Man of Marble

“Never and nowhere has the word ‘to build’, expressing one of the fundamental needs of society, taken on such a deep and all-embracing meaning as in our country.” (1) Announced at the All-Union Congress of Soviet Architects in Moscow (1947), this dictum promulgated the fundamental conjunction of monolithic construction projects, which conquered the physical landscape, and the imbrication of people into the political system, which suppressed personal individuality and bodily dynamism behind a façade of manufactured, ossified icons of idealised labourers. In the Polish context, Andrzej Wajda’s Czlowiek z marmuru (Man of Marble, 1977), produced in the transitional historical moment between the lingering repressions of communism and the emerging disgruntlement of the Solidarity movement, uniquely facilitates a dialogical relationship between the available images and discourses with which communist society could represent experience, manifested in original and reconstructed newsreels, and the æsthetic structures of meaning which were becoming resonant in the 1970s. (2) The film traces the quest of a contemporary young filmmaker, Agnieszka (Krystyna Janda), to make a documentary about Mateusz Birkut (Jerzy Radziwilowicz), a Stakhanovite-type labour hero who was glorified by the régime and then mysteriously denounced. The cultural artefacts produced under the auspices of Socialist Realism, archived newsreel footage shot by successful filmmaker Jerzy Burski (Tadeusz Lomnicki) and a marble statue of Birkut’s idealised form, discovered in the basement of Warsaw’s National Museum, shroud his life with a veil of empty visual rhetoric. Progressively extracting memories, presented in flashbacks, from figures in the newsreels, Agnieszka aspires to unearth the repressed ‘true’ story of Birkut’s life from beneath the linguistic and æsthetic veneer of “Nowa-mowa” (newspeak), which promoted uniformity of opinion and repressed the proliferation of meaning. (3) Her entry into the forbidden archives of the régime, the very emblem of state power in the communist era (4), leads inevitably into an exploration of the foundations of the régime itself and constitutes a revisionist reading of history which contradicts that propagated by official Party doctrine, resulting in the condemnation and confiscation of her footage.

This was politically explosive content in 1979, when the repressive administration of Edward Gierek was characterised, as Wajda notes, not so much by terror but by a gigantic manipulation of people and reality. (5) Under communism, artists were creatively disenfranchised and recruited into the régime to produce Socialist Realist documentaries, an occupation which Wajda himself undertook and which he acknowledges in the film by appending his name to the credits of one of Burski’s documentaries. The script, written by Aleksander Scibor-Rylski, had in fact been shelved by the government for twelve years before a slightly more progressive state film producer in the late 1970s granted permission for the film to be made. (6) When the film went before the censors again after its completion, however, all attempts were made to restrict its release, and positive reviews of the film were suppressed. Having already approved the content of the screenplay, the reaction of the government suggests the presence of an element fundamentally more subversive than what could be contained in a script, an “impalpable something”, Wajda suggests, “which renders inoperative the rules of censorship” (7).

What may be impalpable in a script, however, can achieve an emphatic resonance in its dynamic engagement with a viewer. Wajda’s film not only thematises the fracturing of a spatial homogenisation and subjective repression in Agnieszka’s investigation of the régime’s manipulations, but also enacts a dynamic implosion of these façades through disassembling a deceptively cohesive way of seeing and experiencing cinematic space, and resurrecting the visceral potentiality of figures on the screen. Diegetically unearthing repressed topographical and recollected resonances, the film simultaneously encourages the viewer to recognise, and thus re-empower, our own physical location in space and socio-political autobiography, rather than become subjected to the régime’s monolithic imposition of ‘reality’. (8) In arranging conflicting historical spatial resonances and modes of subjective and visceral experience alongside each other, Wajda’s film empowers the viewer to undertake what Laura U. Marks has termed an “archaeological” project, in which we are required to sort through the discourses created by political dislocation and read significance into what official ideology represses. (9)

