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 Stalinist 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 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 that prevents the film from ever appearing too radical or to overtly politically minded.
Wajda manages to succeed in wedding his two primary concerns into a coherent narrative where neither Jean-Luc Godard nor Jean-Pierre Gorin ever came close. The influence of Godard and Gorin is never felt in Man Of Marble, but their ambitions for a political cinema have managed to come into fruition through Wajda’s work, and thus their vision, or rather hope, did manage to survive. It’s important to put Gorin and Godard into context here. I have read a dozen or so articles that deal with Man Of Marble and almost all of them reference Godard as an influence. Like I have said, Wajda did realize Godard and Gorin’s vision, but without either’s aid, guidance or any other kind of involvement. In fact, if we look back on Godard’s own career, he himself had been looking to the Soviet tradition of political and propaganda filmmaking when he first teamed with Gorin in 1968. Because Wajda was working in a Soviet system of film production, and would be even more familiar with Soviet cinema than his French counterparts, it is essential to understand that he, in as early as 1962, had come to the same understanding of political filmmaking that Godard envisioned six years later. However, Godard is essential to the story of Man Of Marble because the numerous reflexive tactics Wajda employs would have been unacceptable to audiences and critics if it had not been for Godard’s films.
But even if Man Of Marble had never found any contemporary critical acclaim, the film would surely have come to prominence by 2013. In no other film that I have ever seen, except for maybe a handful of Peter Watkins’ films, has a reflexive approach been so grounded by the needs of the narrative. 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 film 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 depicts 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. By doing this, Wajda reveals the very nature of propaganda filmmaking as an inherently fictionalized account of reality, even if the basic events that it records did take place. 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 liberal message that is a sum of parts of documentary and propaganda films of a conservative nature. 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. As 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, a man who believed he was political but was 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.