It’s not just examining the realities behind socialist icons that preoccupies Polish director Andrzej Wajda’s 1977 masterpiece Man of Marble, but also the dangers of censorship and the innate deceits of cinema. It took over a decade for the filmmaker to bring his story to the screen due to governmental reticence, and even when it was released, the distribution was limited and critics disparaging. Despite all this, it was reported that a fifth of the Polish population eventually saw Man of Marble and it’s since gone down as a national classic – if not Poland’s greatest film. It now gets a rerelease courtesy of Second Run in a two-disc set featuring exclusive interviews and a sumptuous brand new restoration.
Hailed by many as an influence on the country’s political progression, Wajda’s magnum opus is equally a formally inventive and visually dynamic piece of cinema. Taking its structural cues from Orson Welles’ monumental Citizen Kane (1941), the plot follows young film student Agnieszka (Krystyna Janda) as she travels around seventies Poland piecing together a portrait of worker and ‘socialist hero’ Mateusz Birkut (Jerzy Radziwilowicz). Man of Marble opens with our protagonist watching an early communist-era propaganda video about the great Birkut and his fellow bricklayers laying 30,000 in a shift. Her intention is to find out why he has been largely scrubbed from the annals of history, despite his popularity. Through Agnieszka, Wajda meditates on the fickle nature of history and memory.
“Filmmakers are monsters, they know everything,” Agnieszka opines ironically – given that she uncovers so much that she was previously unaware of. As our irrepressible heroine interviews different people in turn, Man of Marble flashes back to tell the tragic tale of Birkut. These segments explore the misplaced faith of an idealistic socialist worker – in those that abused his trust and a political system that chewed him up and discarded him. It also gradually exposes the fallacies of the earlier newsreel. Janda brings real verve to the role of Agnieszka with some of her scenes purportedly dubbed in post-production because her improvisations were too close to the political bone.
Radziwilowicz is slightly less charismatic, but imbues Birkut with exactly the boyish naiveté that he requires. The real stars of the show, however, are the vibrant camerawork of Edward Klosinski and the cuts of editor Halina Prugar-Ketling which both keep things fresh and timeless. It’s described as dazzling in some quarters and it’s easy to see why; coming just two years after the incredible The Promised Land (1975), this was a real purple patch for Wajda and Polish cinema in general. Amidst all of that fine work, Man of Marble is another exceptional, complex state of the nation address from a true master and remains as current today as it was originally.