Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Workers of the World, Unite

Film: Czlowiek z Zelaza (Man of Iron); Oktyabr (October)
Format: Streaming video from NetFlix on rockin’ flatscreen (Czlowiek); DVD from NetFlix on kick-ass portable DVD player (Oktyaber).

The world, in reality, spins through space, pulled into its constant orbit by the gravity of the sun, and to a lesser extent by gravitational forces exerted through the rest of the solar system, the galaxy, and the universe. But societies, governments, and countries don’t spin. They exist on a sort of pendulum that swings back and forth from one extreme to the other. We’re seeing that in American politics right now, but even in times of the pendulum being relatively centered in the U.S., we can see the same phenomenon in other countries and cultures around the world. When the pendulum gets too far in one direction, revolution results.

Czlowiek z Zelaza (Man of Iron) is the story of one such revolution, in this case one that was huge news around the world when I was quite a bit younger. The Solidarity movement in Poland was the first time I remember a crack appearing in the Iron Curtain of eastern Europe. The name that everyone heard was Lech Walesa, and Walesa does appear in this film in stock footage (and briefly in a marriage scene between two characters), but he is not the main focus. Instead, we concentrate on Maciek Tomczyk (Jerzy Radziwilowicz). Tomczyk is the son of Mateusz Birkut, the subject of Andrzej Wadjz’s earlier film Czlowiek z Marmaru. (It’s also worth noting that Jerzy Radziwilowicz played Birkut in that film, and in this film—he plays the father and the son.)

Much of the story comes from the point of view of Winkel (Marian Opania), a journalist sent by the Polish government to to a hit piece on Tomczyk. The reason is that Tomczyk is leading a workers’ strike. Winkel is fed as much information as he can get, and poses as a sympathetic ear to the strikers to learn as much as possible about Tomczyk as he can. Initially at least, Winkel is hampered by the fact that the striking workers have called a moratorium on the sale of alcohol, which presents a real problem for the alcoholic Winkel, causing him to spend most of the film either rtrying to scrounge booze or suffering from severe withdrawal. In an early scene, for instance, he drops a bottle, mops up the spilled vodka with a towel, wrings it into a glass, and drinks it.

Since Winkel’s job is to find out everything he can about his target, a great deal of the film is told in flashback through the memories of the people Winkel interviews. Much of this is told through stock footage and historical footage of the actual striking workers, both in the early 1980s with the Solidarity strike and the earlier shipyard strike in 1970. The 1970 strike becomes important, because it informs a great deal of what happens through the rest of the film. We learn, for instance, that Mateusz Birkut was killed in the 1970 riots around the strike at the shipyards, and now Tomczyk is essentially causing the same strike to take place in the film’s present. We see Tomczyk hauled off in a straightjacket, allowing the government to manufacture the story that he is mentally ill.

Of course, the truth lies somewhere not quite exposed in the film. Winkel learns a great deal of the reality of the Solidarity movement, but also knows that his career (if not his life) will be jeopardized by a favorable report on the movement. The film quite obviously sides with the workers and against the communist system, a piece of irony, since the original communist movement was an appeal to the workers as well.

Czlowiek z Zelaza was made at a strange time in Poland’s history. The film was created and distributed during a short period during which such criticism of the government was allowed. It is surprising, in fact, how critical the film is of the Polish regime, essentially exposing it as a corrupt institution and in need of the continued rebellion by the workers.

Essentially, while Tomczyk may be the focus of the film, it is Winkel who is the real subject. Suffering from DTs and desperate for a drink, he experiences all of the fear and paranoia we might expect from a man living under the heel of an oppressive government and operating in the position he has. His every possible move is one of betrayal; anything he does will either betray him to his government or to the ideals he is learning throughout the film. It’s an interesting study in the life of this man.

And let’s not forget for a moment that despite the let-up in Polish censorship at the time, that creating a film this critical of the ruling class was amazingly ballsy. Even if the film weren’t interesting from a character and historical perspective, it would be worth watching for that alone.

