Andrzej Wajda’s Hidden History of the Polish Working Class

Polish director Andrzej Wajda created an exhilarating form of political cinema that helped shape events as well as depicting them on screen. His films stand as a powerful document of working-class history in Poland, and a glimpse of a socialist democracy that might have been.

A still from Andrzej Wajda's 1981 film Man of Iron.

By the time the opposition movement Solidarność (“Solidarity”) burst onto the Polish political scene in August 1980, Andrzej Wajda had been one of the country’s leading film directors for more than two decades. Films like Ashes and Diamonds and The Promised Land had won Wajda an international reputation and thrust Polish filmmaking to the forefront of European cinema as it experienced a golden age.

But nothing could compare to the impact of Wajda’s Man of Marble (1977) and its 1981 sequel, Man of Iron. The first movie anticipated — and contributed to — the rise of Solidarity, while the second documented the movement’s triumphal emergence, before the coup of December 1981 that drove it underground.

Three decades later, after returning from exile in France, Wajda revisited the subject of working-class opposition to Polish Communism with 2013’s Wałęsa: Man of Hope, completing a trilogy that sheds a great deal of light on modern Polish history. The films stand to this day as a landmark of European cinema, whose political impact may never be surpassed.

Forgotten Hero

Man of Marble follows a young filmmaker, Agnieszka, who is struggling to produce a documentary about a forgotten (and fictional) icon called Mateusz Birkut. In the early 1950s, Birkut was a star of the Polish Stakhanovite movement, idolized by official propaganda.

The ruling party held up figures like Birkut as an example to their fellow workers for their ability to surpass production quotas through extraordinary feats of physical exertion. Party officials brought him around the country to demonstrate his bricklaying records; artists used him as a model for their sculptures; filmmakers made propaganda movies about him.

Narratively, Wajda constructed Man of Marble in a similar way to Orson Welles’s Citizen Kane, unveiling the truth about Birkut though a serious of flashbacks, narrated by different characters from his life, with whom Agnieszka meets in her investigation of Birkut’s past. When all the pieces of the puzzle come together, we see a history of the worker who was ruthlessly manipulated and exploited by Poland’s Stalinist state.

Wajda set the film in Nowa Huta near Cracow. Nowa Huta was supposed to be a perfect socialist town, built from the scrap ground around the huge steelworks. The new town’s builders came from the rural regions of southeastern Poland, notorious for their poverty.

Birkut is one of them. With naive enthusiasm, he engages in the “socialist competition of labour.” He does not see how the party is manipulating him, how his records are being used to raise the work norms for his colleagues. Then an accident opens his eyes.

Someone — perhaps a coworker fed up with the increased tempo of work — passes him a white-hot brick. Birkut burns his hands and is unable to work. He gets a new job as an inspector of labor who is supposed to take care of the welfare of his colleagues. He soon discovers that while the party may be happy to put him on statues and posters, it is much less willing to listen to what he actually has to say.

“Great Empty Words”

Meanwhile, Birkut’s friend Wincenty Witek is caught up in the purges of the late Stalinist era. Unlike Birkut, Witek is a veteran communist of the prewar generation, who fought with the International Brigades in Spain and spent time in a French detention camp. It is precisely because of this track record that Witek comes under suspicion, accused of ties with Western intelligence agencies (like many real-life communists in Eastern Europe).

Birkut finally ends up in jail after trying to save his friend from a political trial. The authorities set out to frame Witek, accusing him of responsibility for Birkut’s accident. Despite his long record as a communist militant, the prosecution depicts him as an imperialist agent who was tasked with the mission of destroying the efforts of the Polish working class.

In the 1950s, the propaganda of the Polish regime depicted the construction of Nowa Huta as a heroic, noble endeavor. The reality was somewhat different. The workers lived in terrible, unsanitary conditions; they were overworked; alcoholism and petty crimes were rampant.

The student director Agnieszka discovers the grim reality of Nowa Huta recorded in stock footage that was never shown to the public. In one clip, we see the workers protesting about the quality of the food they received for dinner.

Adam Ważyk graphically described the case of Nowa Huta in his “Poem for Adults” (1955). Ważyk wrote about young boys like Birkut:

From villages, from little towns, they go in wagons,

to build a foundry, to conjure up a town,

to dig out a new Eldorado.

[. . .]

The great migration builds new industry,

unknown to Poland but known to history,

is fed on great empty words, lives

wildly from day to day in despite of preachers —

amid coal fumes is melted in this slow torture

into a working class.

Much is wasted. As yet only dross.

(translation by Lucjan Blit)

Wajda follows Ważyk but is less pessimistic than the poet. In Man of Marble, not all is “dross.” The workers of Nowa Huta are finally growing tired of a diet based on empty promises. They challenge the communist authorities by taking their promises of “working-class power” far more seriously than the ruling party ever intended.

