Feature film from 1981 directed by Andrzej Wajda.
Man of Iron (Człowiek z żelaza) was a celebrated feature even before it was made. The continuation of Man of Marble (Człowiek z marmuru) was created with and in front of everybody. The film was made with the participation of those who played a role in the great political ferment of August 1980. Thanks to these persons, Wajda’s film became an important record of that unusual time.
The film is a continuation of the story of the heroes of Man of Marble. Maciek Tomczyk, an opposition activist and labourer of the Gdańsk shipyard is the successor of Mateusz Birkut. Maciek’s fate interleaves with the fate of a heroine of Man of Marble, Agnieszka, who can no longer work as a director and has become involved, similarly to Tomek, with the Free Labour Unions. The film shows a time when Tomczyk was one of those who gave the signal to start the strike at the shipyard, and Agnieszka, his wife, is detained as a person aiding the strike. We learn about the pair’s fates and their family history, including Mateusz Birkut’s death in December 1970, through the eyes of a television journalist Winkel, who is supposed to discredit Tomczyk. Winkel however undergoes a change - he takes the side of the striking shipyard workers. The journalist rejoices, like everyone else, when an agreement is signed, but one of his colleagues reveals the truth about Winkel’s role. The compromised television worker meets a prominent party activist (Badecki), who quenches Winkel’s enthusiasm by prophetically suggesting that the authorities might not honour the signed agreement in the future.
Man of Iron is a monument to August 1980, which may be compared to the Monument to the Fallen Shipyard Workers (three Gdańsk crosses standing in front of the now out-of-use second gate leading to the Gdańsk Shipyard, which used to be called the Lenin Shipyard). The movie and the monument were both created very quickly, during brief periods of easiness, which occurred after the signing of the August Agreements in 1980. The monument and Wajda’s film are homages as well as testimonies to the price paid by the determined labourers who opposed the authorities. The film and the monument show what the strike at the Gdańsk shipyard was like and where the smart resistance of the Polish shipyard workers stemmed from. The message conveyed by the two works became – as is the case with monumental messages – fixed for many years and was imposed on a number of generations.
Małgorzata Szpakowska wrote after the film premiered:
Człowiek z żelaza is more than a movie, it is a social fact, the meaning of which we don’t fully understand yet (…) never before in the history of Polish cinema has a current historical moment of crucial importance been the topic of a movie. A feature movie, not a documentary. Wajda decided to race against the living human memory (…). He fought against time. (…) He didn’t come late. He managed to catch up with history. He was ahead of the writers, poets and playwrights of his time. He created the first synthesis of August 1980 which wasn’t journalistic. He imposed his own vision before anybody else proposed their own. He not only presented his own version of the August events, but because he was first, he also became their creator. It’s hard to imagine that one could accomplish more with a movie (Kino, 8/1981).
The film, which one of the critics called a 'docu-drama', makes use of numerous archival and documental materials, including materials of the Polish Film Chronicle and German television as well as fragments of the documentaries August (Sierpień) by Ireneusz Engler and Leon Kotowski and Labourers ‘80 (Robotnicy ‘80) by Andrzej Chodakowski and Andrzej Zajączkowski.
The script for the 1981 film was written by Aleksander Ścibor-Rylski, who also wrote the screenplay for Man of Iron. The film was edited by Halina Prugar and Allan Starski prepared the scenery. The cast of this film consisted partially of actors that had played in the earlier production. Some actors played the same characters in both movies – for instance Krystyna Janda (Agnieszka). Some actors were given the roles of the successors of their original characters – Jerzy Radziwiłowicz, who played the part of Mateusz Birkut in Man of Marble, played that hero’s son, Maciej Tomczyk, in Man of Iron. The film features appearances by Lech Wałęsa, Anna Walentynowicz, Jerzy Borowczak, Zbigniew Lis, Teodor Kudła and Tadeusz Fiszbach, who actually participated in the August events. In this film, these persons played themselves.
Behind the Scenes
Today it is hard to imagine the rush in which the film was made. In 1981, the work was the most celebrated feature at the Cannes film festival; Man of Iron was the first post-war Polish production to win the most important laurels at this event. On the 29th of August, 1980, Wajda appeared at the Gdańsk Lenin Shipyard, the workers of which were striking and negotiating with the communist Polish authorities. There he received 'a commission' to create a continuation of Man of Marble, which was the most celebrated feature of the 70s (this film was realized in 1977). This 'commission' was given to Wajda by a labourer, a member of the shipyard guard, who escorted Wajda into the shipbuilding facility. This labourer not only asked for a continuation of Birkut’s story but he also suggested to Wajda what the prospective film’s title should be – Man of Iron.
The director treated this wish seriously and in the beginning of September he passed the labourers’ film idea on to Aleksander Ścibor-Rylski, who began to work on the script right away. The screenwriter decided that the film’s heroes would be Mateusz Birkut, Maciej Tomczyk, Agnieszka, who was one of the main characters of the movie Man of Marble and Winkel, a journalist, who is gathering materials that are to discredit Birkut’s son. Winkel is indeed a close collaborator of the authorities but he does have a conscience. For a certain time he stays at the shipyard, where he learns about the fates of the participants of the strike, which makes him take their side. The film makes use of authentic film and photographic materials, songs, poems, documents, documental reconstructions of events and accounts of many participants of the strike at the Gdańsk shipyard. Because of this Man of Iron seems to be a documentary even though the movie has fictitious heroes. In the end of November 1980 the script was ready. In the beginning of 1981 the shooting of the film commenced and ended in April and on the 6th of May the film was shown at the Warsaw Documentary Film Studio. There was no time to perfect and alter this work. The biggest obstacle was overcome – the authorities’ resistance. The film was included in the programme of the Cannes film festival at the last possible moment and said work attracted much attention at this event.
