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Wajda's MAN OF MARBLE is one of the most compelling attacks on government
corruption that I have ever seen. It is a "Citizen Kane"-styled story of a
female film student who tries to trace the history of Birkut, a
long-forgotten "hero" of the Polish Communist government.
She begins by viewing propaganda film that praises Birkut as a devout worker who slaves away at brick-laying for the officials. He has the appearance of a vigilant, Hercules-like strongman who breezes through the labor without breaking a sweat. Then she goes to interview the director, who was hired by the government. He tells her about the reality of making the film, such as how Birkut was given extra food and water (unlike the other bricklayers). Wajda uses these two conflicting scenes to deconstruct the false imagery that propaganda gives its viewers. He shows us how officials manipulate such situations to their own political good.
The student goes on to interview other subjects who describe the brutal reality of Birkut's off-camera existence. In one devastating scene, she meets his wife, who breaks down and tries to avoid being interviewed. As the truth becomes clearer and clearer, the government begins to intercede in the production of the student's film.
Wajda was a film-maker who was not afraid to criticize the harsh Polish government that eventually was defeated by individuals such as Lech Walesa. MAN OF MARBLE is a testament to those who had to live through the oppression of Communism, and also to those who are still living under its iron fist.
So many film students have wasted their time trying to study "Kane" as
a character study and as a satire. But it wasn't really either of those
things, but an experiment in depth for the camera and narrative
structures. The frequent comparison between that film and this one
makes a lot of sense superficially; the newsreel footage, the
interviewees made up to look 20 years older.
But Agniezcka is making a film, rather than a piece for a newspaper: journalism vs. art, capitalism vs. socialism. Although the journalists in "Kane" said otherwise, they were never seeing "who he was" rather "what he was like" ie. his behaviour, how others perceived him etc. Here we have something broader, examining a man confronting society, confronting his friends, and confronting himself all at the same time. Newspaper journalism tells us what something is like. Good documentary strives to really define what or who something was.
This is a highly intelligent structure, moreso than his previous works and moreso even than "Kane." As a meditation on film-making, it moves gracefully from the shots captured by Agniezcka's cinematographer, and the shots of Wajda himself, forcing us to draw parallels.
It's a shame Wajda remains largely unknown. Perhaps the up-coming Criterion set of his "War Trilogy" will change that.
4 out of 5 - An excellent film
I'm surprised that this great film hasn't gotten more comments. In any
case, the previous reviews really nail the film pretty well. I only
want to add that the filmmaker within the film, Agnieszka (played by
Krystyna Janda), is such a fiercely dedicated artist that she really
commands our attention in every scene she's in. Sneaky, smart, with a
deep cunning and a sly sense of humor, she is the real hero of the
film. I love the many scenes where she steals mischievous glances at
her co-workers while collecting the provocative material for her film.
Watch for the scene where she kicks her sound man in the shin. Also especially memorable is her encounter with a more successful film director, who she must persuade to be interviewed. She simply walks up to his car, bends down and looks in at him, with a blank expression on her face, and stares at him. It's as if she's persuading him by sheer force of will! Truly a great film, and a great performance.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
When I saw this film, I was very shocked at how subversive the content
was. While it was filmed in Poland during the Soviet-dominated era, the
film focused on a fictional character's rise and fall in local
government. Mateusz Birkut is an ordinary Polish bricklayer working on
a massive government project. A film maker decides to stage a
propaganda stunt to see if a new record for speed bricklaying could be
set. Birkut agrees to give it a try along with his crew. Not only did
they meet their goal but they exceeded it--and it was all captured on
film to be shown to the masses. Overnight, Birkut becomes a minor
celebrity and he is given a nice job working for local government. And,
for some reason, over the years his name is just about completely
Now, over 20 years later, a young film maker has stumbled upon Birkut's name and some of the newsreel footage but she is really curious how he went from hero to nobody so quickly. She spends most of the film reviewing old film clips and tracking down those who knew Birkut to find out WHY. However, repeatedly she is told to mind her own business and lots of roadblocks are thrown in her path. Finally, after exhaustive work and putting herself out on a limb politically, she finds out how the repressive government worked during the Stalin years--taking a hero and eventually jailing him as a political prisoner and then erasing memories of his existence. Repeatedly, she is warned to let the matter drop, as even in the post-Stalin era it wasn't exactly a free country. How this very critical film ever got made it beyond me but it's wonderfully made and captivating.