Birkut is released from prison in the wave of de-Stalinization after October 1956, and he chooses to live as a private person in Gdynia. However, his son, Maciej Tomczyk — whose mother never married Birkut, so he carries her name — is now the “Man of Iron,” ready to undertake the struggle his father abandoned.

Actually Existing Socialist Realism

Researching her project, Agnieszka finds an old documentary in the archives called They’re Building Our Happiness, one of the propaganda pieces idolizing Birkut. She decides to interview its director, Jerzy Burski — a very ironic self-portrait of Wajda himself.

Back in the ’50s, it was Burski who had convinced a party official in Nowa Huta to organize a publicity stunt, with Birkut and his comrades setting out to break the record for bricklaying. As Burski explained to the official, it would help both of their careers.

Wajda himself was present in Nowa Huta in 1950 as an assistant director for Czesław Petelski’s Cement (part of a portmanteau film called Three Stories). Cement is a typical example of a socialist-realist movie — the only aesthetic approach to cinema permitted in the years 1949–54. Such films depicted young, often naive workers who gained “political maturity” through work in a socialist collective. The collective has to struggle against some kind of saboteur — often working for the United States or West Germany — trying to derail its work.

Man of Marble is a reckoning with that kind of cinema, subverting its main tropes. When we see Birkut on screen for the first time, he is a typical naive socialist-realist hero. He later becomes a victim of sabotage.

However, it’s not the “imperialist powers” that are behind the sabotage, but presumably one of Birkut’s colleagues. Although he gains political maturity, that maturity leads him toward complete disenchantment with Poland’s communist state and rejection of any political involvement.

By dismantling the narrative structures of socialist-realist cinema, Wajda was trying to atone for the “sins” that Polish filmmakers had committed in the early 1950s. Agnieszka, who was born around 1950, represents a new generation. When the kceptical producer of her movie asks why she’s interested in Birkut at all, she explains that the early ’50s were the period of her father’s youth and she knows “everything about that time.”

Hidden History

The goal of Agnieszka’s project (and of Man of Marble) is to make visible different forms of repressed, officially unrecognized history: the histories recorded on the movies that were never publicly shown; the history that was never written but was whispered by fathers to their sons and daughters.

Wajda had been trying to make Man of Marble since the early 1960s. A first draft of the screenplay was completed in 1963. But Poland’s ministry of culture vetoed the production, deeming it too politically controversial. The situation changed in the 1970s, thanks to a new culture minister, Józef Tejchma.

Tejchma was one of the most liberal figures in the Polish communist leadership and believed that socialist art should be challenging. He encouraged filmmakers to produce movies that addressed contemporary social issues. Wajda had a good personal relationship with Tejchma and brought him a new draft of the screenplay for Man of Marble, whereupon Tejchma gave the production a green light.

During the shooting, the question of workers fighting against the Polish state proved to be a matter of great political controversy. In June 1976, after the government had announced an increase in state-controlled meat prices, workers in Radom and Ursus took to the streets. The police brutally repressed their protests, bringing an end to the honeymoon between Polish society and Edward Gierek, who had become first secretary of the ruling party in December 1970. Wajda was afraid that the authorities would block distribution of the film at such a fraught moment.

Most party officials hated Man of Marble, but they decided against stopping its release altogether, judging that it would be politically unwise to do so. Man of Marble was granted a limited distribution: the censors received instructions to restrict information about it and to block positive reviews in the press. Party hard-liners used the movie to mount a campaign against Tejchma, who was forced to resign from his post.

In spite of these measures, 2.5 million people saw Man of Marble in the cinemas (from a Polish population of 34 million in 1977). It won instant recognition as a classic. Audiences found in the film not only a critical view of Stalinism, but also a voice of protest against deceit, compromise, and corruption in the Poland of the mid-’70s, which was supposed to have left those days behind.

The image of the Lenin Shipyard in the final scene turned out to be prophetic. One could even argue that Man of Marble contributed to the “moral revolution” that made Solidarity possible.

A Revolution of Dignity

During the strike wave of August 1980 that gave birth to Solidarity, Andrzej Wajda visited the Lenin Shipyard in Gdańsk. One of the workers told him: “You’ve got to make a movie about it all. You can call it Man of Iron.”

Wajda took the “commission” from the striking worker very seriously, and he worked extremely fast. Man of Iron was screened at the Cannes Festival in May 1981. Once again, it was Józef Tejchma who made the film’s production possible. Tejchma had regained his position at the culture ministry after a political reshuffle provoked by the events of August 1980.

