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Iron in the Soul

It is forty years since Andrzej Wajda’s epoch-defining Man of Iron walked away with the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival

If Poland’s Solidarity movement continues to be regarded as one of the decisive factors in the fall of communism; then Man of Iron is its defining artistic representation.

“Never before has a film been awaited with such interest and anticipation” announced Polish magazine Przekrój on 23 August 1981, capturing perfectly the excitement surrounding the release of Andrzej Wajda’s new film Man of Iron. Already awarded the Palme d’Or at Cannes Film Festival in May, it was the cinematic event of the year, a film that an estimated five million Poles would go to see before General Jaruzelski declared martial law on December 13, hastening its removal from the screens.

The film dealt with the events that had taken place at Gdańsk’s Lenin Shipyards a year before, when striking workers led by electrician Lech Wałęsa forced Poland’s communist government to recognize free trade unions, signing a historic accord on August 31 1980. The agreement gave rise to Solidarność or Solidarity, the union which quickly garnered ten million members throughout the country, presenting an existential threat to the Poland’s stumbling, ineffective leadership. Although driven underground during the period of martial law, Solidarity was never totally defeated, and Poland’s rulers were forced to invite the opposition to round-table talks in 1989; talks which led to contested elections and the end of the communist regime.

If the Solidarity movement continues to be regarded as one of the decisive factors in the fall of communism; then Man of Iron is its defining artistic representation. Setting a fictional narrative against the factual events of August 1980, and mixing film actors with real life participants (both Lech Wałęsa and Anna Walentynowicz, the crane operator whose dismissal sparked the strike, play themselves), it is a unique exercise in fiction-vérité, hastily improvised by a director who knew that the film, in order to have maximum impact, had to be made in a hurry. Wajda was extremely aware that social protest was a public spectacle of short duration, and that by making a film of the Gdańsk events he was helping to ensure that they would resonate for a long time. 

Andrzej Wajda was no stranger to international success, having won a special jury award at Cannes for Warsaw-Uprising drama Kanal in 1957, the critics’ prize at the Venice Film Festival for existential gunman-on-the-run thriller Ashes and Diamonds in 1958, an a Oscar nomination for textile-town costume saga Promised Land in 1975.  It was the World War II trilogy of A Generation, Kanal, and Ashes and Diamonds that had made his reputation as one of Europe’s leading directors; pretty much every film he subsequently released was greeted as an event by critics both at home and abroad. He was certainly a Polish cultural celebrity by the time he visited the Gdańsk shipyards in August 1980 to see what was going on – he was eager, in his capacity as President of the Polish Society of Film-Makers, to secure permission from the strikers to shoot documentary footage of a protest that was assuming historic proportions.  With the strikers taking him straight to the hall where negotiations between Solidarity activists and party representatives were taking place, Wajda was a witness to that history right from the start, and couldn’t help but start jotting down notes. As Wajda was being guided round the yards, a shipyard worker told him that he ought to make a film about the strikers of Gdańsk and even suggested a name: Man of Iron. As Wajda told many interviewers since, it was an invitation he could not refuse.

Wajda asked scriptwriter Aleksander Ścibor-Rylski to get to work on a treatment. And then he went on holiday to the Greek islands. “With so much confusion at home we grabbed our bathing costumes and without much thought ended up in Greece”, Wajda wrote to his Yugoslav writer friend Sveta Lukić. “And here we are reading about what is happening in our country in the newspapers.”.

Ścibor-Rylski’s script was finished by end of October and plans were made to shoot over the winter. At one stage in the preparations Wajda went to see then-defense minister Jaruzelski to request the loan of tanks so he could film a flashback involving the bloody anti-strike crackdowns of December 1970. The general turned him down.

