Review: Andrzej Wajda’s Man of Marble

Andrzej Wajda’s Man of Marble (Człowek z marmuru, 1976) bursts with iconic images, costumes and gestures, from the poster-sized portrait of ‘worker’s hero’ Mateusz Birkut (Jerzy Radziwilowicz), to the blue denim worn by film student Agnieszka (Krystyna Janda), to the nervous, purposeful way she has of chain smoking cigarettes. That such images become so insistently memorable, is due partly to the way Wajda frames his characters and partly to the timeline of the film, in which Agnieszka – film crew in tow – charges around Poland in pursuit of the truth of the rise and fall of socialist hero Birkut, barely resting in the attempt to finish her diploma film despite the objections of her supervisor at the TV station. A filmmaker on a mission, Agnieszka is perpetually in blue, moving constantly forward, rarely seen without a cigarette throughout the film’s pacey runtime.manmarble2

The origin of the film was a newspaper article seen by Wajda in the 1960’s, which described the plight of a working man unable to find employment, despite his previous status as a symbol of socialist labour, elevated to a standard of heroism by the State. Wajda asked Aleksander Ścibor-Rylski to write a script based on the article, but in the 1960’s the socialist project was seen as too risky a subject to tackle by the authorities and so work on developing the film came to a halt. It wasn’t until 1976 that Wajda was able to restart the project, with revisions to the script and the character of film student Agnieszka driving the plot forward, framing the story of investigating Birkut just as Thompson (William Alland) searches for the truth about Rosebud in Citizen Kane (1941).large_man_of_marble_927_blu-ray_Just as Agnieszka tries to find the person behind the image of Birkut, Wajda frames his female lead as an image – frequently at low angles as if to show Agnieszka as a towering statue – a symbol of passionate creativity in her blue denim uniform. Andrzej Korzyński’s soundtrack also goes a long way to cement the image of cool strength that Agnieszka embodies, with groove-heavy synths used heftily at moments when the young filmmaker’s purpose appears most clear.

The contrast between Agnieszka’s self-assurance and Birkut’s unassuming nature is one of the key points of focus in the film. Early on, we see the intrepid reporter viewing unused footage of Birkut shot by star filmmaker Burski (Tadeusz Łomnicki, also seen in Wajda’s Innocent Sorcerers) in which his discomfort at being filmed and naïve manner is a source of fascination for Agnieszka – perhaps perceiving this to be the defining characteristic that allowed him to be manipulated into representing socialist ideology.man-of-marble_cameraCelebrated on its release in defiance of the censors that attempted to limit Man of Marble’s distribution, Wajda’s film appears today as a sharp critique of Stalin-era Poland, with a truly inspirational female lead, representing the filmmaking process as a fight for an autonomous voice in a male-dominated world, and the attempt to forge a formidable creative presence that might do justice to the idealism of her subject.

Beautifully restored for this release (restoration fans will note the image comparison feature on disk 2) by Second Run DVD, with fascinating interviews with the director, Krystyna Janda, and ‘unofficial’ assistant director, Agnieszka Holland. Fans of the damn catchy soundtrack might also note a new release on vinyl last month.

My week in film: Knife in the Water and The Trouble with Harry

cap429Despite 2012 being the year Alfred Hitchcock was consistently celebrated; with a retrospective at the BFI in London, including restorations of his early, silent films – the ‘Rescue the Hitchcock 9’ project, which was part of the Cultural Olympiad; and two films The Girl (Julian Jarrold) and Hitchcock (Sacha Gervasi, released on 8 February), I still didn’t manage to catch up on the great director’s entire work. So, to continue my efforts The Trouble with Harry (1955) was this week’s Hitch selection. Set in a quiet and picturesque New England town, the film opens with Captain Albert Wiles (Edmund Gwenn) talking to himself as he seeks the victim of a morning’s hunt, whilst young Arnie (Jerry Mathers) plays alone nearby. The Captain’s chatter can be taken as an idiosyncrasy of the character or more likely – a self conscious way to guide the viewer as to his thoughts Trouble With Harry Hitchcock pic 1and motivations as he goes about trying to decide what to do with Harry’s corpse.
A true dark comedy in keeping with Hitchcock’s oeuvre, but without any pretensions towards being his usual thriller; the main attraction in this uneven film is the debut of Shirley MacLaine as Harry’s widow, Jennifer Rogers – mother to Arnie. MacLaine manages to raise herself above what results as an unnecessary romantic through-line, pretty much upstaging the arrogant (and annoying) Sam Marlowe (John Forsythe) – at least until the inevitable matrimonial union. Its undoubtedly enjoyable and The Trouble with Harry may feature some gorgeous landscape shots, unusually for the studio-loving Hitch, but it can’t escape the throwaway nature of the script which tries too hard to tie up all loose ends. knife