Spatial splinters

If space continues to be thought of as “an autonomous determinant, separate from the structure of social relations and class conflict”, films that elaborate upon practices of spatialisation at particular historical moments cannot be properly understood. Wajda’s comparative structure insistently clarifies the fact that “space, as a social fact, as a social factor and as an instance of society, is always political and strategic.” (10) The space in the propaganda newsreels unfolds according to a clearly framed, centred and consistently stable viewpoint which creates a perspectivally or geometrically ordered topography. (11) The philosophy of the régime intimately associated the process of construction with a conquering of nature and man, as the proud narrating voice in Burski’s newsreel about Nowa Huta informs us: “there, where until recently there had been fields, emerges the greatest investment of the six-year plan”. In the visual accompaniment to this narratorial direction, a vast wheat field in the foreground stretches to a horizon of perfectly rectangular blocks, which are both its geographical and its future architectural destination. The low angles through which such landscapes are seen enact a subjection of space to a masterful gaze, symbolically representing the régime’s power to tame its wild peripheries. (12)

The monumental construction projects of communist régimes served, as Widdis notes, “as metonymic indices of [its] vast power” (13). Both Agnieszka and Birkut must traverse a physical world which ostensibly functions as a symbol of Soviet achievement. Birkut’s attempts to investigate the disappearance of Wincenty Witek (Michal Tarkowski), a fellow brick-layer who had been accused of sabotaging a labour event, continually leads him into architectural and metaphorical dead-ends. Entering the small room where Witek’s hearing is supposedly taking place, Birkut’s, and the viewer’s, gaze confronts a composition in which the lines of perspective converge sharply at the corner of the room, defeating the possibility of forward progression, and intensifying the sinister seamlessness of Witek’s disappearance from this sealed space. Long corridors stretch on either side of Birkut as he waits for the party official whom he consults in relation to this disappearance, framing him with a hopeless elongation ending in blankness.

Man of Marble

Two decades later, Agnieszka is similarly plunged into a labyrinth of bureaucratic repression, traversing a literal maze of Soviet architecture, dusty archives and endless corridors. Despite the structural paralleling between the two characters and their eras, however, this spatial endurance does not suggest a mere continuity of power. Unlike Birkut, whose disempowerment is suggested by his physical immobility in the corridor scene, Agnieszka decisively and energetically traverses such spaces. Most important, however, the film itself attempts to fracture a topographical continuity by reinvigorating how we see them. The consistent use of the hand-held camera affects an empowering reclamation of space which recognises the characters and the viewer’s physical location. In each of Agnieszka’s three traversals of the long television studio corridor, the use of a hand-held camera dynamically splinters the sort of monolithic perspective and æsthetic indication of eternal vastness present in Birkut’s sequence. In filming the interior spaces of the National Museum, initially seen through a patterning of bars and columns metaphorically indicating and at once literally protecting its forbidden secrets, fluid camera movements also keep pace with the characters as they advance through the rooms. Oblique and disorientating angles suggest a perspective divorced from the parameters of stability and rationality which is evident in the newsreels’ presentation of the Museum, proudly displaying the Social Realist art that Agnieszka will find discarded in the basement.

Man of Marble

Agnieszka’s own insistence on filming from a handheld camera, to the consternation of her elderly cameraman, explicitly draws our attention to the implications of such shooting methods. Her techniques of cinematography are specifically thematised as those that are the only ones capable of penetrating behind the marble façade of the régime. When she discovers Birkut’s statue, she ignores her cameraman’s stipulations that it can only be filmed with proper lighting and a tripod, which they don’t have; snatching the camera away from him, she sits astride the statue and moves her body towards it, viscerally capturing the footage of the repressed sculpture which more conventional methods could not accomplish. This sequence is itself filmed with a handheld camera, which slowly disperses a static and eternal frame by following the pace of Agnieszka’s own movements, and physically captures the fluidity of the present moment which her diegetic actions thematise.

Wajda’s, and Agnieszka’s, frames appear as permeable limits capturing through unusual perspectives transient glimpses of a mobile, subjective world. (14) In the first topographical shots of Warsaw, Agnieszka and her crew travel across the centre of town in a van. In perfect synchronisation to the beats of contemporary pop music, images of the cityscape flying past the windows alternate rapidly with close-ups of the characters, as though suggesting the rhythmic kinship between the people and their city. (15) As the credit sequence of the film, this section also seems to make explicit the implication of the filmmaker and production crew in its politicised æsthetic statement. When we later encounter Wajda’s name in the credit sequence to the 1950s’ newsreel, which shows Warsaw being built in a sweeping steady pan from an elevated view-point, this disjuncture between ways of relating to space is amplified, as modes of experience are excavated from the past and dynamically engage with each other.

