Polish Cinema: Man of Iron (Andrzej Wajda, 1981, Poland)

Wajda’s Man of Iron is a tour-de-force political epic sprawling over two and a half hours. Mixing fictional narrative with actual archival footage of events, the film feels ripped from the headlines. In fact, the film - made during a brief political thaw in Poland - was banned by the Polish government shortly after its release. It’s easy to see why - Wajda’s film is an incendiary exploration of the Solidarity movement and shipyard strikes of the late 60s and early 70s.
The film, which is half told in flashbacks, is anchored through the character of Winkel. Winkel is a journalist who is hired by authorities to dig up dirt and make a hit piece documentary on Maciek Tomczyk - the leader of strikes in Gdansk (and a clear stand-in for Lech Walesa, who repeatedly appears in the film both as an actor and in archival footage). Winkel, played with a sense of perpetual anxiety by Marian Opania, is our window into the world of the Solidarity movement.
Winkel’s interviews with Tomczyk’s friend Dzidek (Boguslaw Linda) and his wife Agnieszka (Krystyna Janda) form the bulk of the narrative, as we follow the murder of Tomczyk’s father in the 1970 and his subsequent desire to redeem him, as well as Tomczyk's dramatic love affair with Agnieszka - who is serving time in a prison when we first meet her. The cast is truly a who’s who of great Polish actors, and it is a marvel to watch them perform together.
If there is one major flaw of Man of Iron, it is perhaps that the narrative is too sprawling to contain in a single film. Winkel’s anchor narrative is compelling, but the film ends up feeling rather disjointed and lacks cohesion. That being said, Wajda keeps the film at a swift pace, mainly through the lively, often handled documentary-style he employs. As a historical record, Man of Iron can’t be missed.

8/10

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