original script Birkut was shot and died during the December 1970 riots. The censors, careful to prevent any closer links between Birkut's story and the immediate past, removed that part of the plot.

"Man of Marble" anticipated the Solidarity movement. For that reason when Wajda arrived at the Gdansk shipyard in August 1980 a warm welcome awaited him. Striking workers from the unofficial free trade union Solidarity asked the director to make a film about them. "Man of Iron" picked up the narrative from the first film, providing a natural continuation of the plot up to the summer strikes in 1980. That film also ended on a prophetic note, anticipating martial law and the smashing of Solidarity.

Last year Andrzej Wajda brought out a third film in the saga. Unlike its predecessors, "Walesa: Man of Hope" does not offer any glimpse into the future. The new film is just a nostalgic journey to a glorious, if troubled past. In that context the first part of the trilogy seems to be more relevant in a world gripped by great economic crises. The newly restored "Man of Marble" still has something very important to communicate.

"Man of Marble" is released on DVD by Second Run at 9.00. It is also showing as part of the Kinoteka Polish film festival in May.