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Reviews

Man Of Marble DVD (2 Disc Special Edition)

Jeremy Clarke

Directed by Andrzej Wajda
Cert U, 154 mins

This 1976 Polish narrative feature, initially suppressed by that country's authorities prior to and around the time of its release, offers a fascinating insight into Communist totalitarianism. Made under the state production system, its screenplay was originally written in 1962. It follows an exploration by a documentary film maker, Agnieszka, into what happened to the bricklayer and official 'Worker's Hero' Mateusz Birkut, who was expunged from official mention after 1952. Its subject matter deemed too risky, the director Wajda had to wait another 14 years before going into production. This necessitated the rewriting of the Agnieszka character, who was now of a generation too young to remember the events of the 50s. After Man Of Marble was made, securing a proper release proved difficult. Almost four decades later, it's recognised as one of the most significant Polish films ever made.

The film borrows Citizen Kane's structure: an investigative journalist researches his human subject. Where Kane is a series of flashbacks, Man Of Marble parallel edits two storylines: what happened to Birkut in the 1950s on the one hand, and what happens to Agnieszka in 1976 on the other.

Krystyna Janda's chain smoking, rapid talking and seemingly unstoppable Agnieszka couldn't be more different from Kane's softly spoken reporter just doing his job to find a story. To film a marble statue of Birkut, she has a crew member distract a museum official so as to get her camera (lifting it from the shoulders of her veteran cameraman) into an off limits, gallery storage room to which she must pick the padlock with a hairgrip. Janda, clad in denim jeans and jacket and lugging a sailor bag everywhere she goes, would prove to be a role model for independent Polish women for years to come.

The subject of her investigations is at the opposite end of the social scale from Kane's newspaper tycoon. Jerzy Radziwilowicz plays Birkut as a simple country type, eager to please the state for the socialist ideas in which he believes; but he is out of his depth in (and ultimately crushed by) that same state's political machinations. Images of his simple pleasures at heading a fiveman team - who lay more than their target 3,000 bricks in one day at a State sponsored event - or attending the unveiling of the marble statue of him, transcend all that, remaining with the viewer long afterwards.

As well as a brief short showing how the film image has been cleaned up for the current digital restoration, the second, special features disc contains fascinating interviews with director Wajda himself, iconic actress Janda and uncredited assistant director Agnieszka Holland (also a director) who worked on the film despite being officially barred from doing so. A fascinating, well researched essay by film historian Michael Brooke in an accompanying booklet completes the package, one on which distributors Second Run should be congratulated.

Although the film has stood the test of time well, it has very specific significance as one of a number of factors that contributed to the collapse of communism in Poland (Brooke cites the others as 1976's food price rise protests and 1978's appointment of a Polish Pope). Viewed in the West today, where capitalism is in crisis, it's fascinating both as an indictment of the now failed communist political system and as an endorsement of socialist ideals which that system purported to support - and which are a long, long way from where western society (and indeed global capitalism) currently finds itself. All in all, an essential DVD release for our times too.

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