In the depths of a Baltic winter, award-winning film director Andrzej Wajda has been trying to re-create the excitement and optimism of last summer's revolt by Polish workers.
At the Lenin shipyard, workers are re-staging some of the scenes from the strike that sent tremors through the communist world last August. On Wajda's instructions, they ignore the freezing cold and report for filming in T-shirts.
The shipyard walls are again plastered with the slogans of rebellion once scrawled on placards by workers. "Occupation Strike ". . . "Solidarity Today, Success Tomorrow" . . . "Workers of All Factories, Unite!" But this time they have been painted neatly by Wajda's set designers.
At the Gdansk railway station, Wajda has set up his cameras to film the arrival of the journalist anti-hero of his latest film, "Man of Iron." An assistant uses a clapper-board to scrape away icicles from the door and windows of the railway carriage. When the shooting starts, the actors are obliged to light up cigarettes to disguise their steamy breath in the cold winter air.
Marian Opania, who plays the journalist under instructions to break up the strike by infiltrating the strike committee and smearing its leaders, reluctantly takes off his heavy sheepskin jacket before getting out of the train. Trying not to shiver visibly, he walks toward the camera to greet a colleague and be briefed about the state of the strike.
"Cut," shouts Wajda, at 55 a short, grey-haired figure wearing a warm down anorak and peaked cap. "You are walking too quickly. Make your face full of thoughts, as though you've got a lot on your mind."
The simple scene is re-shot a dozen times until it meets the exacting requirements of the director who first won international recognition in the '50s with "A Generation" (1954), "Kanal" (1955) and "Ashes and Diamonds" (1958).
"Man of Iron" is intended as a sequel to "Man of Marble," which won the International Critics' Award at the Cannes Film Festifal in 1977 and was an overnight sensation in Poland because of its daring political content. The 2 1/2-hour film arrived in the United States last month to enthusiastic reviews. Time magazine called it a "rich, energetic, superbly acted film . . . full of marvelously developed subsidiary characters," and Newsweek said it was "a daring portrait of a culture searching its conscience." It is scheduled to open in Washington next month.
Wajda would like "Man of Iron" to be ready for public screening by next August, the first anniversary of the Gdansk strike, which explains why he insists on filming summer scenes in February and March.
Together the two films will provide a comprehensive personal view by Wajda of Poland's stormy post-war history from the communist takeover in 1946 to the birth last year of the independent Solidarity trade union. "Man of Marble" is the fictional story of a filmmaker who is researching the life of Mateusz Birkut, a bricklayer who for a time became a socialist workers' hero. That film takes the story up to 1970, the year workers' riots along the Baltic coast were bloodily suppressed by police, and traces the collapse of communist ideals under the heavy hand of Stalinist propaganda."Man of Iron" begins on a pessimistic note, but ends with renewed hope as the nation finds unity in its struggle for freedom.
The hero of "Mn of Iron" is Maciek Birkut, a worker loosely modeled on Solidarity leader Lech Walesa. After being thrown out of the university and fired from the Lenin shipyard, he becomes leader of the Gdansk strikes, Maciek is the son of Mateusz Birkut, who in the earlier film is first glorified by propagandists for his stupendous feats of bricklaying, but then manipulated and thrown into prison when he outlives his usefulness.
Symbolically, Wajda has chosen to start "Man of Iron" with a scene deleted by censors from the end of the previous film. It depicts the young woman movie-maker searching for Mateusz's grave in a Gdansk cemetery -- with the clear implication to Polish audiences that he was killed during the riots of 1970.
"Man of Marble" produced such a strong impression when it was first shown in Poland that tickets sold for many times their face value, and performances were interrupted by cheers and applause. At the permiere, the entire audience rose spontaneously to sing the national anthem.
Thanks to the uninhibited way in which it dealt with sensitive political issues, and particularly the Stakhanovite movement (the cult built around so-called "heroes of socialist labor"), the film was regarded as an unprecedented event in East European cinema. Its release was said to have been approved personally by the former Polish leader, Edvard Gierek, following strong opposition from communist party hardliners. Despite its enormous success with the public, it was either ignored or sharply attached by Polish critics.
After playing to packed cinemas for several months, "man of Marble" was discreetly withdrawn from circulation. One of the subsidiary demands of Polish strikers last summers was that it be shown again -- demand that was fulfilled.
Wajda conceived the idea of a sequal to "Man of Marble" soon after the strikes broke out last August. He went to Gdansk with a camera team to shoot documentary material. Unlike "Man of Marble," which was kept on ice for 13 years after the script originally appeared in a Warsaw literary weekly, "Man of Iron" is being written, revised and filmed as events unfold around it. It is thus part fiction, part instant cinematographic history. The authorities have granted Wajda access to hitherto secret black-and-white film, presumably shot by police, of the 1970 riots, which he will intersperse with his own footage of last August's strikes, studio scenes shot in Warsaw in December and outdoor reconstructions on location in and around the Lenin shipyard.
"As far as events themselves are concerned, the film will stick as close to the truth as possible. But the plot will be fictional," Wajda said.
One of the problems of the film, Wajda said, has been to make the Lech Walesa character, Maciek Birkut, as interesting as the journalist assigned to disrupt the strike. The journalist, who is obliged to collaborate with the police against his better instincts, embodies some of the contrdictions of Polish society over the last decade. The danger is that Maciek, on the other hand, will come across as a flat, idealized, worker-hero with no faults.
Wajdas has not yet disclosed how he plans to get around this problem, but one of the possible solutions is to endow Maciek with an interesting sex life. o
At the end of the film, the workers learn about the journalist's real mission. But this time, he has changed sides and inwardly rejoices in the success of the strike. But the workers, disgusted by his original intentions, refuse to shake his hand. He is left alone, a social outcast, as the strikers celebrate victory by throwing open the shipyard gates. The film's uncompromising message, as seen by Opania, is that "once you have become a whore, to a certain extent you are no longer worth shaking hands with." The journalist has to be satisfied with inner redemption.
This is a message that Wajda applies to himself as well. In "Man of Marble," he included a scene from the start of an old propaganda film made during Poland's Stalinist period in the early '50s. The list of credits includes Wajda himself, then a young and ambitious assistant director. As he remarked in an interview at the time: "I am no more innocent than anyone else."
In fact Wajda, because of his international reputation, has occupied a special position in the Polish cinema for at least two decades. He enjoyed a degree of artistic freedom to tackle controversial themes unimaginable for less established directors. And even today, with cultural controlss much relaxed, it is difficult to think of any other Polish director who could get the script of "Man of Iron" approved by the censor.
In return, Wajda has been careful to steer clear of personal involvement in politics. He has reserved his outspokeness for his films rather than the petitions and public debates initiated by other intellectuals. He kept such a low profile that it came as a surprise last August when he signed an open letter in support of the Gdansk strikers.
One of the consequences of the workers' revolt in Poland is that independent filmmakers like Wajda need no longer consider themselves isolated figures in a generally conformist cultural scene. He and his team are part of a mass movement. This is the symbolic meaning of what is planned as the final scene in "Man of Iron": the opening of the shipyard gates.
By contrast, the final scene of "Man of Marble" takes place in a long narrow corridor full of closed doors. But that was five years ago . . .