Sent to the Gdansk shipyard to monitor the involvement in the Solidarity union of Maciek Tomczyk, the son of a past labour hero, Winkiel, an alcoholic radio reporter who owes his job to a leading Party official after his failure to denounce the demonstrations of 1970, becomes increasingly sympathetic to the workers' demands.
In August 1980, Andrzej Wajda went to the Lenin Shipyard in Gdansk to film the workers whose strike had captured the imagination of the world. He was recognised at the gates by one of the guards who suggested that he should follow his 1977 political drama Man of Marble with a feature about the foundation of the Solidarity trade union, called Man of Iron. Having never previously been commissioned to make a picture by the people, Wajda rushed this loose sequel into production and spent much of the shoot reworking Aleksander Scibor-Rylski's screenplay, with Agnieszka Holland, to incorporate the latest events and ideas thrown up during discussions with the strikers and their supporters.
Wajda's aim was to shape events as much as record them. If Marble had been about the past, Iron would anticipate a future in which the masses - inspired by their political and religious convictions - had their say. However, Wajda was also keen to warn the populace about repeating the mistakes of the 1968 and 1970 uprisings, when the workers and students respectively failed to champion the others' cause. So, the action is packed with archive material, as well as contemporary scenes, whose authentic intensity was given additional resonance by cameos from Lech Walesa and Anna Walentynowicz, the activist whose reinstatement was Solidarity's key demand, alongside a fair wage. Wajda also avoided the easy option of making Tomczyk (whose father had been titular Stakhanovite bricklayer in Marble) the hero and centred instead on Winkiel, whose conquest of both his alcoholism and his fear of the Party provided an easier model for ordinary citizens to follow. However, too few of his fellow Poles got to see Man of Iron and there was a cruel irony in the fact that the tanks that Wajda requested from General Jaruzelski for the flashback sequences were used to impose martial law soon after the film was released - making its Palme d'Or triumph at Cannes seem rather hollow.
Serious socio-political drama that remains powerful even out of context. A rare and special thing.