Rather than conceive of Wajda’s film as solely “an effort to overstep the limits of the political horizon while remaining inside the same geographical borders” (16), as has been said of the art of Solidarity, we must consider its implicit recognition that one cannot change the political horizon without reinvisioning the way in which we relate to an inherently politicised space. Unsatisfied with traversing the same territory, Wajda seeks to cinematographically redefine and reclaim lived space as part of the experience of an individual, rather than presenting an objective perspective abstracted from it. The topographical fragmentation enacted by the camera approximates an individual’s perception of a city, not as a “singular, unified social reality”, but as heterogeneous “images of a city, a multi-faceted city that represents ideological concepts, economic forces, and social spaces that reflect a diversity of cultural, historical, and geographical markers” (17). Unwilling to represent and hence empower the perspective of anyone standing within the city, the lofty viewpoints favoured by the régime manifest themselves in the recurrence of three-dimensional models, which allow an immediate and omnipotent visual mastery. (18) The model of Nowa Huta and the conquering perspective that it facilitates is, however, dynamically revised by Agnieszka and Wajda’s camera twenty years after its appearance in the newsreel. Having located Witek, who has been “rehabilitated” by the régime and now occupies an exalted position in the state structure, she attempts to interview him during a helicopter ride, in which he continues to impose the elevated perspective of the régime upon the landscape, accompanying it with an eloquent monologue on the glories of the building site which deftly side-steps Agnieszka’s questions. Approximating Agnieszka’s physical viewing position, however, fractures this objective vision; while contemporary popular music plays over the soundtrack, we view the city at oblique angles, distinctly jolted by the movements of the helicopter which blurs rather than clarifies our vision of it.

By bringing these different spatial aspects into play, it might be argued that Wajda is effecting a régimental concretisation of space into a symbolic trajectory that characterises the æsthetics of propaganda, albeit of a different referential resonance. Wajda certainly focuses attention upon a space that seems to be coded as “pre-communist”. When Agnieszka’s film is rejected by the producers, she seeks shelter with her father who lives, significantly, not in one of the ubiquitous apartment blocks built by the régime but in a pre-war cottage in a small town. If her father represents ‘the people’ and the voice of reason, as Wajda claims, then it is significant that this voice is associated with a pre-communist existence. The cottage can be seen as a democratisation of the Polish country manor house, an indispensable element of national mythology that recurs frequently in themes of a lost homeland. (19) This type of space has literally and metaphorically been moved away from in the newsreel that shows Birkut leaving a country cottage which resembles the buildings surrounding Agnieszka’s father’s house. Other than this briefly visited sanctuary, Agnieszka seems to be homeless; she has literally resisted being built into the régime and carries all her possessions on her back. It is, as she tells an uncomfortable-looking Burski in his ornately furnished home, “easier to make films”. In such “nomad aesthetics”, as Marks notes, space is moved within, lived through and physically experienced, rather than conquered in a distant and abstracted gaze. (20)

It would, however, be inaccurate to see spatiality emerging in Wajda’s treatment as unproblematically re-homogenised for the people in opposition to a government imbrication. Wajda’s presentation of a subjectivised sense of space inextricably develops the historical ambiguity of spatiality, forcing the viewer to negotiate a hybrid landscape that is historically over-determined, each space carrying a multitude of conflicting associations. (21) While the Warsaw landscape is fragmented through the point-of-view of the characters, it is also dominated by the Palace of Culture and Science, a universally detested ‘gift’ from Stalin to the city, which ominously overshadows Agnieszka’s quest and is omnipresent in nearly every view of Warsaw taken in the film. (22) The conflicting discourses which weave themselves around the space of Nowa Huta demonstrate how such a process of negotiation is conducted through the duration of the film experience, activated by a spectator which is a “subject-in-process” rather than an objectified recipient of imposed doctrine. Apart from its lauding in the newsreels, Nowa Huta is seen initially as a site of Birkut’s manipulation in the ‘debut’ of his labour-hero role. At the same time, however, his hopeful fantasy that everyone would have a place to live if such a standard of work could continue would resonate strongly with a post-war generation who remembered the severe housing shortages following WWII. The site then undergoes a series of vacillating representations, from the domestic utopia inhabited by Birkut and Hanka in the newsreel, to the evocations of film noir in the poorly-lit and rain-dampened labyrinth of streets Birkut returns to in search for his now-estranged wife. By the time Agnieszka visits the town in the 1970s, it is a thriving centre of industrial production that appears to have partially fulfilled Birkut’s extravagant prophecy. When Agnieszka questions party cadre Jodla (Wieslaw Wójcik) about the city’s past, he replies, “What do you know about those years? It wasn’t built by itself.” The uncharacteristic lack of response by Agnieszka accentuates the discordant tone and unsettling ambiguity with which the achievements of the communist régime are suddenly presented, and became one of the most fiercely debated sequences by spectators and critics. (23)

