It took fifteen years for Polish authorities to green light Andrzej Wajda’s production of Man Of Marble (1977); a film so scathing in its analysis of Stalinist propaganda and corruption that the ban really comes as no surprise. What is surprising about Man Of Marble is its double function. On the one hand, the film dramatizes the conditions of Soviet Poland; making the strife of the working classes near palatable with its faux newsreel footage and scripted remembrances. On the other hand, the film is an investigation of the medium itself, laying bare the political potential of the cinema and its often-damaging ramifications; casting a new light on the films of the likes of Eisenstein and Riefenstahl. Though these two techniques may at first seem at odds with one another, Wajda’s script successfully roots the film’s reflexivity in the film’s narrative, allowing a fluid cohesion.
Man Of Marble follows a film student, Agnieszka (Krystyna Janda), as she prepares and realizes her thesis documentary on Stakhanovite hero Mateusz Birkut (Jerzy Radziwilowicz), a bricklayer living outside Krakow. In what are predominantly the first two acts of the film Agnieszka is only ever able to engage her subject through the films of the past. Some of the films she screens are newsreels, some are propaganda. Her assistant, putting the visuals into context, specifies each category. Scenes of hardship are undoubtedly documentary, depicting Birkut laboring in fields and on construction sites. The propaganda pieces are edited, preserved, and depict scenes of a more celebratory nature. What Wajda does is appropriate the audience’s understandings and expectations of both kinds of filmmaking to manufacture a fiction that can be sold in the context of his narrative as fact. Using Agnieszka as his mouthpiece, Wajda undermines the validity of propaganda as a national expression, correlating her, the filmmaker, in relation to her film with a more liberal message. In this way Wajda stresses the subjectivity of film as artistic expression, maintaining that it would be impossible for a film to achieve any legitimate form of objectivity.
But this is the contradiction at the heart of Man Of Marble. By issuing such a definite position on the political subjectivity of film authorship Wajda is in turn broadcasting his own political agenda. Aware of this, Wajda aligns the reveal of this contradiction with the meeting between Agnieszka and Birkut’s son Maciej. Maciej reveals that his father is not only dead, but was not the galvanized Stakhanovite hero he was believed to be. In this way Birkut is a stand in for Wajda himself,; the object of his own subjective worldview and his own human failings. Wajda does not excuse his political stance, but rather he admits to the contradiction and points it out to be a symptom of all of humanity, that political discrepancies are invariably human in nature, as are moral inconsistencies.