Yesterday, critics and industry types alike descended upon the French Riviera, ready for two weeks of long lines, longer films, and beautiful weather to be intermittently enjoyed between screenings. Yes, Cannes is upon us again. And while it’s still too early to say much about the movies themselves—the first dispatch from our man on the scene, Ignatiy Vishnevetsky, goes up later today—it’s never too early for a wildly, perversely premature prediction as to what might win the hearts of the jury. Will it be Hou Hsiao-Hsien’s long-awaited dabble into kung-fu cinema, The Assassin? How about Youth, starring Michael Caine and directed by The Great Beauty’s Paolo Sorrentino? Maybe jury presidents Joel and Ethan Coen will stump for their homeland and go with a fellow Yank, bestowing top honors on Gus Van Sant or Todd Haynes. Were I a betting man, I might put my money, sight unseen, on Mountains May Depart, the latest from Chinese master filmmaker Jia Zhangke. He’s never won the Palme. I like his odds.
Did people play these kind of prognostication games in the early ’80s, long before the internet made it possible to track initial reactions to festival films in real time? If so, I’d have to imagine that more than a few friendly wagers were placed on the 1981 Palme D’Or winner, Man Of Iron. According to a couple of contemporaneous articles, the film was a “surprise entry” into Cannes, which probably just means that it was a late addition to the lineup. Unexpected though its inclusion may have been, the movie certainly had to have looked, even from a distance, like a viable victor. Here, after all, was Andrzej Wajda, that giant of Polish cinema and a multiple past “nominee” for the Palme, returning to the festival with a years-spanning epic. His movie was weighty and controversial. It had things to say about its country of origin. Even its title—simple, monolithic—screamed importance.
Most critically, perhaps, Man Of Iron was topical. Like, morning-headlines topical. Political cinema has always thrived at Cannes, which was conceived as a non-Fascist answer to Mussolini’s Venice Film Festival. (A history of Palme contenders basically doubles as a history of post-WWII culture.) But Wajda’s film goes beyond even a timely encapsulation of unrest or a pre-election call to action. It’s a work that could maybe only have been made at the exact moment it was made: A dramatization of how the Polish labor party Solidarity was formed, Man Of Iron came together during a 16-month loosening of Soviet censorship, between August 31, 1980 (when Polish authorities officially acknowledged Solidarity), and December 12, 1981 (when the movement was suppressed). Vincent Canby, a critic I find myself frequently quoting in this space, wrote that it was “such an up-to-date report on political events in Poland that one attends to it less as a piece of fiction than as a prime-time television news special.”
It was also a sequel, Wajda’s hastily conceived follow-up to one of his most acclaimed efforts (and a previous Cannes prizewinner). Written as early as 1962, the earlier Man Of Marble took more than a dozen years to make it to the screen—no great shock, as it presents a highly critical portrait of the Soviet propaganda machine and the way workers were exploited by the government that glorified them. Riffing on Citizen Kane, Wajda follows a documentary filmmaker, played by Krystyna Janda and based on fellow Polish director Agnieszka Holland, as she tracks the whereabouts of Birkut (Jerzy Radziwiłowicz), a bricklayer who the government first transforms into a symbolic national hero (circa the ’50s), then a scapegoat. His rising and falling fortunes are traced through interviews that bleed into flashbacks, as Janda’s filmmaker attempts to solve the mystery of what happened to this icon, a man immortalized in statue before being willfully forgotten. Wajda weaves his fictional, titular hero through a couple decades of Polish politics, using documentary footage to create a historical context.
In its narrative scope and polemical gall, Man Of Marble was an ambitious undertaking, and though its ending leaves certain questions unanswered (more on that in a minute), Wajda gave little indication that he intended to pick up with these characters again. As the story goes, he was inspired to direct a sequel when, during the founding of Solidarity in 1980, a worker at Gdańsk Shipyard shouted at him, “Now you must make a film about our story.” Whereas its predecessor gestated for over a decade, Man Of Iron was made very quickly, reportedly in about nine months. This explains why the film looked so timely, like a history of events that were still unfolding. It was as though the movement itself had commissioned its own origin story. Those at Cannes must have felt as though they were witnessing, firsthand, political gears in motion. No wonder the movie won.
Structurally speaking, Man Of Iron is nearly identical to Man Of Marble, adopting the same investigative flashback format. But while part one is chiefly diagnostic in nature, using its invented drama to expose the failures of Socialism in Poland and the hardship of life behind the iron curtain, part two depicts the turning of the tide—the moment when the workers finally fight back against the injustice to which they’re subjected. Wajda intended to reveal the ultimate fate of Birkut in Man Of Marble, but was forced by censors to remove that damning information (hence the curiously abrupt and open-ended conclusion). Man Of Iron restores the revelation, treating it like an essential motivation for a new hero. As one protagonist’s story ends, another’s begins.