In explicitly bringing together the repressed and conflicting associations of space, any facile coherence of the present culture is ruptured. In this archæological process, combining elements from different strata resists “the order that would be imposed by working on one stratum alone, knowing that the result will be contradictory and partial” (24). Charting the living metamorphosis of space, this structure which continually returns to the same location at different points in time also encourages the dynamic activity of the spectator, indicating the ability of film to move us through the inner space of developing consciousness as well as through cinematic time and space. (25) While Socialist Realism is interested in manufacturing a singular time which combines past, present and future in utopic eternity, repressing what is unnecessary and threatening to it, the competing discourses of spatiality in Wajda’s films disturb this temporal homogeneity, mixing together strata of history which must be actively sorted through in the present. As a lived-through event, the film thus engages our own memories and autobiographies, both extra-textually, especially for the contemporary Pole who would have various personal reactions to the locations in the film, and intra-textually, as each new scene in Nowa Huta throws us back into the past of our viewing itself, allowing us to thicken the images before us with our retained impressions. Against the ossification of the historical resonance of space, the film in its interaction with the viewer not only thematises the power of subjective memory to reinvigorate the present culture, but also encourages the viewer to enact such a process.

The revolt of flesh and blood

As the cult of the worker has shown, ‘building’ implied much more than the laying of physical foundations. It represented the construction of the state itself, and the people being built into the political system. As we are told in one of Burski’s newsreels, suggestively titled “Architects of Our Happiness”, every building in Nowa Huta contains a drop of the workers’ sweat. People are so intimately integrated into the constructed landscape that its inhabitants have no need of street signs, “we know every corner”. Building the people into a conquered and ossified space, the totalitarian régime also strove to replace a sense of individual subjectivity with idealised, constructed images, which were so much seen as superseding the individual that defiling portraits of leaders was a criminal offence, and removing images of denounced heroes, such as Birkut, was tantamount to their literal destruction. Idealised Soviet subjects become “the carrier of another body, the sublime body” (26), alienated from their own sense of self.

Man of Marble

The magnification and distortion of the individual subject into ideal citizen was synonymous with “a negation of human existence in the functioning of a system”. The propaganda newsreel claiming to chart Birkut’s life only demonstrates the parading of his image, as he acts out the role of labour hero, admires his marble statue and the endless posters which reproduce his form, and appears before the public as a “crowd-pleasing vision of physical glamour, a kind of fetish of the healthy Soviet body” (27). The proliferation and repetition of images of the idealised citizen were designed to eclipse any suggestion that the state may have no other basis for authority other than the manipulation of these icons. Creating an unbroken circuit of cohesive identities in repeating and doubling the insistence of state privilege served to make up for its precarious position balanced over a lack of a basis in reality. (28) In Jean Baudrillard’s terms, simulatory images become self-progenitors of a hyper-real that “murders the real” rather than acting as an intelligible mediator of historical referents, giving rise to a “procession of simulacra”. (29) In the newsreels, the people are shown alongside of and interchangeable with their idealised images: close-ups of Socialist Realist paintings showing toiling workers in collective farms are spliced with images of those viewing them in a cinematic simile, while parades and choreographed demonstrations of physical agility are filmed from a high angle, rendering their participants anonymous replicas of each other. The power of the state to appear to dissolve the individual into the mass is disturbingly echoed twenty years later in exchanges between Agnieszka and two women who belonged to the generation of the 1950s: the television editor tells Agnieszka that, “I’ve selected everything to do with Birkut […] although the rest is pretty much the same”, while Agnieszka, attempting to divert suspicion as to why she is particularly interested in Birkut’s statue in the museum when, as the museum guide points out, there are so many others like it, says, “I like this one […] although it’s all the same.”

