SocialismToday           Socialist Party magazine

Socialism Today 134 - December/January 2009-10

Portrayal of a Polish uprising

Man of Iron (Czlowiek z Zelaza)

Directed by Andrzej Wajda

1981 (147 mins)

DVD release by Mr Bongo Films, £12.99

Reviewed by

Manny Thain

MAN OF IRON was made during an opening up of Poland’s Stalinist state censorship between the formation of the independent trade union movement, Solidarity (Solidarnosc), in August 1980 and its suppression in December 1981. That opening was a direct result of the massive strike wave which put the authoritarian state on the back foot and won significant gains for working-class people. The film has now been released in this new DVD.

It tells the story of that struggle, interweaving archive footage of the occupation of the Lenin shipyard in Gdansk, with that of the film’s strike leader, Marciej Tomczyk (played by Jerzy Radziwilowicz). The Marciej character is a fictionalised parallel Lech Walesa, a devout Catholic from a once wealthy landowning family who became a founder and leader of Solidarity in 1980. Walesa appears in archive footage but also in the film itself. Marciej is both a character in his own right and a constant reminder of Walesa.

The film also follows a character called Winkel (played by Marian Opania), a washed up, alcoholic state television journalist hack. He is given the job of infiltrating the movement to smear Marciej and derail the strike.

Dates and events follow those of 1980. So, when the film goes to the shipyard, we are brought up to speed by a French television interview with Marciej on 20 August. Marciej explains how a number of activists distributed leaflets, leaving them in changing rooms, and putting up posters on 14 August, demanding the reinstatement of Anna Walentynowicz (who plays herself) and pay rises linked to prices. A small crowd of workers surrounded the director’s building. They elected a strike committee. The action escalated, leading to the occupation of the whole shipyard. This then spread to other areas and ignited a generalised social uprising.

Meanwhile, Winkel is being shown this footage at a briefing with regional state agents. We learn that Marciej’s father, Mateusz Birkut (also played by Radziwilowicz), had been a strike leader ten years previously. Winkel travels to Gdansk, where he is warned that police protection does not extend into the shipyard. Desperate for a drink, Winkel goes to the bar but finds that the strike committee has banned the sale of alcohol. He cannot phone Warsaw because the state has blocked calls. Looking out of the window he sees a massive crowd at the shipyard. A prayer is offered for negotiations, underlining the influence of the Catholic church. Thus, the situation has been set out. The extent of workers’ control has been firmly established. As has the fear of the state, and the underhand methods it was prepared to deploy.

The archive footage of interviews with workers gives a real feel of the anger which existed, and the strength and determination when working-class people move in unity. There is a torrent of complaints. Someone says he has worked twelve years without holidays. A woman complains about the cost of children’s clothing, and that "our trade unions are just for hushing things up". An older woman says that the allowance of 1,000 zlotys per person is only enough to buy bread and margarine. Another says: "What we need are completely new people chosen by the workers who must tell us what the situation really is". There is no worked-out alternative being put forward. The existing system is broken. People want a voice. They want change.

By 1980, Walesa, at 37, was a seasoned activist having chaired the Lenin shipyard strike committee in 1970. In Man of Iron, however, Marciej is an activist during the student strikes of March 1968, while his father, Mateusz, is the shipyard worker and strike leader. A bitter rift develops between father and son because the workers did not come out in support of the students. In December 1970, the roles are reversed. Strikers are shown marching past the student accommodation, calling them out: "Students, this is your fight too. Your friends are still serving jail sentences for March 68. Together we can free them. March won’t repeat itself if we go together". Torn over whether or not they should support the workers, Marciej and a room full of students sit it out.

The film’s director, Andrzej Wajda, makes this father-son tension a main motivating force driving Marciej’s character. It provides a dramatic device and gives Marciej an identity independent of Walesa, allowing Wajda the freedom to introduce and develop the relationship with Agnieszka (played by Krystyna Janda).

Winkel interviews Agnieszka in prison. She talks of the difficulty of underground activity, but also of the pride in fighting for what you believe in, as well as the joy in fooling undercover agents. She mixes in some satirical humour: "Even in the slammer you know at least they can’t lock you up". We see the church wedding of Marciej and Agnieszka, Walesa present. Then distributing leaflets on trains. Marciej is arrested, although he is not charged for agitating for free trade unions or for remembrance of the massacre of strikers in 1970. In true bureaucratic style, he is put on trial for littering.

Winkel goes to the shipyard but is refused entry by the strikers: "We won’t let you in until radio and TV stop lying". A list of demands is read out by Marciej: reinstate sacked strikers, reinstate students expelled for political beliefs, publish information about the strike committee and its demands, provide reliable information so all groups can debate reform, holiday pay for the strike period, and wage increases – among others.

Footage of workers sitting, applauding, discussing, eating and smoking is overdubbed with a protest song in which parents explain to their young child why they have been absent: "Wait a bit longer until you grow up/And we’ll tell of these events/Of these hopeful days/Full of hard talks and disputes/Of these sleepless nights/And our hearts which beat faster/Of these people who finally felt/Who felt at home at last/Fighting as one for today/And tomorrow for you too/So don’t be sad and wait a little longer/Until you’re back in our arms once again".

There is a re-enactment of the negotiations between Solidarity leaders and high-ranking state officials – famously relayed to the massive crowds outside. There is archive footage of the agreement being signed – Walesa using a pen given to him by the Polish pope, John Paul II. Walesa addresses an immense crowd, saying that he had always said they would win.

Ominously, a Stalinist official privately voices his opinion: "The agreement is meaningless. The law doesn’t recognise agreements made under duress. It’s only a piece of paper". As the film ends, a hard-hitting protest song, sung by Krystyna Janda, tells of brutal repression and the killing by security forces of an 18-year-old worker in Gdynia on 17 December 1970 – called the Ballad of Janek Wisniewski (a fictitious name but a real event).

Man of Iron won Andrzej Wajda the Palm d’Or for best director and the Prize of the Ecumenical July at the Cannes Film Festival in 1981. It was nominated at the Academy Awards in 1982 for best foreign language film. The same year it won the prize for the best foreign film at the Cinema Writers Circle Awards, and director of the year at the London Critics Circle Film Awards.

It is unambiguously opposed to the Stalinist regime, although it does not stand for any coherent alternative. The workers and students call for free trade unions, for some control over their own lives, and for freedom. Nowhere in the film do they call overtly for capitalism or to embrace the west. Nor does the film raise the possibility of replacing Stalinist dictatorship with a democratically organised socialist system, although there were groups and individuals gravitating in that direction. In that dilemma, the film reflects the general consciousness of workers and youth in Poland at the time. But 1980-81 left matters unresolved. Though mortally wounded, the Stalinist state clamped down again in 1982, clinging on to power until 1989 by which time pro-capitalist forces were predominant.

Man of Iron features the major agencies: state bureaucrats, Catholic church, intelligentsia. The mightiest force of all, however, is the workers. Their incredible power provides the backdrop and drives the story. At the height of the Solidarity movement hundreds of workplaces were occupied. Workers controlled the movement of goods and services. The Stalinist state was paralysed. All the agencies were scrambling to ride the workers’ movement, in fear of its power at the same time as they were trying to harness it.


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