1981; directed by Andrzej Wajda; written by Aleksander Scibor-Rylski; 147 mins
With the passing, late last year, of director Andrzej Wajda, and with Cannes 2017 well underway, I thought it time to check out Palme d’Or winner Man of Iron – interestingly, the only sequel ever to win the prize. Previously, I had only seen Wajda’s 1958 masterpiece, Ashes and Diamonds and beyond that, my knowledge of Polish cinema is pretty poor, so let’s delve in…
A docudrama, in the traditional sense as the film weaves documentary footage in and out of it’s central narrative which involves an alcoholic, world-weary reporter, Winkel, sent to investigate Gdansk shipyard strike leader, Maciek Tomczyk. Tomczyk is the son of Mateusz Birkut, the protagonist of Wajda’s Man of Marble from 1977. Suffering from the DTs due to a strike-related alcohol ban around the city, Winkel interviews various people from Tomczyk’s past, including former colleagues, relatives and fellow conspirators. Through their eyes, we gain a picture of the man and the hardships he endured under the police state that led him to being the revolutionary he has become.
A lot of movies have celebrity cameos but very few have people who have helped change the world and in this, we get a cameo from Lech Wałęsa (who would himself be subject of Wajda’s penultimate feature, Walesa: Man of Hope): I mean, if you’re gonna do it – go big! He appears briefly in an acting role and a few times in newsreel footage.
In fact, the documentary element is one of the film’s great assets. The formal conceit of having the characters’ scenes intercut with actual events works really well, particularly because the film stocks appear to match up so well. This is aided by the fact that elsewhere, Wajda and editor Halina Prugar make use of what looks to be video or Super-8 footage when they want the audience to know they’re watching something real. Ultimately, as a kind of culmination of the form, in one late scene, the actors actually appear to be present at one of the historic meetings in Gdansk. In this way, it reminds you of Haskell Wexler’s Medium Cool.
So far, so clever-clever but! The reason behind all this abstraction, I assume, is to find another way of immersing audiences around the world into what was then a contemporary top news issue that needed to be told in an alternative way. This way the striking dockers could get their voice out there from under the noses of the Communist authorities, who, as we are shown by the film, were not really all that secretive about their fear tactics and censorship crackdowns.
The cast acquit themselves with great passion and care, in particular Krystyna Janda as loose cannon TV reporter, Agnieszka and Marian Opania as the down and out, alcoholic Winkel, almost literally sweating the cynicism out of his body! This is a really vital piece of European cinema that builds and builds it’s snowballing minutiae as the facts of Tomczyk’s political awakening tell the scream of a nation.
Farewell, Mr. Wajda! Thank you for your time!