J.B. Spins

Jazz, film, and improvised culture.

Monday, February 03, 2014

Martin Scorsese Presents: Wajda’s Man of Iron

It is the first and arguably the only true sequel to win the Palme D’Or, but it has far wider historical significance than mere festival laurels. Picking up exactly where Andrzej Wajda’s Man of Marble left off, it depicts the heady days of Solidarity’s initial victories with documentary-like immediacy—and even boasts Lech Wałęsa appearing briefly as himself. Wajda’s Man of Iron is a true masterpiece that fittingly opens Martin Scorsese Presents: Masterpieces of Polish Cinema this Wednesday at the Walter Reade Theater.

Sadly, Iron almost immediately undercuts the exhilarating ending of Marble. It had seemed Agnieszka, a muckraking journalist in training, would finally reveal the true fate of Mateusz Birkut, a former labor hero of state propaganda conspicuously scrubbed from public records, with the help of his son, Maciej Tomczyk. Oh but not so fast, say her superiors at the television station.

It turns out the acorn has not fallen far from the tree in the case of the modest, self-effacing Tomczyk. Following Birkut’s example, he has become a leader in the budding Solidarity movement, largely modeled on Wałęsa, Wajda’s Man of Hope. Although muzzled by the Party, he and Agnieszka have fallen in love. Alas, she is not there to appreciate Tomczyk’’s increasing prominence as a democracy activist. As an independent journalist living in a police state, she is exactly where Thoreau would say she should be.

In accordance with the historical record, Solidarity calls a strike in the Gdansk shipyards in response to the punitive dismissal of Anna Walentynowicz (who also briefly appears as herself), but their protests are embraced far more widely by the general public than they ever expected. Recognizing the seismic shift in the zeitgeist, leaders like Tomczyk and Wałęsa pivot away from  small ball agenda items to big picture demands. Caught flatfooted, the Communist Party resorts to dirty tricks.  Enter the sheepish Winkel. A former independent journalist from Agnieszka’s circle, he has sold out to the powers that be. Yet, given his history, the Party expects him to win back his former colleagues’ confidence, only to betray them once again with a report exposing whatever scandal he can muster on Tomczyk.

There is a lot going on in Iron, but it can be readily appreciated simply as a document of Solidarity’s unprecedented 1980 breakthroughs. However, it is an even richer experience for viewers who have seen Marble. Try to imagine a sequel to Citizen Kane equally accomplished as the original, in which William Alland turns his attention to a long lost son of Charles Foster Kane, at the behest of the Pulitzers, and you will have a vague idea of Iron’s full significance.

While she necessarily has far less screen time given the circumstances of her character, the truly heroic Krystyna Janda (truly devastating in the duly banned The Interrogation) returns as Agnieszka, fortifying the film with integrity in each of her scenes. Arguably, Jerzy Radziwilowicz surpasses his work as Birkut in Marble, playing the quiet but forceful Tomczyk with richer nuance. Yet, Marian Opania ultimately stands alone defining Iron as the acutely tragic Winkel, showing the audience just how hard it is to regain a soul sold cheap. It is an extraordinarily powerful performance, precisely because it comes from such an unlikely figure.

Man of Iron is a great way to start a stellar film series, personally curated by Scorsese. Obviously, he is an expert in just about everything film related, but the editorial consideration he brought to bear on the Masterpieces of Polish Cinema collection is impeccable. Fully restored with newly translated subtitles, Man of Iron is highly recommended to anyone who cares about cinema. It kicks off the series this Wednesday (2/5) at the Walter Reade Theater.

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