Man of Marble, 1977

Agnieszka (Krystyna Janda) is a determined and tenacious film student who believes that she has found the ideal subject for her diploma film: an investigative documentary on Mateusz Birkut (Jerzy Radziwilowicz), a postwar working-class hero who fell into government disfavor and disappeared into obscurity. Her producer (Boguslaw Sobczuk) reluctantly agrees to give her 21 days to complete the assignment, despite great reservation for the possible political implications of her subject matter. She conducts her first interview with Jerzy Burski (Tadeusz Lomnicki), an internationally renowned filmmaker who, as a young director in the 1950s, discovered the accessible and photogenic Birkut in Nowa Huta, and decided to showcase the young man in his Architects of our Happiness propaganda documentary. Using an assembled support team of experienced bricklayers which included Birkut’s close friend, Wincenty Witek (Michal Tarkowski), to ensure the success of their building challenge, Burski constructs a flattering, if not manipulative, portrait of the young bricklayer. Birkut is touted as an exemplary worker, a Stakhanovite, honored for his skill and productivity with larger-than-life propaganda posters hanging from government buildings, and impressive museum sculptures formed in his image. Birkut becomes an immediate celebrity, and rises in social prominence. However, Birkut’s brush with fame proves fleeting, and Burski conjectures that his fall may have been precipitated by an ill-timed accident, when a staged demonstration of Birkut’s efficiency is grievously sabotaged before a rolling camera.

Andrzej Wajda creates a fascinating study of political opportunism, character analysis, and the filmmaking process under communism in Man of Marble. By juxtaposing the idealism of postwar reconstruction and the cultural climate of 1970s Poland, Wajda chronicles the social reality of revisionist history, and the tragic irony that results from constantly shifting government policies. Note the sharp contrast between the images captured by Burski’s contrived documentary and the individual eyewitness accounts and recovered deleted footage (presumably rejected on “technical grounds”) featured in Agnieszka’s school documentary. The fictional narrative progresses through aggressive, cinema-verite styled filmmaking. The effect is an honest, compassionate, and unsystematic film that deconstructs a fabricated political icon, from the illusion of a national hero to the personal struggle of an idealistic, common man.

© Acquarello 2001. All rights reserved.

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