"Czlowiek z marmuru" ("Man of Marble") goes to tells us the story of a
filmmaker (Krystyna Janda) who wants to make as a film thesis a
documentary about one of the heroes of Poland's communist regime, a
simple man named Mateusz Birkut (Jerzy Radziwilowicz), a bricklayer
that was famous for building housing for all the people, and that made
him a cult figure in his country. She is trying to find Birkut, a
popular figure that vanished without any explanation and she'll try to
discover what happened with this mythic figure. Interviewing those who
knew him and watching old footage of him, the filmmaker will make a
great work about this man but her bosses who owns the funds (the
Socialist government funds) for the film's realization are not very
happy with her film, thinking that this might be a damaging project for
If the story sounds a little like "Citizen Kane" well, be ready for countless flashbacks, back and forth in the past of Birkut, and a almost inconclusive ending just like Welles masterpiece. But wait! The ending of this journey appears in "Man of Iron" (1981), also directed by the great Andrzej Wajda.
"Man of Marble" (term that refers to the propagandistic marble statues made in Birkut's image) is a powerful and brilliant story about the importance of past in the lives of everyone, it's the thing that makes us look for the future with better eyes, and in the film, we are constantly dragged down to it in order to get some answers about Birkut's future: Is he alive? Is he dead? Why he disappeared? Not just that, it is a great accomplish in showing how documentaries are made, both the protagonist work but the ones made up by the government, where Birkut and his friends were "trained" to appear important in front of camera. And, of course, a political and historical background that reveals many things about Poland and how strict the society were back in the 1950's and even in the 1970's with an absolute control on everything filmed, said and all.
Unique in many senses, "Man of Marble" present us the sad reality of Communism with masked realities where everything presented as good but in the surface it wasn't all good, and Birkut realizes that after an painful incident and after the suspicion that his friend was a spy, something that he never agreed, and that made him fight with the ones who put him on a good position among people, the government.
It is a well made film, with terrific performances by the cast, and a magnificent screenplay that knows how to evoke many times, many periods of Poland without being confusing (something that was problematic in its sequel), everything works fine. Bravo, Mr. Wajda. 10/10
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
The usual comparison- and inspiration- is with Citizen Kane, but there are important differences. One is that the hero here really is a citizen- a comrade in his own eyes- and the other is the difference in the person trying to learn about him. The reporter in Citizen Kane is an experienced hack who is indifferent except to the front page; Agnieska is at the start of her possible career, making her graduation film, the one which will make her name and determine her future and looking for a story that matters in itself; indeed, Agnieska's story is as important to the film as Birkut's and in some ways her story reflects his. She works as determinedly as any Stakhanovite and the way she binds her helpers- the film crew, archivists, people who knew Birkut- to her in her task and to think it worth doing for themselves means that she creates a shock-force as real as and more effective than Birkut's display team of brickies. Again, the characters we meet who knew Birkut all have a relationship with Poland as well as Birkut and their own careers- building-worker to political prisoner to industrialist; chekist to strip-club manager; propaganda film-director to...film-director; gymnast to drunkard- reflect the changes as they- and communist Poland- age. There's hope- the old cameraman blasted into admiration and respect for Agnieska when she shows she'll do his job for him. Indeed, Agnieska is a wonderful character, her long limbs wrapped round her, carrying "everything I possess" round everywhere, smoking cigarettes avidly, demanding "wide screen, like an American movie"- you can see why the Party and her superiors want her to succeed and why they fear her. Not only that, but the film is fair to Communist Poland- we see Agnieska's home and realise that it is because of the opportunities given by communism that she can leave the boundaries imposed on her railway-worker father, just as Birkut only achieves fame as a worker in a supposedly workers' state. It is because both of them take rhetoric seriously that they are finally unsuccessful. After all, we never do know who sabotaged the bricks and burned Birkut's hands, and it doesn't really matter in a state where rhetoric is what counts.
I came to this film after having watched Wajda's "Ashes and Diamonds,"
which I consider to be one of the finest films I have seen. However,
"Man of Marble" was just too quirky for me, leaving me a bit perplexed.
