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ReelTalk Movie Reviews
Poles Apart
by Donald Levit

Rebuilding following the war, Polish cinema contended with politics, censorship, repression, closures, student demonstrations, strikes, anti-Semitism, emigration and poverty yet produced works among the Continent’s best. The Film Society of Lincoln Center is offering a valuable selection in Martin Scorsese Presents: Masterpieces of Polish Cinema, touring thirty cities and organized by that director’s Film Foundation in partnership. Among the twenty-one titles digitally restored from the late ‘50s through the late ‘80s are Man of Iron/Człowiek z żelaza and The Saragossa Manuscript/Rekopis znaleziony w Saragossie, different yet bearing structural resemblance.

Winner of the 1981 Palme d’Or and an Oscar nomination, the former is by an Andrzej Wajda already internationally acclaimed and fictionalizes from facts of the Gdańsk shipyard strike that bolstered the rise of Solidarity and Lech Wałęsa and the collapse of the East Bloc. The color film opens with a disclaimer but combines invented characters with historical footage and real figures, some played by their actual selves. It attempts the feel of non-fiction as alcoholic sad sack Party hack Winkel (Marian Opania) interviews people whose flashback revelations flesh out the developing account of the rise of protest and the career of organizer Maciej Tomczyk (Jerzy Raziwilowicz).

Not so good as Man of Marble, whose 1977 story it continued, the film was released as Solidarity was coming into its own and, indeed, did much to generate world support for the workers’ and trade unions’ demands at the same time that that support contributed in turn to the receptive embrace of the film.

Derived from a hundred-sixty-year-old novel written in French, Wojciech Has’s 1965 Edinburgh and San Sebastián prize-winning The Saragossa Manuscript is in beautiful black and white. Over three hours and three minutes it rubs viewers’ noses in the fact that it is myth not fact, nostalgic and non-linear, stories within stories within stories that commentators compare to the Thousand and One Nights and Decameron but is actually less like such framework tales than it is Faulknerian or like the filmscape of Raúl Ruiz. It glories in humor that reflects the serious and in near-caricature characters who overlap, collide and drift apart but whose impossible tales of love intrigue come together, sort of, at the end.

That the whole begins from suggestive woodcut illustrations in a Spanish book mentioning his grandfather that Belgian Walloon Guard Alfonse van Worden (Zbigniew Cybulski) finds during the Napoleonic Peninsular War, indicates the literary, unreal yet disturbingly real nature of what is to follow. The host of lovers, Muslim princesses, churchmen, caliphs and cabalists, pícaros and rogues, dons and doñas, scholastics and seductresses and swashbucklers, lovers chaste and unfaithful, cuckolds, whores, bandits, ghosts, honest merchants and noblemen and Inquisitors, is staggering, and a wrap-up by a Prospero-priest-hermit-sultan comically confuses as much as clarifies.

Courage and kinship which effectively result in double incest with sisters, are part of Rabelaisian riot in the midst of Goyaesque disasters of war, piled skulls, carrion birds alighted on gallows, and hardscrabble hamlets. The haunted Venta Quemada, Burned Inn, is a center to which this labyrinth turns or returns.

The plot cannot be summarized. It celebrates, among several things, the joy of cinema watching in a mash-up of genre types and characters, the Marxes and Borges melded with no questions asked or answers given. The Russian matroshyky nesting dolls of tellers and tales are illogical but miraculous in that they “return to the same places . . . and new combinations have to be arranged, then the whole will be clear.” Or not clear.

Circular or, better, spiral is the form of the sixty-six stories over that many days, happening or told to or around the grandfather or the grandson or both. Such Polish stories we tell are doggedly continued, even despite a listener’s insistence that the teller cease and be gone. The source novel’s linguistic and publishing history is as convoluted as the tale(s) it and this film “tell.” A suicide, its author is today a Polish legend known outside his homeland if at all for this Manuscript Found in Zaragoza.

Man of Iron and its prequel are similar to it and to each other in that they, too, have a “frame” which fills in events leading to the “present” through a mosaic of “past” relations, i.e., flashbacks, and in their leads’ playing both son and (grand)father. In the Wajda pair the excuse is a politically connected investigation: film degree candidate Agnieszka (Krystyna Janda) researching the life and legend of bricklayer martyr Mateusz Birkut (also Radziwilowicz, in both films); and Winkel gathering information with which to discredit that man’s agitator son Tomczyk.

Flunky Winkel embodies Central Committee underestimation of the 1980 coalition of 1968’s university students and 1970 hardhats. In purely cinematic consideration, his timorous inept person is too slight to tie together the stories he elicits or the thread of Tomczyk’s being forged into a “man of iron” leader of men. Thus, for example, the audience does not know who the blonde prisoner is: introduced quite late here, she turns out to be the same frustrated documentarian (again Janda) to be shown as Tomczyk’s wife and mother of their child. His conscience and evolution into a dismissed worker and Movement leader come across as at least as much penitential atonement for not understanding his estranged father as politically motivated. Like Reds, the latter half of this film dissipates revolutionary fervor into sappy love story.

The concluding irony is that the hazzahed Party-Solidarity agreement is not worth a zloty and that the agent’s sacrificial return to the liberal camp of his youth goes misunderstood. With Man of Marble, these two-and-a-half-hours-plus portray some of the moments in the fall of Communism. By itself, however, it is not so effective as Volker Schlöndorff’s Strike, a fact-based fiction about a woman Lenin Shipyard worker who keyed the strike and its male leaders and then voluntarily stepped aside.

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