Monday, November 7, 2011

Quiet Desperation

Film: Czlowiek z Marmuru (Man of Marble)
Format: DVD from New Lenox Public Library through interlibrary loan on kick-ass portable DVD player.

When I saw Andrzej Wajda’s Popiol i Diament, I was more than a little impressed with it. This was a gutsy film, an anti-Soviet film made in communist Poland directly under the eye of Russian overlords. It takes a special filmmaker to make that sort of film. Poland, though, was always that sort of country. They were one of the first to start resisting Soviet control and always had something of a hard-headedness to them, a desire for self-directed destiny. Czlowiek z Marmuru (Man of Marble) is another film in the same vein.

The film concerns the rise and sudden fall from favor of a bricklayer in Poland. Yes, a bricklayer. Where we pour adulation on sports stars and movie icons, the Soviet state and its satellites tended to make heroes of exemplars of the proletariat. We start, though, not with the bricklayer, but with a film student looking to create her thesis project. This student, known only as Agnieszka (Krystyna Janda), wishes to make this film on Mateusz Birkut, who was once hailed as a worker hero of Poland, but then vanished.

She discovers some old footage of the man, including a film that was unfinished by its director, Jerzy Burski (Tadeusz Lomnicki). She finds him and asks him about the man and what happened to him. Through lengthy flashbacks, we learn of exactly how things happened, and slowly start to learn of why.

Burski (played in flashback by Jacek Lomnicki) makes short newsreel propaganda films. He’s made several around the creation of the city of Nowa Huta, a worker’s city. Specifically, he wants something special, not just another film that talks about how the building is progressing as planned. So, he sets up a stunt in which bricklayer Mateusz Birkut (Jerzy Radziwilwoicz) and a team of four will lay 28,000 bricks in a single shift—something like 15 times what a single worker was expected to do on a shift.

And thus Birkut becomes a folk hero, and gives demonstrations of his ability to other workers. It’s soon obvious that Birkut agreed to the stunt not as a way to become famous, but because he is a true believer in the socialist state—building quickly and more efficiently means that more people will get housing sooner. But he also causes problems with his ideas, and at one such demonstration, he is handed a blazingly hot brick, burning his hands severely and effectively ending his bricklaying career.

And so we watch through flashbacks and through the flashbacks and commentary from people who knew Birkut the meteoric fall of the man who more than anyone else in the film tries to live up to the professed ideals of the state. It is at times subtle and at other times as restrained as a punch to the kidneys in its effective indictment of the system that steamrolls everyone in its attempt to whitewash everything into a victory for socialism and the proletariat. While the state professes its desire to help the workers and place them at the forefront of everything the state does, in reality it exploits them as mercilessly as any industrialist using child labor. People like Birkut, who truly wanted nothing more than to help the workers in a meaningful way, get crushed under the machinery of the state that is acting against its professed ideals. In fact, for all of his efforts, Birkut eventually winds up in prison on manufactured charges designed to shut him up.

With a film like this, there are multiple questions that need to be asked and answered. First, and most importantly, is the question of whether or not the film accomplishes its main task. Czlowiek z Marmuru is a strong indictment of the systematic degradation of the workers less for actual benefit and more for the purpose of propaganda. It exposes a government and a society that essentially runs on corruption and lies. We in the West would happily accept this without proof, seeing that we were subjected to the other side of this propaganda coin. It’s something else to see it from someone who lived it.

The second question, just as important, is whether or not the film is good and worth watching. This is a more difficult question to answer. This is a good film, but it’s difficult to recommend it over the far superior Popiol i Diament.

It has, though, left me curious to see the follow-up film, Czlowiek z Zelaza (Man of Iron), which chronicles the struggle of Birkut’s son.

Why to watch Czlowiek z Marmuru: Gutsy filmmaking from a gutsy director.
Why not to watch: It’s from a lost world, a lost time, a lost culture.


  1. Birkut sounds a lot like the earnest horse Boxer in Animal Farm, whose only reward after all his labor is to become glue.

  2. Yes! Damn, I wish I'd thought of that!