Legends surround Andrzej Wajda’s Man of Marble, made in 1976 and now issued restored by Second Run DVD. Of how its subject matter – of a Stakhanovite worker during the Stalinist reconstruction of Poland after the war who is elevated by the system, then discarded, then hounded by it – was so controversial it took 12 years to get a green-light from the authorities, and even then was beset by troubles. Of how it was banned from receiving prizes at the Polish film-festival, a measure deemed so unjust by the critics they organised a secret ceremony of their own, awarding Wajda, on the steps outside the ceremony, a brick signed by thirty of their number: the best award, he later said, that he ever received or hoped to. And how, just by appearing in the film, its young star Krystyna Janda (playing a 1970s film-student hell-bent on getting to the truth about Mateusz Birkut, the title character, and through him to Poland’s past) opened herself up to years of surveillance, anonymous letters, the ransacking of her apartment by the secret police and an endless persecution campaign that even saw her pursued to Paris. Man of Marble, the first Polish film to show the exploitation of the workers from the inside out, a film that caught the differing spirits of Poland in both the 50s and the 70s, was a landmark in cinema and politics: the stuff of historical myth.
The trouble is, 40 or so years later, those stories are likely to be of more interest to modern audiences than the film itself. True, Man of Marble has many memorable things in it, like the long and telling scenes of Poland’s building-programme in the years after the war, in which architecture is so centre-stage it seems like another lead-character. Certain moments stand out: a brick-building marathon Birkut is forced to take part in for a propaganda film, and which leaves him half dead with exhaustion; Birkut’s vast portrait being put up as a ‘Hero of Socialist Labour’ and later unceremoniously cut down; Janda’s Agnieszka fighting with her supervisor – a party man who knows all too well the dangers of the film she is making, and is terrified of paying the price for it himself. The film has a touching performance by newcomer Jerzy Radziwilowicz, acting the eponymous character with wide-eyed, puppyish naivete and a palpable sense of hurt, as we see him first glorified for his hard work, then squeezed dry, finally spat out and ground underfoot. And we have the emergence of the 25-year old actress Krystyna Janda, her first step in a film career that would later see her, in assistant director Agnieszka Holland’s words, becoming the ‘most creative woman of her generation’ and an iconic figure from communism’s fall.
Yet Man of Marble has dated badly, and its effect is inevitably diminished. Comparisons drawn with Citizen Kane seem wide of the mark, even delusional. There is something oddly flat about the film, which has the look at times of a television movie, not the feel of a genuine classic. Nor do the characters seem like characters for all time, but creatures of historical circumstance, broadly drawn and failing partially to convince: the betrayed worker, the corrupt line of bosses, the blazingly idealistic student who lacks, it seems, only a Molotov cocktail to make the picture complete. It’s up to the secondary characters, inhabiting the grey zone, to give texture to the film: Krystyna Zachwatowicz as Birkut’s wife, suffering bitterly through awareness of her own moral weakness as she betrays him and makes deals with the system; a young Piotr Cieslak, suave and compelling as the spy who dogs Birkut through his downfall, a complex mixture of belief and ambition, and destined for a descent of his own. The film drags at times and the 1970s scenes are underscored by a rather kitsch soundtrack, all Rhodes piano, wah-wah guitar and breathing voices, half porn-film, half American supersoap, and nearly always incongruous – alienating modern viewers just as it must once have seemed so scorchingly up-to-date. In 1976, Man of Marble surely came with the force of revelation, saying the near-unsayable about communism and those who served it, as much a political event as a cinematic one. In 2014, the lessons it once taught – seismic in their day – are now well learned, and have arguably been made more dramatically elsewhere.
Yet Man of Marble is definitely worth seeing, even as a historical document. The 1950s mixture of drama and black-and-white documentary footage (some genuine, some mocked up) and its ironic accompaniment of Soviet workers’ anthems is wonderful, as is the gruesome picture of 70s style and sleaze: a miasma of lost idealism, dodgy denim, nosepicker collars and dubious facial hair (rather like the UK, then). The hollow and betrayed idealism of the Stalin time (all marching crowds, bouquets and waving banners), has given way to the squalid inertia of the 70s, in which everyone, except for the shining few, seems morally compromised, forever having to do deals with a system they no longer believe in but know from experience has teeth. Rarely too do you find a film in which fashions of architecture and clothing seem to say so much about the inner state of the characters, to tell of their rise and fall.
But it’s perhaps the debut-appearance of Krystyna Janda as questing film-student Agnieszka which is Man of Marble’s most enduring gift to Polish cinema. The camera throughout, like a new love, is infatuated with her, and a star has unquestionably arrived. For some, said assistant director Agnieszka Holland, Janda’s acting in the role was a wonderful burst of youthful energy, for others just ‘too much’. Her performance, always brave, now seems by turns dynamically exciting and unintentionally laughable – full of outsize attitudes, sharp gestures and grimacing facial expressions that teeter on the edge of the grotesque and remind you that she’d come to Man of Marble straight from the stage (though for anyone who doubts her talent, a viewing of Ryszard Bugajski’s The Interrogation (1982) should suffice). Janda was to go on to become, in her own words, the ‘face of the cinema of moral concern’, and paid highly for it. For her debut, for its vivid evocation of two eras, even for its enjoyable air of dilapidation, Man of Marble – a great historical landmark, if not a great film – is not one to miss.
Man of Marble is available from Second Run DVD (www.secondrundvd.co.uk), priced at £15.99. Extra features include interviews with director Andrzej Wajda, Krystyna Janda, and assistant-director Agnieszka Holland.