In seeking materials for her diploma project, film student Agnieszka discovers the truth about Mateusez Birkut, 1950 Stakhanovite brick layer who was lionised in a propaganda film by Party-friendly director Jerzy Burski and then persecuted after an accident turns his thoughts to social justice.
Andrzej Wajda first tried to mount this exposé of socio-political attitudes in Stalinist Poland in 1963. However, the Script Assessment Commission refused to sanction the film for its negative depiction of the past, although the screenplay was published that August in the Warsaw weekly, Kultura. Thirteen years later, liberal culture minister Josef Tejchma passed the project for production and, even though every attempt was made by the Party to marginalise it, Man of Marble became the cornerstone of the Cinema of Moral Anxiety that helped shape Polish political consciousness in the run-up to the foundation of the Solidarity trade union in 1980.
In many ways, this is a Polish Citizen Kane, as it opens with pastiche newsreel footage as Agnieszka begins her researches and is then structured around a series of flashbacks inspired by her interviews with key figures in Birkut's life. Her first encounter with Jerzy Burski, who has clearly profited from his collaboration with the State, recalls Birkut's career as a shock worker at Nowa Huta, the new town created by the Communists as a symbol of the economic miracle they were sponsoring. This is the most satirical segment of the film, as it mocks Burski's tailoring of reality to make it look more impressive for the cameras. However, it ends with Birkut's hands being permanently damaged by a hot brick and Agnieszka's meetings with Witek — Birkut's workmate on the day of the `accident', with whom he would later be jailed as an industrial spy - and Birkut's now-alcoholic wife, Hanka Tomcyzyk, are much more sombre and reflect the crushing of the Polish spirit in the 1950s and 60s. Yet, Wajda ends on a more positive note by having Agnieszka (whom he modelled on emerging director Agnieszka Holland) befriend Birkut's son, Maciek (also Jerzy Radziwilowicz), who is a worker at the Gdansk shipyard, where the Solidarity campaign would begin three years later. Very much a national epic, this is a complex portrait of misplaced idealism and betrayed trust and, although it's not an easy watch, it remains Wajda's most important work.
Epic and powerful socio-political drama from Stalinist Poland at its best.