Starting this week at Filmhouse and the BFI Southbank is a retrospective of works by esteemed director, Roman Polanski, including some lesser-seen early gems. Knife in the Water (1962), his first feature film as director is a tense tale with a very simple plot – a couple go sailing and take a hitchhiker with them. What results is a struggle of power as Andrzej (Leon Niemczyk) essentially shows off in front of their student guest, testing the loyalty of his patient wife, Krystyna (Jolanta Umecka). The claustrophobia of the boat – staying onboard and being confined by the water surrounding them – is suggested perfectly in Polanski’s use of deep focus, never letting the immediate interactions lose association with the activities of the other character(s). tumblr_mc5z8twngl1qzbahzo1_1280

There’s also a wry sense of humour on display such as a visual gag that sees the unnamed ‘young man’ as Christ, implying the initial parent-child dynamic of this unlikely trio. At the screening I attended in Edinburgh the audience were also most amused by the jibes at Krystyna’s inflatable crocodile and her unexpected deception of her oblivious husband. With a screenplay by Jerzy Skolimowski, one couldn’t help noticing his influences elsewhere, such as Andrzej listening to a radio broadcast of a boxing match and the liberal use of frenetic Jazz on the soundtrack for moments of high tension. Skolimowski also co-wrote the screenplay for Wadja’s Innocent Sorcerers (1960) in which he appears as a boxer, (alongside Polanski as a musician) making Knife in the Water a clear product of the director’s then regular collaborators amongst the Polish Film School. trading-places-original

Also watched: John Landis’ comedic take on The Prince and the Pauper, Trading Places (1983) which brought to mind the legacy of slavery (now with added pop culture thanks to Django Unchained) in its depiction of men’s clubs staffed exclusively by African Americans.

Enchanting my heart, DVD Review: Innocent Sorcerers

The first thing worth noting about Innocent Sorcerers is that it looks simply stunning. Transferred from a new high definition restoration, approved by the director, the image quality is crisp, the sound pitch perfect, showing off the film’s gorgeous greyness to full effect. The platinum crop of central character Andrzej (Tadeusz Lomnicki) literally shines with silvery greatness – signalling him as the hippest of the films cast of free-spirited youth. In a new interview the film’s director, Andrzej Wajda – he tells of how impressed he is with new restorations of his films, describing how he barely recognises them as his own work.

The freshness of Innocent Sorcerers is just one of the films many achievements; centring on the aforementioned Andrzej – a recently graduated sports doctor by day and Jazz drummer by night – Wajda depicts the life of the post-war generation in Warsaw. Untrammelled by a war they were too young to fight in, instead their rebellion is against the State’s imposed conformity and involves carving out a more independent lifestyle. Andrzej has seemingly no trouble finding female company but when his friend asks him to talk a woman on his behalf he is still surprised that Pelagia (Krystyna Stypulkowska) is willing to accompany him back to his apartment after she misses her train. Matching his attempts at seduction with quick wit at every turn, Pelagia is both charming and more mature than the women Andrzej is used to meeting. Deciding they should define the boundaries of their evening together, the two create an agreement of the night’s interactions and pin it to the wall.

Depicting young people in this way was not familiar territory for Wajda. In the aforementioned interview he describes the emergence of the Polish Film School, a term coined by French critics that came to represent the endeavour of directors, writers etc. such as Wajda to tell stories about only one subject – what they had been through in the war. Feeling the guilt of surviving when his friends did not, Wajda’s previous features, A Generation (1955), Kanal (1957) and Ashes and Diamonds (1958) are cited as his attempts to depict their experiences. The attempt to represent the current, younger generation did not come as easily however, and required the experiences of one such hip, emerging artist to inform the authenticity of Innocent Sorcerers – Jerzy Skolimowski. At the time he was an aspiring poet – hired to co-write the script, he also appears as a boxer, a sport for which he had particular enthusiasm.

Skolimowski’s small part demonstrates a vital energy – his is just one of many bright performances throughout the film and indeed leads Stypulkowska and Lomnicki have a chemistry that supports the majority of the running time. Pelagia, with a wry smile, enlightens Andrzej (or ‘Bazyli’ as he names himself as the beginning of their agreement) on the defining characteristics of their generation – that in all their assuredness; in fact they know nothing of the world.

The life of liberty that Wajda depicted on screen inevitably incurred demands for cuts from the censors. Perhaps most surprising is the offence they took to a scene in which Andrzej switches off his tape recorder with his foot. This seemingly small act occurs during one of many sprawling long takes, and in which we are introduced to the casual morning routine of our central character. According to Wajda, the censors found the use of the foot in the scene to be of utmost offence to the plight of the worker and that it showed ‘contempt to technology and labour.’

Innocent Sorcerers is a film constructed within its own cinematic world – opening on one of Andrzej’s lovers strolling in front of a poster for the film, we also hear a song on the radio announced as being from the hit film we are watching, not to mention a gorgeous close-up of the jazz club singer staring directly into the camera as she croons, “You enchanted my eyes, You enchanted my heart, Your sorcery Enchanted my world” – perhaps a delirious ode to the illusionist power of cinema.

Accompanying Second Run DVD’s release is a new essay by Michal Oleszczyk in which he notes that Godard’s Breathless (Á bout de souffle) was shot at the same time as Innocent Sorcerers  – a perfect coincidence of two films concerning ‘rebellious’ youth simultaneously coming to fruition, creating separate portraits of the French and Polish post-war generation. What a fantastic double bill that would be.