Outside looking at another outside: Thoughts sparked by Wajda’s Man of Marble

In the middle of Andrzej Wajda’s Man of Marble (1976) there is a brief moment when the young filmmaker Agnieszka (played by Krystyna Janda in her first film role) is chastised by her producer (played by Boguslaw Sobczuk in his first film role). Agnieszka has been trying to do an investigative piece on a once praised bricklayer, Mateusz Birkut – the man of marble – who was hailed in the 1950s as an example of the communist ideal and then fell out of favor with the government and has since disappeared. Agnieszka has had some difficulty getting the footage and information she needs to tell the story, so she has reverted to subversive techniques – hidden camera and microphone – for an interview with a strip club manager to get material for her film. In the process she is caught and loses her film from that interview. Her producer argues with her about her lack of material and includes the comment: “Besides, this isn’t America, these aren’t the methods to use…”

For some reason this comment seemed to jumped out at me on this second viewing (not so 20 years ago). I have come across similar comments from other Soviet bloc films and books. Maybe my interest was piqued because I’ve grown more sensitive to historical and political issues. Maybe it’s because I’ve read Russian artists who chaffed under the Soviet system, yet they still expressed disdain for the U.S. system and the ugly realities of capitalism. If you are a U.S. citizen of long standing then, like me, you were well trained to despise everything Soviet, to see the CCCP as wildly oppressive, to know the Russians stood against “everything we hold dear”, and tag them as the evil empire (as one populist demagogue once put it).

I am glad I did not grow up anywhere in the Soviet bloc. But I also see the game. We are trained to fear other political and economic systems by those who have a vested interest in us being fearful. I think this is true in many countries. Power seeks to remain in power, and does so in part by being the controller of ideas. Even a person such as myself who tries to think critically about these things is still like a fish trying to see the water – I am profoundly influenced by the limited world in which I live. We like to think the world of ideas is unlimited, that we have equal access to any idea or concept, but unless we do the hard work of seeking out alternative ideas, and then really digging deep into them with the goal of understanding, we will tend toward uncritically believing the ideas which are closest and most prevalent.

So it is interesting to me to hear a line spoken in a 1976 Polish film (a film made by a director who’s own career shortly came to a standstill because of support for the solidarity movement) by a government authority holding the high ground morally regarding U.S. society. I don’t know if the producer’s opinion was right or wrong, or if Wajda intended this as a joke, but it is interesting to get a glimpse from the other side as it were. What we sometimes find when we pull back the curtain on communist countries is not always a longing for western style capitalism and U.S. style democracy, but either a desire for their own government to behave rightly in light of the stated goals of their own system, or for the system to change to a more democratically oriented socialism with improved human rights. I found similar sentiments from Tarkovsky in his diaries. That surprised me given my ideological training.

By the end of the film’s story the investigative implications point to a dark end for Agnieszka’s subject. Mateusz Birkut ended up in Gdańsk working at the Lenin Shipyard, where he died. Those shipyards were the birthplace of the solidarity movement. They were also the place where many were killed by the secret police and one of the locations of the infamous 1970 protests. Very likely Mateusz was killed by the secret police in Gdańsk, this would have been something the audience would presumably understood, but Wajda leaves that an open conclusion – but not entirely open as he took up the story again in Man of Iron (1981) in which the protagonist is Birkut’s son.

I don’t typically give reviews, and this isn’t one, but I will recommend this film. Man of Marble has two qualities: 1) The film is clearly the work of a master filmmaker who has developed into a mature storyteller, and 2) The film feels like a rough around the edges independent film that vibrates with life. It is not like American films, and therefore worth seeing for that reason, but it is more. Man of Marble is a window into another world, two worlds in fact. But it is also a kind of window into our world, for it raises universal questions of official truth and the value of investigative journalism, two things we could use more of today.

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