Polish director Andrzej Wajda made the film MAN OF IRON in 1981, as a sequel to his 1977 film, MAN OF MARBLE. The protagonist Maciej, the son of Mateusz in the first film, continues the labor struggle at the Gdansk Shipyards in Poland where he works, just as his father did. Emotionally consuming and heartbreaking at times, the film delves deep into the relationships and human subtleties affected by political strife and oppressive conflict, and ultimately reflects how the greater fight for a democratic freedom requires sacrifice.
The representation of oppressed workers seems to be most effective when done in a realistic and elemental way, and at times, the film employs documentary techniques to strengthen this portrayal. Another overarching theme is the anti-Communist stance, which can be quite transparent at times. One of the most fascinating aspects of the film is the protagonist’s parallel, the man who helped significantly shape the history of Polish government: Lech Walesa.
Walesa became the second President of Poland, but he started off as an electrician by trade. After working in the same shipyards as the film’s protagonist, nicknamed the ‘Lenin’ Shipyards, he soon became a trade-union activist. He struggled with the control exerted by the Communist government in power at the time, and had aspirations to form Solidarity, or an Independent Self-governing Trade Union. Many workers were with him on the issue of workers’ rights, and countless labor strikes and protests occurred to bring these issues to light.
However, in 1981 the People’s Republic of Poland imposed martial law just after the film was released. Military police arrested thousands of people for opposing the new law, and many were killed. Pro-democratic movements were crushed, curfews were enforced, and the national border became inaccessible. The anti-bureaucratic social movement resisted the political oppression for years, until in 1989 during round table talks, the opposing parties agreed to semi-free elections. In 1990, Walesa was elected president, and the trade union prevailed within the framework of a parliamentary representative democratic republic.
Wajda, known for his war films, such as A GENERATION and ASHES AND DIAMONDS, has achievements in film that extend further back to his informal education at Polska Szkola Filmowa. As part of a group of film directors and writers, who formed the first artistic movement in Central Europe, these ‘students’ openly defied Socialist realism. All of Wajda’s films are explore and redefine the idea of heroism, and this idea, combined with the larger group’s fascination in the post-war mentality after World War II, mirrored that of the Italian Neorealists. Faced with their own oppression in regards to freedom of speech, Wajda and his fellow artists, were greatly restricted by censorship laws still existing after 1945. Living through times of political oppression, Wajda become a part of the documentation of events occurring, in real time! Wajda infuses his own experiences within his films, to portray the average citizen, desiring improvement in his or her life.
MAN OF IRON won the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival, and nominated for an Academy Award for Best Foreign Film. The creation of this film highlights the struggle of not just Poland’s freedom from a communist government’s oppression, but other countries that are part of the Warsaw Pact. The Czechoslovakian and Hungarian film movements began around the same time, and are considerably young, as they all burst onto the international stage about twenty years ago as their political climates shifted. Politically laden with the opinion that a communist government is not preferred, the film must be viewed from a subjective perspective to fully grasp the weight of the events that take place. Wajda brilliantly assists the viewer through his filmic craft to capture the true struggle of the people during Poland’s transformation, and invites all to participate in his characters’ struggles.