Andrzej Wajda’s Man of Marble holds a meta quality that still somehow feels radically different than Godard or Truffaut’s turns in Contempt and Day for Night. It attempts to channel a younger point of view — that of an ambitious student — with an overtly political agenda. Agnieszka is an independent, fiery individual intent on making her thesis the way she sees fit. She’s prepared to go digging around in uncharted territory or at least in territory that has been off limits for a long time. That understandably unnerves her adviser and still, she forges on.
Thus, Wajda’s film is cut out of a block that is a wholly original artistic endeavor. It weaves its narrative of a film within a film from a far more humble perspective. That of an audacious but nevertheless unknown female scholar looking to complete her thesis by relating the story of a little-known bricklayer, Mateusz Birkut.
She combs through old faux newsreel footage woven together as propaganda as well as grabbing hold of outtakes that were thrown out. She conducts all the necessary interviews to get to the truth. First, comes a veteran filmmaker who now is a big name, but back then he was just trying to make a name for himself shooting a film on Birkut. She gets in touch with colleagues and friends listening to their points of view. And finally, she even tracks down Birkut’s estranged wife to try and uncover a few last crucial pieces. It hardly seems the stuff of high drama, but Andrzej Wajda’s film functions as a humbler Citizen Kane.
Everywhere she goes Agnieszka drags along her crew who utilize handheld cameras and wide-angle lenses, at her behest, just like American films. It becomes obvious that Birkut was hardly a political figure, instead contenting himself by using his hands to lay breaks and lay them well. He takes pleasure in his work with a big sloppy grin almost always plastered on his face. It was people like him who made Nowa Huta into the great city of industry that it was, and he became an emblem of that. The party monumentalized him and he became the man of marble to be lauded by all.
But when his livelihood, his hands, are scalded horribly, Mateusz has little else to do. He begins to fight for social issues, the rights of workers like himself, but at the same time, his best friend Witek is put on trial for sabotaging the party. Pretty soon Birkut himself has fallen for grace, is sent away to prison and re-education, and he returns to find his wife no longer wants him.
The sleuthing has gotten so far and yet it looks like it won’t even make it past review. Agnieszka looks to be at the end of her luck as her camera and film materials have been revoked, but that doesn’t stop someone with her determination. Pretty soon she is scrounging around The Lenin Shipyards in Gdansk. At first, it doesn’t make much sense, but then we see it. Birkut’s son works there and maybe he is the missing piece of the puzzle! Man of Marble ends with a rather ambiguous dead end… or is it only the end of the beginning?
Just as Agnieszka’s was initially green-lighted, it’s perhaps even more extraordinary that Wajda got away with making such a politically charged film. In truth, he got stuck in censorship purgatory for some time, but that did not stop it from ultimately being released. But aside from crafting a meta, political, and fragmented narrative, Man from Marble also speaks to the issue of trans-generational memory.
In her conversation with the director Jerzy Burski he dismisses her idea for a film as “history” and she retorts back that it’s “ancient history” for her. That’s why it interests her. She comes out of the age of disco, synths, and bell-bottoms. Thus, that era that preceded her holds fascination, even in its most mundane moments, because she can never fully comprehend it like her elders. She wasn’t there to experience it like they could. It gives at least a bit of insight into what would drive her so obstinately to tell this story.