The story concerns a young film student, known here only as Agnieszka, who decides to produce a documentary on one Mateusz Birkut as her graduation project. Birkut was an idealistic bricklayer who rose to the status of post-WWII hero by way of displaying superior efficiency and strength. His innovation of how to use a small team to accomplish improved production came to be so well recognized that he would tour the country setting up such teams. The film time-slices from the 1970s, when Agnieszka is making her film, to previous times, all the way back to mock documentary footage of Birkut in the 1950s. The presentation is anything but flattering to the Communist Party and it is astounding the Wajda was able to get this made in a time when the Communists were still in power in Poland. The story must be autobiographical to some extent, since we see Agnieszka encountering political opposition to her digging too deeply into the past trying to reconstruct Birkut's life and figure out why he essentially dropped from the scene after having been so highly visible; there is also a famous film director in the movie whom we get to know well.
There are many scenes that had the quality of a dream, but yet seemed like they were supposed to be taken for real. For example, one scene has Burkit's friend Witek going into a small office of a party boss and, when Burkit enters the office some time later there is no sign of Witek. If this were to be taken as some sort of Kafkaesque event, then Burkit would have made no remark on the mysterious disappearance, but he express the surprise that any normal person would have. I did not know what to make of such scenes. Agnieszka's facial expressions and body movements are often quite odd, bordering on the bizarre, and they accentuated the feeling of unreality I had that became increasingly more pronounced as the movie progressed.
The collage of Agnieszka's interviews, mock documentary footage, scenes from Burkit's life, scenes from Agnieszka's own life, and an inappropriate musical score did not coalesce for me.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
I found this Polish film in the book 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die, alongside its followup Man of Iron which came five years later, and which I almost watched first, this original definitely sounded interesting, from director Andrzej Wajda (Ashes and Diamonds). Basically young filmmaker Agnieszka (Krystyna Janda) is making her diploma film, she decides to focus it on the 1950s, the Stakhanovite movement, and the man who became a symbol of an over-achieving worker, in Nowa Huta, heroic Polish bricklayer Mateusz Birkut (Jerzy Radziwiłowicz). From stock footage, including outtakes and censored footage, in the archives, interviews with some people who knew the propagandist, including his ex-wife, his friends the filmmaker who helped him become a hero to the people, and the marble statue of the man found beneath ground, she chronicles Birkut's life. We see the life of Birkut in flashbacks, including his early beginnings, his fall from grace, and his rise to become a hero during the workers' revolution to the people with his multiple brick laying in building housing, but no-one knows what has happened to him. But Agnieszka's hard-driving style and content for her film are causing concern for the authorities and unnerving her supervisor, they think the student is digging in too deep to recent history, the supervisor kills the project, claiming it is over budget her footage and equipment are confiscated. Agnieszka's father suggests there is a single specific reason the authorities do not want the film to be completed and released, so following her seeing more footage found and the advice, she takes some equipment and goes to find Birkut for herself and ask him questions, even if she is not involved in the making of the film, in the end she does find Birkut's son Maciej Tomczyk (also Radziwilowicz) in the Gdańsk Shipyard, he tells her that his father died years ago. Also starring Tadeusz Lomnicki as Jerzy Burski, Jacek Lomnicki as Young Burski and Michal Tarkowski as Wincenty Witek. I am not sure I know fully why this film was withheld for four years, but it works as both a pseudo-documentary and a thriller of sorts, with a filmmaker going into places she shouldn't go, and seeing the origins of the man she is trying to find out about, I admit there were some slow spots, but all together it is an interesting drama. Very good!