Man of Marble had depicted the paradoxes and contradictions of Stalinism. Man of Iron did the same for the events of 1980, even though critics and Wajda’s fellow filmmakers often criticized the movie for being too black-and-white in its representation of the politics of that moment. Having subverted the aesthetics of socialist realism in Man of Marble, Wajda now deployed many of its tropes in Man of Iron to denounce the politics of communist Poland.

What Wajda managed to capture was the ambiguous character of the movement of 1980–81, which made it hard to place it neatly in any political box. The first three scenes of the striking shipyard in Man of Iron — all consisting of archival, documentary footage — are very interesting from this point of view.

In the first, the workers are praying. In the second, we see a group of workers expressing their grievances: with unrepresentative, state-controlled unions, with high prices and low wages, with the authorities denying them both voice and respect. In the third, we see a group of workers carrying a huge, wooden cross; above them hangs a red banner with the words “workers of all enterprises, unite.”

The strike of 1980, as represented in those scenes, is a movement of the workers who — like Man of Marble’s Birkut — took the promises of the communist system at face value. At the same time, however, it can be seen as a kind of “national uprising” against unelected power, or as a “revolution of dignity” on the part of people who are fed up with living in a corrupted system based on lies. For the strike participants, the idea of workers’ self-government seems just as important as religious symbols and the sense of moral integrity derived from Catholic thought.

Father and Son

Winkiel, the main character, also goes through his own moral revolution of dignity. He used to be an honest, brave journalist, which almost ended his career. Today, he’s a disenchanted alcoholic, producing propaganda for the state-controlled radio broadcaster. He’s sent to Gdańsk by party hard-liners to make a program that would compromise Maciej Tomczyk, one of the leaders of the strike.

Tomczyk, of course, is the son of Birkut from Man of Marble (and played by the same actor). As the film unfolds, we learn that Birkut died in 1970, the victim of a massacre by the state security forces during an earlier strike wave (a real-life event that played a crucial role in the genesis of Solidarity). The more Winkiel gets to know about the strike, the less inclined he is to supply the hatchet job on Tomczyk — and the more he comes to believe that the strike might actually succeed.

As we know, it did. On August 30, Poland’s government signed an agreement with the Inter-Enterprise Strike Committee, recognizing its most important demands, including the right to create free, self-governing unions, independent from the state.

After the victory, Tomczyk visits the site of his father’s death. In a series of flashbacks, we learn that Tomczyk protested as a student in 1968, without support from workers like his father, who decided it was not their struggle. Two years later, when workers took to the streets of Poland’s coastal cities, the students stayed in their dorms.

Now, in 1980, the main social groups — including the working class and the educated intelligentsia — have been able to unite and extract major concessions from the communist authorities. Wajda doesn’t end the movie on a triumphal note, however. When Winkiel is leaving the shipyard, he encounters a local apparatchik who doesn’t seem too bothered by what’s just happened.

He explains to Winkiel that the ruling party is going to regain its grip over society sooner or later. Wajda wasn’t wrong: the “carnival of solidarity” only lasted only until December 1981, when the junta of General Wojciech Jaruzelski crushed it with an iron fist.

Before that happened, Wajda was able to screen the movie before Polish audiences, thanks to a wide distribution in the country’s cinemas. Man of Iron was seen by 5 million people. Under martial law, the state prohibited any further screenings. Wajda went on to make his next two features, Danton and Love in Germany, in France and West Germany respectively.

The Working Class Disappears

In Man of Marble, Wajda was writing a vernacular, working-class history of Stalinist Poland. In Man of Iron, he depicted the country’s working class as the heir to Polish national-liberation traditions, which dated back to the early nineteenth century. In the last part of Wajda’s trilogy, Wałęsa: Man of Hope, the working class slowly disappears behind the image of its leader, Lech Wałęsa, who in August 1980 had taken charge of the strike in the Gdańsk shipyard, and later became the first chief of Solidarity.

The narrative framework in Wałęsa is built around an interview with Wałęsa, conducted by the Italian journalist Oriana Fallaci. Wałęsa tells the story of his life in the course of answering her questions, and we watch that story in flashbacks. Wałęsa is vain, pompous, self-important, and his tale almost completely ignores the social movement behind him. He constantly tries to present himself as a strong leader who can see better and further than both workers and intellectuals.

What we see in flashbacks often contradicts the things Wałęsa says to Fallaci. However, as we draw closer to the climax of the story — the fall of Communism in 1989 — the working class increasingly fades from view.

It’s understandable, in a way, that Wajda chose to depict the 1980s in this manner. Martial law crushed Solidarity as a mass social movement. Solidarity survived these years as a vital symbol and as a group of “professional dissidents,” with Wałęsa the most important among them.