Implicit in this proliferation of idealised effigies of model citizens and leaders is the constant presence of state ideology, “such is the special meaning of those vigilant images and ‘all-seeing eyes’” (30). The invisible, omnipotent gaze of the state reduces its citizens to “project themselves for the crafted, staged look’ (31), which necessitates a simultaneous capitulation of one’s own look, “to lay down our gaze in visual surrender”. (32) In this context, Agnieszka’s penetrative gaze through the camera lens and at the discarded footage of Birkut can be seen to return the gaze of the state in a direct challenge to their desire to keep the machinations of history and politics buried under layers of propaganda. The heterogeneous memories and perspectives that she unearths crumble the seamless portrait of Birkut through revealing the painful, lived-through process of moulding his image, which the opening newsreel only parades as a finished product. In flashbacks, Birkut is shown to be force-fed for weeks before the event (at which he tentatively complains that, “I’m a human. You can’t stuff humans like geese”), shaved and groomed, and carefully directed by Burski, who ironically tells him to act more like a worker, when to smile, and quickly turns his camera away when Birkut collapses, bleeding from the hands, upon completion of the task. Disrupting the seamless coherence of the image of the ‘Man of Marble’, the subjective memories that Agnieszka extracts fracture the objective and objectified image of the hero.

Agnieszka’s investigation of the manipulation and victimisation of Witek and Birkut is tantamount to an excavation of the very foundations of the communist system itself, which claimed popular support upon the basis of the patronage of the worker. Her disinterment of the hidden infrastructure of totalitarian power reveals its construction on base-less myths and rituals. The subject investigating the state’s foundations, as Widdis notes, represents a potential rupture in the homogeneity of the political system and must thus be repressed (33), an experience shared by Birkut, Agnieszka and Wajda alike, who were respectively imprisoned, silenced and censored. Agnieszka ultimately has her camera, the instrument of looking and excavating, confiscated, yet refuses to capitulate, returning in triumph at the film’s conclusion not with an image of Birkut captured on camera but with a real person, the son of the now-deceased Birkut, subverting thus simultaneously the hierarchy of looks as well as the repression of the ‘real’ human subject. For the third and final time, Agnieszka walks triumphantly down the long corridor in the television station, arm-in-arm with Birkut’s son, their physical contact embodying the material, dynamic re-invigoration of the individual and the social body.

Man of Marble

Janina Falkowska, among other critics, has argued that Agnieszka’s successes against the régime indicate that Wajda is manufacturing her as a “contemporary heroine of the solidarity opposition”. However, Agnieszka functions not just as a representational character, which is undoubtedly championed in opposition to the régime, but also as a physical figure, in which her body expresses the material forces and dynamism repressed by the very process of fixing iconicity. Agnieszka’s isolation within the frame and use of the wide-angle lens, which Falkowska argues makes her appear “enormous and powerful” (34), in fact has a distorting effect, inducing a separation of her figure from the sort of idealised and proportional human character which features in images of heroism, Soviet or otherwise. As Gilles Deleuze notes, such an isolation of the figure need not constitute a rendering of the character as icon, but can instead function as a sort of counter-trajectory to this caged immobility, rendering sensible an exploration of the figure within an “operative field” of dynamism and sensation. (35) Within this field, the figure brings together a set of bodily contortions and gestures which function as a force, “as an intensity of ‘feeling’ which resonates within the mise en scène as a rhythmical movement”. Agnieszka’s gestures radiate an irrepressible energy, comically manifested in her ravenous hunger. Her impatient gesticulations cut into the seemingly impermeable facades of her interviewees, their repressed memories sometimes appearing to be physically extracted by Agnieszka’s grasping hands. Through her shifting attitudes, postures, gestures, rhythmical sways and dissonant movements, her fluid, spindly figure functions through affective resonance and disjunctive forces, in contradistinction to the régime’s idealisation of a unified seamless body.

Rather than merely a psychical identification, this effectuates a material response of the viewer’s body to the energies and dynamics of the physical processes of the characters’ bodies. (36) In contrast to the execution of smooth and sculptural movements around the space of the body which is exhibited in the newsreels, the camera itself mimics Agnieszka’s nervous energy and agitated gestures, effecting sharp movements, disjunctive, permeable frames and quick shot changes, becoming a dynamic, fluctuating and rhythmic experience for the viewer. (37) Physically energising the ossified icon of the ‘heroic’ character, Wajda also galvanises the viewer into an awareness of our own physical “situatedness”. Stimulating the spectator’s kinæsthetic senses, the movements of camera and body allow for a mimetic involvement which re-dynamises the viewer’s own physical being as we are brought to awareness of our own physical location in relation to the film. In attempting to implode the objectified and idealised body of the state subject, Wajda was hoping for an affective contagion to revolutionise the social body itself. In his explanation, he “seized upon a new style, hoping that the quickened pace of my films would somehow speed up the flow of blood through the veins of a worn-out social system” (38). Several contemporary reviews react to the novelty of this cinematic dynamism, citing the film’s “revolt of flesh, blood and common sense in defense of the right to authenticity, naturalness, and spontaneity” (39).

