Polish 'Man of Iron': film parallels real life

CZLOWIEK Z ZELAZA. "Man of Iron." The words splashes in bold black letters on the biggest billboards around town. One towered over the mile of trucks, trams, and buses that locked the great north-south throughway Marszalkowska into a standstill for 48 hours during last week's spectacular food demonstration.

"Man of Iron" won director Andrzej Wajda top honors at the Cannes Film Festival in June. But even more important to Poles, the movie is part of the process of their nation's squaring of accounts with a repressive past.

The film is based on the 1980 Baltic port strikes, which, it is hoped, will go into Polish history as a turning point at which injustices and errors from the '60s were exposed and safeguards against their repetition were legislated.

It is a sequel to Wajda's 1977 "Man of Marble," which was about the propaganda idealization and eventual disenchantment of an "exemplary" worker in the frenzied Stakhanovite movement that Poland copied from the Soviet Union after World War II.

In Poland and Stalinist period was never as ruthless as it was in the rest of Eastern Europe. There were no executions. Wladislaw Gomulka and Stefan Cardinal Wyszynski both survived relatively brief detention and exile and figured in the first "liberal" trend of 1956.

In the new atmosphere Wajda (and others) pioneered not only bold films dealing with the impact of communist rule, but also a "new wave" in filmmaking that Hungary and Czechoslovakia soon followed. But the promise faded, even in Poland, as the official "censorship of the absurd" set in in the '60s. It did not ease until the general revolt of public feeling last August.

That feeling was epitomized in the documentary "Workers '80s" made in the Gdansk shipyard in the fateful fortnight that ended in victory for the workers and the unprecedented establishment of the independent trade union Solidarity.

"Workers '80" was not meant as cinema, as its director Andrzej Zajacszkowski said, but as "a simple piece of journalism." It brought out all the issues, not just the workers' right to an independent union, to strike, or to speak out about working conditions, but also all the long-taboo subjects (including any challage to the "success" propaganda of the time) imposed in all spheres of Polish society.

For a time the censors balked. General release was delayed until early this year, when it was seen by highly responsive audiences. "Man of Iron" was treated in much the same way. Made this year, it portrays a further stage in the saga of the Birkut family that had featured in "Man of Marble."

"Marble" represented a first exposure of the abuses of power by politicians and police and a first open endeavor to compel the communist hierarchy to come to terms with the past.

"Man of Iron" takes the process further. Its hero is the son, Maciek, a more radical counterpart of the disillusioned father in "Marble." It includes a TV journalist--rewarded with a car and a fat check--sent to Gdansk to fake a film about "counterrevolution."

Newsreel footage from the 1970 Baltic riots that toppled Gomulka in 1970, from Radom in 1976--the first threat to his successor Gierek--and from Gdansk last year is women into the picture.

This is its strength. Less convincing is the love theme between Maciek and a young woman who sets out to make a TV film about father and son. But perhaps this human note was necessary in a movie that conveys so much that was inhuman.

The movie's relevance to today's situation is clear.

There is the now ironic appeal from Edward Gierek after the 1970 debacle. "Are you going to help us?" he asks the men in the shipyard. (Today's audiences laugh hollowly.)

1970 again, with the tanks in the streets. Maciek's father, who was not actively engaged in the strikes, walks alone across a bridge. He is shot, maybe by a stray bullet. It takes a long time to find his body. Then, at the grave, a sinister figure appears. "Be silent, do not talk about it," he warns the family and slips away. . . .

Radom, 1976. At Gdansk, Maciek tries to get the shipyard and the local union out in support. "It won't help--nothing can be changed in this country," men who remember the dashed hopes of 1970 tell him.

"But this will be our last chance to act," Maciek tells the union chief.

They were wrong--things did change, finally, last summer. The old unions collapsed under the Aug. 31 settlement that set up Solidarity. And Maciek, like the nation, had embraced the workers' cause.

Inevitably, even under the "renewal" promised by the post-August leadership, there were hard-line objectors to "Man of Iron," and at first only a few select audiences were allowed to see it. Since its release last month it has been packing cinemas throughout Poland.

Wajda made a few cuts, probably to placate official feeling. Even so there is enough to show how the police used to behave.

Some critics have sneered that the picture was "made" for an international award and foreign audiences. Maybe there are some concessions to box office.

But "Man of Iron" remains a moving and significant contribution to a tide of national protest that has pushed the regime to greater truth and Poland toward a more open society generally.

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