The hunt this time is for Birkut’s grown son, Maciej, introduced in the closing scenes of Marble. (He’s played, again, by Radziwiłowicz, who at one point occupies both roles in a single scene—a slightly clumsy bit of staging, to be honest.) Clearly modeled on Solidarity leader Lech Wałęsa, who plays himself in a cameo (and would become the official focus of Wajda’s trilogy-capping Man Of Hope), Maciej is portrayed as an angry idealist dragged through then-recent history by his convictions. The film places him on the margins of several major revolts, beginning with the student movement of 1968, continuing through the factory strikes of 1976, and landing in the “present day” of 1980, when a strike at Gdańsk leads to the official founding of Solidarity. Guess who’s the first to walk off the job and set the movement in motion?
Agnieszka, the documentarian from Man Of Marble, also turns up again, but only in a supporting role: She’s now married to Maciej and rotting in a jail cell, thanks to her public support of the strikers. This time, the one investigating is Winkel (Marian Opania), a once-radical radio journalist who’s been reduced to a tool of the government. Tasked by the secret police with drumming up dirt on Maciej—information that can be used to discredit him, and hence the cause, through a smear campaign—this self-proclaimed fink pieces together a timeline of his target’s movements over the last decade, mostly by talking to those closest to him. As in the previous film, each interview provokes a flashback, though the chronology is a little harder to follow this time, what with Wajda leaping from the strike in progress to several failed precursor rebellions.
In many ways, Man Of Iron is an even more brazen challenge to the Polish authorities than the film that came before it. “We’re are not here to share power,” someone tells Winkel early on. He’s just the first in a long line of bullies and bureaucrats, barking orders and issuing threats over the two-and-a-half-hour runtime. In a late-film flashback, Agnieszka accounts to Winkel an argument she has with the bigwig who shelves her film; it feels like thinly veiled autobiography, some version of the fights Wajda must have had over Man Of Marble. Shortly after Man Of Iron was released, the Polish government drove his production company out of business. He made his next feature in France, where he moved in the early ’80s.
Yet for all its boldness, its noble insistence on taking sides in a cultural war that was happening as the cameras rolled, Man Of Iron is also a sequel, and it suffers from issues endemic of most sequels. Though technically a standalone work, the film relies heavily on its predecessor for context—much of its power derives from seeing the son rise after the father fell—while also feeling a little derivative by comparison. Man Of Marble, furthermore, possessed a clearer dramatic through-line, building its political points around a missing-person mystery and the tragedy of a single fictional figure. Man Of Iron is after something more complicated—the birth of a movement, which doesn’t fit as easily into the contours of a manufactured character arc. In some respects, Wajda bites off more than he can chew this time. The severely speedy production schedule, while a boon to cultural currency, probably didn’t help. The director had much more time to chisel his Man Of Marble.
Beyond the sheer freshness of its content, Man Of Iron works best as a vision of how difficult it is to stand up to power—to risk life, limb, livelihood, and freedom for the sake of change. There’s a shrewdness to the narrative architecture, which tracks the awakening of one man’s political conscience with the reawakening of another’s: As Maciej fights in flashback, trying and failing to convince his coworkers at Gdańsk to support the factory strikes in ’76, Winkel undergoes a quiet transformation. (Okay, not so quiet— Opania telegraphs his pangs of guilt a little too overtly, putting his head in his hand one too times.) Wajda, who’s made a life’s work out of capturing the political landscape of his homeland, clearly designed Man Of Iron as a salute to Solidarity—a point not lost on Wałęsa , whose appearance is a stamp of approval, nor the angry government that essentially drove the director out of the country. But the film skirts the kind of propaganda it critiques by remaining pragmatic about the future. Notably, while the final scenes constitute a victory of sorts, they’re tainted by the statements of a Polish official, who dismisses the historic agreement reached as “waste paper” with “no validity.” Given the setbacks this labor movement would soon experience, Man Of Iron looks both celebratory and ominous—a neat trick.
What’s missed is some of the verve and urgency of Wajda’s early work, especially his revered war trilogy. (Kanal, about the Warsaw Uprising, has a visceral power that’s nowhere to be found in this more coolly intellectual exercise.) But if both Iron and Marble look more didactic than dynamic, at least to these eyes, that’s probably because they’re built for a very specific audience—one that would have no trouble distinguishing each strike depicted, and would have a personal investment in the history lesson happening on the margins of the narrative. Wajda made Man On Iron and its predecessor for Poland. That a bunch of international peers at a French film festival got something out of it too is just icing on the Babka.
Did it deserve to win? This is one of the many instances in which the Cannes jury, led in ’81 by French director Jacques Deray, privileged real-world relevance over aesthetics or innovation. It’s hard to get too bent out shape about that judgment call, especially if you believe in the possibilities of cinema as a political tool. That said, a couple of other titles reached both higher and lower. Screened under the title Violent Streets, Thief kicked off Michael Mann’s big-screen career in existential style; it remains possibly his most seductive ode to the codes of criminals and the menacing, nocturnal allure of the city. And similarly mucking with the DNA of genre, Andrzej Żuławski’s Possession is an unforgettable nightmare—a film as wildly ignoble, in its messy romantic politics, as Man Of Iron is noble. Sue me, I prefer the former.
Next up: Underground (1995)