Of course, if the Bolshevik Revolution hadn’t happened in the middle of World War I, there’d have been no need for the Polish workers to strike or create Solidarity. Sergei Eisenstein’s Oktyabr (October) is a heavily propagandized version of the Soviet upheaval and eventual takeover in Russia. The film was shot 10 years after the revolution with the communist regime firmly in place. Thus unlike Czlowiek z Zelaza, this is a film that takes an intense pro-communist stance, blaming all problems on the bourgeoisie and giving all virtue to the workers who took the reins of state.

The plot of the film really doesn’t stray too far from the basic history of the coup—those in power resist and use the power of the provisional government to continue the war against Germany. Slowly, we see the Bolsheviks rising up, forcing the hand of the government to act essentially locally, but by then, it’s too late.

Plotwise, this is a difficult movie to comment on, because it follows such a specific path. There are no real surprises here if you’re aware that the communists took over Russia in October, 1917. Knowing this, and knowing that this film is intended in many respects as a propaganda piece for the Soviet Union, it’s not difficult to see where it’s going at all times. It’s going to the actual coup by the Bolsheviks, and said Bolsheviks will have an almost melodramatic flair, being always good, right, true, and moral while their enemies will be the opposite at all times.

So, since the plot is essentially a cleaned up version of history, it makes more sense to discuss the way that Eisenstein filmed this story instead. Oktyabr is firmly rooted in the montage style, and Eisenstein makes liberal use of dramatic close-ups, almost always shot from underneath to imply both power and nobility of the Bolsheviks so filmed. The film was released in the same year as Abel Gance’s Napoleon, and the two show some distinct similarities in the way that rapid cuts and almost subliminal scene lengths are used to heighten dramatic moments.

I’d also be remiss if I didn’t spend at least a little time discussing the score by Dmitri Shostakovich. It is consistently loud, overwhelming, and laden with brassy instruments, adding both a martial air and a feeling of great importance to everything happening on the screen. It’s frankly a little overwhelming.

This is a hard film to recommend, really. It’s worth seeing only by true students of film or those deeply interested in the Soviet montage style. For those with the patience to delve into what Eisenstein did with the look and feel of the film, with the cinematography—the crowds of running extras, the fact that there are times when it becomes difficult to tell if Eisenstein actually filmed something himself or used stock footage, it’s pretty remarkable. But I also think there’s a good chance that all but the most serious student will find this rough going.

Why to watch Czlowiek z Zelaza: Gripping history that consistently repeats itself.
Why not to watch: If you’re not old enough to remember Solidarity, you may not care.

Why to watch Oktyabr: Because it’s Eisenstein.
Why not to watch: If you know history, there are no real surprises.


  1. I thought I had seen October because five or six years ago I watched a bunch of silent Russian films (from Netflix) like Strike, Zemlya, The End of St. Petersburg and Chess Fever, and I was sure October had been among the films I saw.

    (I highly recommend Chess Fever, by the way. Imagine a Russian Harold LLoyd who's so obsessed with chess that he is neglecting his girlfriend and on the brink of losing his job.)

    But I hadn't rated it on IMDB like all the others, so I actually wasn't 100% sure I had seen October. I decided to watch it. Even if I had already seen it, it's been a while and tend to like old Russian movies.

    I watched it this morning, and I would have remembered this!

    The bourgeois lady stabbing the dead revolutionary with her parasol (and her sheer joy!).

    The dead horse hanging off the end of the bridge.

    The Death Women's Battalion!

    Napoleon. Napoleon! NAPOLEON!

    The filthy street urchin curled up asleep on the Romanov throne.

    I would have remembered this!

    Despite the frequency of the striking imagery, I still found this a little hard to sit through, but then I usually have trouble watching movies on YouTube on my laptop if they are more than an hour. I think this would be a GREAT MOVIE! in a theater, especially with a full house of cheering drunken socialists.

    1. Like I said above, I think this is a hard one to recommend, at least for the average viewer. The film geek has a lot to love in it, but silent and Russian, and stylized aren't really three characteristics the average film goer would be to thrilled to see.

      This would be fun in a group of people willing to watch a silent Soviet pro-communism film. Maybe with a shit-ton of vodka...