Man of Marble

The film begins with the arrival in Gdańsk of Winkel (played by Marian Opania), the crumpled, cynical and compromised journalist who is sent to the city on party orders to concoct a critical report on shipyard activist Maciek Tomczyk (Jerzy Radziwiłowicz). Tomczyk’s wife Agnieszka (Krystyna Janda) is another key activist, currently in detention for subversive activities. Winkel gains access to the shipyard and witnesses the signing of the historic accord. Sufficiently inspired by the people he has been sent to undermine, Winkel turns against his bosses and joins the strikers. 

Providing the film with extra emotional impact is the fact that it is a sequel to Wajda’s 1977 film Man of Marble, another cleverly woven mixture of fiction and historical fact in which Radziwiłowicz plays Mateusz Birkut, a Stalinist-era shock-worker who is feted by the regime as a hero of labour only to be abandoned as a maverick who is of no further use to power. The Maciek character in Man of Iron turns out to be Birkut’s son (indeed it is Birkut’s death in the unrest of 1970 that sets Maciek on the path to being a trade union activist. Agnieszka, the student film-maker who uncovers the story of Birkut in Man of Marble has, by the time of Man of Iron, become Maciek’s wife.

Inherently critical of the way Poland’s workers had been let down by the ruling caste, Man of Marble was regarded as a politically risky project, and only saw the light of day thanks to the elastic attitudes of relatively liberal Minister of Culture Józef Tejchma. Polish journalists were however discouraged from writing about the film, and it was only given a limited cinema release – even so, it was seen by somewhere in the region of 2.5 million people. It was also squeezed into the programme of 1977’s Cannes Film Festival, picking up the critics’ prize. When Man of Iron arrived at Cannes four years later, the festival judges were already primed; the fact that the events at Gdańsk shipyard had been seen on TV all over the world the previous summer only made the film more keenly anticipated.   

Like its predecessor, Man of Iron was also a film that made Poland’s communist bureaucrats nervous. Censors produced a list of suggested cuts before the film could be released to cinemas (scenes featuring negative portrayals of the people’s militia featured high on their list). The party’s Central Committee didn't want the film to be released at all, but with Solidarity gaining in strength and popularity, neither they nor the censors felt strong enough to act. The film was finished in a hurry and only made it to Cannes at the last moment, where it was premiered on May 24, and awarded the festival’s top prize at the closing gala three days later.

Reviewers in both Poland and the West were impressed by the film’s ability to respond so quickly and convincingly to current events, to the extent of becoming part of those events event itself. According to Vincent Canby’s New York Times review (which came out in October to coincide with the film’s state-side release), Man of Iron was “such an up-to-date report on political events in Poland that one attends to it less as a piece of fiction than as a prime-time television news special.”   

In the over-optimistic words of France Soir, “the fact that the voice of Polish cinema could make itself heard in Cannes is perhaps a guarantee of freedom”. As we now know, freedom in Poland did not come quite so easily. Wajda had in a way foreseen that the Polish government would do everything it could to stifle the Solidarity revolution, and had inserted a scene at the end of the film in which one of Winkel’s party handlers calmly suggests that the Gdańsk Accord is something that can easily be discarded. Wajda was almost persuaded by friends to leave this out of the final cut because it seemed out of tune with Solidarity’s August triumph. Perhaps wisely, Wajda kept it in - he wanted the cynicism of the party to be reflected in the film as well as the idealism of its opponents.

Outside Poland, and especially in Britain, Man of Iron was of huge significance in confirming the reputation of Wajda but also in shaping perceptions of Poland’s history and culture. The film also had a significant aesthetic impact, with the camera dwelling on the shipyard cranes and iron-girder bridges of an urban landscape that seemed to sum up the ambiguous narratives of a self-styled workers’ state that the workers themselves were trying to overthrow.

