Movies don't come any timelier than Andrzej Wajda's "Man of Iron," which opens today at the K-B Janus. However, the self-evident historical immediacy and importance of this inspired sequel are exceeded by its sustained emotional fervor and cumulative impact. Wajda actually achieves the synthesis that eluded Warren Beatty in "Reds," combining a stirring love story with an account of momentous political events. Naturally, Wajda has more incentive to be emotionally committed to his material, since the events were occurring in his own country as he improvised a fictional narrative to suit them.
The grand-prize winner at the 1981 Cannes Festival, "Man of Iron" also looms as a prohibitive favorite for the 1982 Academy Award as best foreign-language film. The Academy owes this Polish film its support, especially after last year's sweetly indulgent endorsement of the Soviet tranquilizer "Moscow Does Not Believe in Tears."
"Man of Iron" concludes a two-generation social saga about the fundamental sources of conflict between the government and the working class in Communist Poland begun in Wajda's "Man of Marble," made four years earlier. The sequel improves on the original in a straightforward way by completing a compelling story that had been left strangely unresolved. The scenes rumored to be missing from the foreign release prints of "Man of Marble" turn up in "Man of Iron," along with a gratifying abundance of follow-up chronicling and character delineation.
At the same time, Wajda contrives to lift this understandably urgent project above "mere" topicality. While celebrating the heady political triumph of the independent labor movement Solidarity in the summer of 1980, Wajda knows his system well enough to anticipate the crackdown that eventually came. Wajda became an open, prestigious supporter of Solidarity, and "Man of Marble" probably helped create a climate of opinion that encouraged a fresh attempt at popular political reform in the first place. As an artist, Wajda has attempted to embody the ideals of Solidarity and invest a long-lasting emotional authority in his hero and heroine, Tomczyk and Agnieszka, the activist couple portrayed by Jerzy Radziwilowicz and Krystyna Janda, who have mellowed beautifully in the roles they originated in "Man of Marble."
"Man of Marble" had a ramshackle flashback structure borrowed from "Citizen Kane." Agnieszka, a high-strung, impetuous film student working on a documentary production for her thesis, was intrigued by postwar propaganda films about a peasant-turned-bricklayer, Mateusz Birkut, who was briefly extolled as a proletarian hero, then disappeared from sight after falling out of political favor for reasons unknown. In an improbably haphazard way, she succeeded in recovering Birkut's history through the recollections of several people who were once close to him. What emerged was a portrait of a heroic dope, a good-hearted yokel who actually believed in the ideals understood by brighter guys to be an expedient cover for getting ahead and looking out for Number One.
However, it was precisely Birkut's unsophisticated integrity that made him a sympathetic figure. Agnieszka's search ended abruptly and inconclusively in Gdansk in 1976 when she encountered Birkut's illegitimate son, a young man called Tomczyk Maciek, who told her that his father had died. What remained obscure in foreign release prints were the circumstances surrounding Birkut's death, which had considerable symbolic significance in the uncut version first shown in Poland. According to Wajda, a scene was deleted that revealed that Birkut was killed in Gdansk during the 1970 shipyard strike.
The confusion that surrounded this enigmatic denouement has been systematically eliminated in "Man of Iron." Wajda ties up the dangling plot threads while continuing the chronicle with ironic variations on the original flashback and inquiring reporter devices. The new movie begins in 1980 on the occasion of another strike at the Gdansk shipyards. Winkiel (Marian Opiana), an alcoholic, wormy-souled little hack employed as a radio commentator and producer in Warsaw, is ordered to Gdansk by his superiors, who want to acquire incriminating documentation of any kind -- "Editing's not your job," the flunky is pointedly reminded -- on the strikers, particularly Tomczyk, who has emerged as one of the leaders of Solidarity after a decade of fitful but invariably annoying agitation.
Now it's the anxious, self-loathing Winkiel who inherits the task of biographical research originally assigned to Agnieszka. Three principal informants appear to confide in him: a former college classmate of Tomczyk now employed as a projectionist; an elderly woman who has sheltered Tomczyk and has a daughter working closely with him in Solidarity, and Agnieszka herself, now married to Tomczyk and temporarily detained by the police. By the time Winkiel completes his snooping, Solidarity is on the verge of success and the investigator is encouraged to junk his mission, although he recognizes that this attempt to regain his self-respect is probably a futile gesture. "However this ends," Winkiel observes, "I'll get it in the a--."
While Wajda's partiality for the malcontents and dissidents like Agnieszka and Tomczyk is never in doubt, he's shrewd and confident enough to allow the antagonists their points. The bureaucrats and police officials representing the regime have distinctive, amusing personality quirks and considerable smarts. From their standpoint it's easy to see how all the moral squirming of Winkiel or the defiance of Tomczyk and Agnieszka would seem vain and neurotic. Wajda even acknowledges that neurotic motives do indeed influence his hero and heroine to some extent; they're haunted and driven people in certain respects, but that fact doesn't invalidate their aspirations for national political reform.
Although Krystyna Janda enters the movie relatively late -- perhaps two hours have elapsed before her Agnieszka takes over the narration -- her performance gives "Man of Iron" an overwhelming emotional surge. A tense, engrossing story is suddenly enriched with unexpected romantic intensity and nobility. The flashbacks wittily recall the restless, demanding, chain-smoking Agnieszka from "Man of Marble" and then go on to document the changes caused by certain irresistible imperatives -- falling in love with Tomczyk, consenting to get married (Lech Walesa makes an endearing "guest appearance" as one of the witnesses at their wedding), having a child, collaborating in the activities that ultimately led to the creation of Solidarity. It's a wonderful acting opportunity -- the girl she played before plus the same girl tempered by experience -- and Janda responds with a brilliant, heartfelt realization. "Man of Iron" was a movie destined to play a unique role in history. Thanks to Janda, its political significance is supplemented by a love story of soaring pathos.