This way of creating had good and bad sides to it. What was positive was that the film managed to capture the current events of its time.
Aleksander Jackiewicz, a great admirer of Man of Iron wrote: 'if somebody someday will want to know how it really was they will turn their attention toward this movie. (…) Objective testimonies aren’t most important. What matters are living testimonies, in which you can hear the specific, gasping, out-of-tune voice of the commentator and the sounds that accompanied the events' (My Film Archive. Polish Cinema, Warsaw 1983).
But some critics, including Małgorzata Szpakowska, who was an opposition activist herself, noticed that the film wasn’t devoid of simplifications, pathos, sentimentalism and unconvincing, monumental characters (“Kino” 8/1981). Additionally, unlike the movie Man of Marble, the 1981 film made use of the typical socialist-realist strategy of showing a world in which everything is either black or white. Man of Iron presented a vision deprived of nuances and grey shades. Agnieszka and Maciek Tomczyk are overly noble, one-dimensional and… boring. These are monumental characters, which bring to mind the figures that adorn the three Gdańsk crosses.
Monument of a Man
Man of Iron also featured appearances by Lech Wałęsa and Anna Walentynowicz, who were the leaders of the strike at the shipyard or Tadeusz Fiszbach, who was the first secretary of the Gdańsk regional committee of the communist party. These persons played themselves in the movie in a convincing way. The 1981 film had also a fictitious hero whose presence lessened the monumental quality of Wajda’s work. The character of Winkel was played magnificently by Marian Opania. Winkel, a drunkard and a scoundrel, knows very well who he is and who he used to be. Bolesław Michałek noted many years after the movie premiered (Kwartalnik Filmowy, 15-16/1996) that one may notice that the story of Winkel overpowers the good-hearted tale about the Polish labourers and intellectuals who met each other in August 1980 (the marriage of the shipyard worker Tomczyk and the ex-director Agnieszka constitutes an example of a relation formed between a labourer and an intellectual). Michałek even joked that Wajda made a movie that should be called 'Man of Shit' rather than 'Man of Iron'. Eventually Winkel takes the side of those who he was supposed to discredit, which is dramatic. After that happens a colleague of his compromises him, which renders Winkel, who is a symbol of opportunism throughout most of the film, a true tragic character.
Several years later Aleksandra Zagańczyk commented on the uneasy making of the film, the screening in Cannes and the presentation to the Polish public (which occurred after labourers had written petitions and letters demanding that they be allowed to see the movie). In her commentary she stated what follows:
It’s hard not to notice that Man of Iron was made in the last possible moment, in a unique moment. The movies creators knew they had to act fast or else it would quickly be too late (Kino, 7-8/2005).
The creators were conscious that they worked on their feature under circumstances that were temporary and in a time that was special. In the end of the film, Badecki says to Winkel:
Mr. Winkel. Why are you so sad? Do you believe in this agreement? After all it has no backing in law.
These words were proven true very quickly. General Wojciech Jaruzelski introduced martial law on the 13th of December 1981 which constituted amongst others an attempt to destroy the wonderful movement of the Polish labourers and the Polish intelligentsia. The image conveyed by Wajda may have mythologised that movement and those people but – as Norman Davies put it – myths are useful at times. One might add that fairy tales are necessary.
Gustaw Moszcz, an author of reviews, wrote in the London periodical Sight and Sound during the memorable autumn of 1981 that the film is a 'moving fairy tale with a moral', which gives 'the fullest and most accurate analysis of what caused the Polish political turn'.
Awards and Distinctions
In 1981 Man of Iron was distinguished with the most important award of the International Film Festival in Cannes – the Golden Palm. The film also won the Prize of the Ecumenical Jury at the same festival. In 1981 it also won the prize of Solidarność at the Gdańsk Polish Feature Film Festival. During the Lubuskie Film Summer the film was distinguished with a Silver Grape. In 1982 the film was nominated for an Oscar in the Best Foreign Language Film category.
The international premiere took place at the Cannes Film Festival on the 28th of May 1981. The Polish premiere took place on the 27th of July 1981.
- Man of Iron (Człowiek z żelaza) Poland 1981. Directed by: Andrzej Wajda, 2nd director: Krystyna Grochowicz, directorial collaboration: Andrzej Chodakowski, Stanisław Kałużyński, Łukasz Zieliński, screenplay: Aleksander Ścibor-Rylski, director of photography: Edward Kłosiński, cameraman: Janusz Kaliciński, cinematographic collaboration: Jan Ossowski, Krzysztof Ciesielski, Mieczysław Kozaczyk, scenery: Allan Starski, interior decoration: Magdalena Dipont, costumes: Wiesława Starska, music: Andrzej Korzyński, sound: Piotr Zawadzki, edited by: Halina Prugar, make-up artist: Anna Adamek, head of production: Barbara Pec-Ślesicka. Production: Film Group X, archival materials: Polish Film Chronicle, ARD, ZDF. Cast: Jerzy Radziwiłowicz (Maciek Tomczyk, Birukt’s son – Mateusz Birkut), Krystyna Janda (Agnieszka), Marian Opania (Winkel), Irena Byrska (mother of Hulewicz), Wiesława Kosmalska (Wiesława Hulewicz), Bogusław Linda (Dzidek), Franciszek Trzeciak (Badecki), Janusz Gajos (deputy chief of the Radio-Committee), Andrzej Seweryn (Captain Wirski), Marek Kondrat (Grzenda), Jerzy Trela (Antoniak, opposition activist), Krzysztof Janczar (Kryska, Maciek’s friend in 1970), Krystyna Zachwatowicz-Wajda (Hanka Tomczyk, Birukt’s wife) and others.