The BBC2 arts programme Arena devoted a whole episode to Wajda in September 1981. When the imposition of martial law rendered his films all the more poignant, BBC2 and Channel 4 cooperated in screening both Man of Marble and Man of Iron over the Christmas-New Year holidays of 1981-2.  Solidarity, Wałęsa, Wajda and Jaruzelski had kept Poland continuously in the news throughout 1980 and 1981, leading to an increased interest in the country’s history, and also a growing appreciation of its cinema. All of a sudden, Poland was a big country in the middle of Europe, and what happened there was important to the continent’s future. The high water mark of this new sensibility to Polish affairs came with Channel 4’s major (and by today’s standards, peerless) documentary series Struggles for Poland, broadcast in 1986. It is hard to imagine that any British TV network would devote so much time and money to uncovering the history of any foreign country, never mind a Central European one, in 2021.

Blue dresses

Writing to his friend Sveta Lukić in September 1980 Wajda had said that “only the pen of a great poet could describe what is going on there [in Gdańsk]. Wajda turned out to be one of the great poets of the Solidarity epoch, albeit armed with a camera rather than a pen. “Our people will never forget this lesson in conscience, courage and responsibility” Wajda continued in his letter. “For the first time in our history the workers took things into their own hands and crossed out everything bad and stupid that has been said about Poles around the world.”.

Of all Poland’s great film directors Wajda was the one who more than anyone turned film into a restoration of Polish faith. He, more than most, had used cinema to address Poland’s big historical themes and major literary works. As Wajda himself asked in his autobiography Kino i Reszta Świata (“Cinema and the Rest of the World), what possible role could a Polish artist have, given the fate of the country after World War II, other than to explore the nation’s wounds? In an interview published in Polish daily Gazeta Wyborcza in 2006 Wajda drew parallels between himself and the nineteenth-century painter Jan Matejko, who devoted his career to rendering the great moments of Polish history on vast epic canvasses. It was reportedly Matejko who said “I would like to paint women in blue dresses sitting on the grass, but I just don’t have the time”.

What made Man of Iron such an exhilarating piece of cinema for viewers on both sides of the Cold-War divide is that it depicted a real revolution with mass participation. The film opened up the real possibilities of change, even in societies that hitherto seemed rigid and unyielding. While Man of Marble was a melancholy film about the defeat of idealism, Man of Iron suggested that the people could win.

Most countries of Western Europe (including the Great Britain of Margaret Thatcher) still had a large working class in the early 1980s, and the trade-union revolution taking place in Poland looked like the kind of revolt that might also be possible elsewhere.  When I went to see Man of Iron in Oxford’s Phoenix Picturehouse in autumn 1981, most of the people in the audience were left-leaning students like me, idly dreaming that we may one day see iron men of our own.

Instead of a Man of Iron however we got Arthur Scargill and the Miners’ Strike, a badly-led revolt against a government that was, for all its faults, still very much supported by the electorate that had brought it to power. 

One of the reasons why the British government survived the strike was because it could import cheap coal from Jaruzelski’s Poland, an irony that did not go unnoticed in Poland itself. As Krzysztof Kłosowicz of cult Wrocław reggae band Miki Mausoleum sang in his 1986 song Brytyscy górnicy (“British Miners”),  “to fight against Polish coal is not an easy matter (walka z polskim węglem to nie łatwa sprawa)”.

The other inescapable irony of Man of Iron forty years on from its prize-winning moment is that the industrial workforce that sparked Poland’s democratic revolution became the inevitable victim of the capitalist transformation that their revolution set in motion. Ship-building in Gdańsk still goes on, but only at a fraction of its former capacity. The once vast shipyard area is today more important as an inner-city development zone and heritage site than as a working industrial space.

When Wajda saw the 1997 British comedy drama The Full Monty, in which unemployed steel workers turning to strip tease to make ends meet, he couldn’t help being amused by the fact that the British film industry could make bittersweet comedies about the disappearance of the working class - something that post-Solidarity Poland, he felt, would never get round to doing. 

As a film about hope, and about the power of collective action, Wajda’s Man of Iron remains a uniquely powerful film. And in an age of growing challenges to democracy, it is exactly the kind of inspiration that activists need. The achievement of the Gdańsk generation is a gift that should not be squandered.

© Jonathan Bousfield

Caption/The entrance to Gdańsk shipyards today