The dissidents still enjoyed some political standing. However, they didn’t have a social movement behind them, which might have been able to hold the leadership accountable. This turned out to be very important in 1989, when the elites of the Communist Party and Solidarity began to negotiate the conditions of a power-sharing agreement. That agreement converted Poland into a liberal democracy with a free-market economy.

Wajda conveniently finishes his narrative in November 1989, the moment when Wałęsa addressed a joint session of the US Congress. The director presents this as a moment of ultimate triumph for a political leader who had defeated the communist system and put Poland in its natural place among Western democracies. It would have been more problematic to depict Wałęsa’s disastrous presidency on screen, or to document the price that the working class, which had built Solidarity, was required to pay in the transition to capitalism of the 1990s.

Two Discourses

At the same time as this was happening, Polish cinema abandoned the working classes. Most of the movies produced in the early ’90s depicted the emerging market economy with enthusiasm, telling the stories of the people who succeeded in the new social environment. To the extent that filmmakers criticized the post-communist system at all, it was usually from the viewpoint of the Polish intelligentsia, whose ethos and social position had been threatened by the new civilization of money and vulgar consumerism.

Two discourses about Solidarity have become dominant in Poland over the last few decades — one liberal, one conservative. For liberals, Solidarity was a step on the road toward a market economy and parliamentary democracy. This view can be seen in the portmanteau film Solidarity, Solidarity (2005), made up of thirteen segments.

The filmmakers had been asked to make a short movie, showing what Solidarity meant for them. One, Juliusz Machulski, delivered a short called “Sushi,” in which a group of well-to-do people order expensive sushi for their lunch. In the Poland of the 2000s, sushi had acquired a symbolic status for the urbane upper-middle classes as their food of choice.

The message of Machulski’s film was clear: thanks to Solidarity, the Polish middle class could embrace global patterns of consumption, with a place in the international flows of capital that it naturally deserved.

For conservatives, on the other hand, Solidarity was the voice of the Catholic popular classes, which had toppled “godless” communist rule and rejected “foreign” Marxist ideology. In Polish cinema, the best example of that rival discourse is 2009’s Popiełuszko: Freedom Is Within Us, a hagiographical treatment of the priest Jerzy Popiełuszko, one of Solidarity’s chaplains, who was murdered by agents of the Communist secret police.

Memory and Hope

After 1989, Wajda was always part of the liberal camp in his political choices. However, his trilogy can take us far beyond the limits of liberal discourse. In the third sequence of Man of Marble, Agnieszka and her crew visit the national museum in Warsaw. They go through rooms where great Polish paintings from the nineteenth century are on display, depicting the most iconic moments of the nation’s history.

But Agnieszka isn’t interested in those pictures. She’s heading toward the dusty warehouse, where the statues from the 1950s are stored — in the Poland of the 1970s, such monuments are an embarrassing relic of an equally embarrassing past. Agnieszka takes the camera herself and points it at a neglected figure of Birkut. In a way, today’s Polish left finds itself in the same situation as Agnieszka: we have to break into the warehouses and closets where the popular history of people like Birkut is stored, and bring it to public light.

In the last ten years, a lot of work has been done in the field of vernacular history: in academia, literature, the performance arts, cinema. In 2018, Jaśmina Wójcik made a documentary feature, Symphony of the Ursus Factory, in which she sought to resurrect the working-class memory of Ursus, a town near Warsaw (and today one of its outlying districts). Ursus had been built up around a plant producing tractors. The tractor company went bust after 1989, and its buildings were torn down.

In the last sequence of Wójcik’s movie, the retired workers of Ursus gather on a greenfield where their factory used to stand. They make the same movements as they used to make on the assembly line. Their “dance” manages to “wake” the old tractors, which once again come back to the site of the factory. This poetic, oneiric scene haunts contemporary Warsaw, a city with a service-based economy and a strong middle-class identity, reminding it of its disavowed industrial and working-class past.

But the strength of the “Man of” trilogy is its ability to inspire us to something more than simply dredging up a submerged past. Man of Iron shows us the extraordinary moment when the official authorities abdicated control of Gdańsk, one of Poland’s biggest cities, leaving it to be run by workers’ committees.

That utopian moment ends when the workers sign an agreement with the government. For a brief moment, however, we can see how a completely different way of organizing social and political life was able to emerge within a system where one party was meant to hold the complete monopoly of power.

Of course, it would be impossible to repeat what happened then in Gdańsk today: the big industrial working class of that era disappeared in the Poland of the 1990s, and it’s not coming back. But Wajda shows us that no system is ever fully closed, which is the most important point for the future. Sometimes, it takes just a spark to provide us with a view of something entirely different.