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
In my recent reviews of the Defa films about the life of Karl Liebknecht I pointed out, that the textbook Bolshevist character is revolutionary and self-sacrificing, willing to exploit itself for the benefit of society. It chanced that I have just seen the Polish film Man of Marble, which elaborates on just this subject. Hence I enjoyed the film, even though the message in the narrative is rather vague. The story plays in the late seventies. The leading thread is a film project, that is meant to finish the studies of Agnieszka, one of the main characters. She decides to make a commentary on the former lead worker Mateusz Birkut, who rose to extreme popularity in the fifties. Then in the aftermath of Stalinism he was discredited and put in prison, apparently simply because he became a bit of a nuisance - like so many others. Agnieszkas project is not welcomed by the authorities, because it reopens old wounds. However, they do provide her with the means to start the project (a camera crew of three people). As the story unfolds, Agnieszka turns out to be a typical news-hawk: intrusive, chasing "great material", without much respect for other peoples feelings. In a chain of interviews the old companions tell about their part in Birkuts career. I don't know if it is intended, but my sympathy went mainly to those characters, people who were less fortunate than Birkut, and nonetheless managed to do something useful with their lives. Birkut starts as a brick layer. He participates in a propaganda project, that aims to boost productivity in building. It uses the division of labor, and the mechanic motion, that in the west is called Taylorism. Birkut is launched as a celebrity, a working class hero, and enjoys all the privileges. Many former colleagues get a dislike for him, since he pushes up their norms. At the same time, the authorities get tired of Birkuts mediation for fellow workers,and try to put him on the sidelines. Birkut ignores the warning signals, and is eventually convicted and imprisoned for four years. In the post-Stalin era he is rehabilitated, but due to his embitterment he remains an outcast. After all these years Agnieszka is unable to track him down, but she finds his son Maciej Tomczyk (Birkut never really married, and later abandoned his girlfriend). Maciej tells that Birkut has passed away. In the sequel Man of Iron we learn that he was actually shot during a workers' upsurge. As said above, the film message is mixed. Birkut is not a man of high morals, but a victim of the system. The increase of labor productivity is a common goal in all economies, no matter what their ideologies may be. In capitalism the driving force is extra pay, or in times of large unemployment the competition between the workers. In the Bolshevist states the workers were supposed to voluntarily exploit themselves. Solshenitsyn once told a story, that just after the revolution the propaganda drove some simple minds to actually work themselves to death. Later productivity was stimulated by giving social rewards for excellent achievements (the famous surpassing of the planned task), in the form of marks of honor (often to a collective or enterprise). Workers ethics in Japan have also been mentally unhealthy. You need trade unions to provide for a counterbalance, and this is in fact the subject of the sequel film Man of Iron. In my opinion the film is not anti-Bolshevist - and it was financed by the state. It just calls for better balances in the social power distribution within the system. Probably there are lots of hidden meanings in the film. For instance, Birkut burns his fingers, after "subversive elements" have heated one of his bricks, which is quite funny. From then on Birkut wears gloves. And a fellow worker of Birkut enters the office of a party bureaucrat and never returns, even though there is no other exit. The legs of Agnieszka move in all directions (you will not see this behavior with for instance Julia Roberts). This category of social films is just my cup of tea, so if you like the type I suggest that you read my other reviews.
'Man of marble' is usually seen as an bold, anti-communist movie which
is strikingly accurate at the deep level of practices within communist
countries. Indeed, trough a story of a student who tries to make a
graduation film Wajda beautifully succeeds in describing at the same
time the soft violence of the '70s in Poland and the totally different
hardcore 'prison' violence of the Stalinist regime in the 50's. Hence,
it is gradually revealed trough the eye of the camera the contrast
between the heroic, raw atmosphere of the first communist years and the
light perestroika of the present cinematographic time. Nonetheless,
there is a common thread throughout the movie as the all-pervading
party monopoly deeply affects everybody and no one has the option of an
The no exit strategy is probably for me the main theme of the movie. The rebellious young girl who tries to see beneath the propaganda images is also on psychoanalytical trip to confront her family history.
There are two scenes which can more or less summaries the story: in the first one, we can see her right at the beginning in a rough quarrel with her Television supervisor, and we can consequently grasp the theme of the incessant conflict with the authority. However, if on the one level wecan see her rejecting the father figure, on the second level we can witness desire as the film maker is practically possessing the hero statue which she finds in a basement of a museum.
Well, basically the catch of the movie is the intertwine of the story with the girl on the way of her desire and the political level which makes this trip also a trip of a historical clearing up. And, in the strange development of we find that the "fake" hero is in fact an authentic one and that we did know the secret of the narrative - the "hero"(the father, the phallus) of the propaganda is the "true" hero, as he had to face real tough moral problems and he lived "the life in truth" . The heroine can develop at last real emotional attachment with the paternal image and she eventually can end her trip by accepting an ally and a friend in the final scene.
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