Andrzej Wajda’s Man of Iron (1981) is one of those movies that is far easier to admire than to wholly embrace. The very fact that Wajda made a film about a moment in history as that history was happening (some of the footage is, in fact, documentary) is remarkable in itself—with or without the story that Wajda was still editing right up to the film’s premiere at Cannes. That Wajda was making a film that was openly critical of the communist government in Poland while that government was in power was also daring. But it is so Polish and so sure of the viewer’s knowledge of what was then going on that it’s less involving and even a little confusing for the outsider.
Taken on its own terms, Man of Iron is more than slightly worthwhile in its you-are-there depiction of the changes being wrought by the Solidarity movement in Poland at the time. But more, the film is a fascinating experiment in structure—not just because of the use of documentary footage, but by virtue of boasting two main characters with two stories that are more or less on equal footing. On the one hand, there’s the labor leader Maciej Tomczyk (Jerzy Radziwilowicz), the illegitimate son of Wieslawa “Anna” Hulewicz (Wieslawa Kosmalska) and Mateusz Birkut (also played by Radziwilowicz). Maciej had been disillusioned when his labor-leader father had refused to have his union back the students (himself included) in the riots of 1968. By 1980, Maciej has become a labor leader himself and helps found the Solidarity movement.
By contrast, there’s Winkiel (Marian Opania), a one-time dissenter who has sold out to the communist government, producing pro-government propaganda for state-controlled television. Assigned to produce a film to discredit Maciej, Winkiel has to dig up dirt on his subject, but in the process becomes increasingly impressed by the man, setting up his central conflict between what he’s supposed to do and what he feels is right. This is also very central to the film’s overall theme, which somewhat heavy-handedly puts forth the idea of the great price that’s paid by those who ignore the ideals of the Solidarity movement in order to serve one’s own interests. Propaganda? Sure, but it’s propaganda being used to fight propaganda. It’s no wonder this made no friends for Wajda in government circles.
In some ways, especially if you’re not up on recent Polish history, the second story with its almost Citizen Kane approach to the filmmaker—trying to piece together someone’s life from the views held by others—is likely to be the more interesting aspect of this worthy, but not altogether easy film.