Wajda’s visceral metaphor, which links the physical and the social body in the hope for revolutionary change, nevertheless indicates that Agnieszka’s figurality is inextricable from its political implications. The credit sequence shows her asleep in her van, and her physical and political awakening are thereafter linked. After seeing the first newsreel footage of Birkut, Agnieszka is galvanised into action, physically manifested in her purposeless leaping from one position to another. This interrelation between the energy of the body and political action is made apparent towards the end of the film when her project is terminated by the producers and she collapses catatonically in her father’s home. However, rather than ossifying her body in ideality and cliché and imposing such an image on the spectator, Wajda’s dynamisation of his characters trigger a visceral recognition of our own physicality as subjects. This bodily act of reflection, as Vivian Sobchack has argued, “discovers its origins in the subjective body that sees and rescues the latter from anonymity and invisibility by re-cognising and re-presenting it to consciousness” (40).

Man of Marble

This visceral awareness also has its cognitive counterpart in the tensions which vibrate between the diegesis and its æsthetic presentation. Wajda has been accused of himself employing Socialist Realist artistic techniques to cast Birkut in the role of a glorified dissenter. Shot from below, his statuesque image on the screen is often surrounded by a halo of diffused orange light with soft contours, “as if enveloping him in the mist of the spectator’s sympathy and understanding” (41). According to Falkowska, the scene in which he is evicted from his Nowa Huta apartment after his defiant defence of Witek is “annoyingly romanticised”; contrasted to the modest pieces of furniture in drab colours on a rickety cart is a traditional red geranium, the prized possession of the couple which seemingly epitomises Birkut’s “love for truth and honesty” (42). This sequence, however, and others which use Socialist Realist techniques, can instead be seen to encourage a more complex engagement with the film. As Birkut pulls the furniture cart, the mise en scène composes itself into a quotation of ubiquitous Socialist Realist paintings which show hunched, powerful figures pulling ploughs. By painting Birkut with the brush of Socialist Realism while presenting narrative content which suggests a critique of the régime and its manipulation of the idealised image, Wajda ironically draws our attention to this manipulation, deconstructing such æsthetic attempts to transform the ordinary subject into the objectified hero. The tensions which vibrate in this scene between galvanise viewer debate, as competing discourses and associations serve to deconstruct the machinations of image politics rather than to unproblematically carve Birkut into a heroic form. As John Orr argues, “Wajda refuses to believe in any propaganda, including his own.” (43)

The circulation of æsthetic elements of Socialist Realism in Wajda’s polyphonic film thus have a fundamentally different effect from its use in Stalinist culture, dynamising responses rather than attempting to fix and imbricate them. While the totalitarian æsthetic concerned itself with various means by which the subconscious could be shaped without revealing the mechanisms of this process, Wajda’s film continually demands that this manipulative construction is revealed on the level of conscious perception. (44) Not only do frequent tensions within the mise en scène disrupt a stable relationship with the viewed image, such that the spectator’s critical awareness is continually encouraged against the passive absorption of imposed cinematic spectacle, as in the example above, but the way in which the camera constructs reality is, of course, specifically foregrounded, as we ‘see’ the film through the lenses of several different cameras: Wajda’s, Agnieszka’s, her cameraman’s and Burski’s. The stability of the look championed by the régime is ruptured in sequences in which eye-line match editing is disorientatingly foregone, as when shots of Agnieszka nervously smoking and seemingly reacting to something in front of her are intercut with shots of her film which is being viewed by television producers in another room. In thematising and enacting a dynamic viewing experience, which ruptures the smooth façade of spatial continuity, the film encourages the spectator to become aware of their own process of viewing and thus to discover themselves as an empowered subject who can return the gaze of the state.

Diegetically penetrating into the complex process of image-manipulation behind the casting of Birkut into the ‘man of marble’, Wajda simultaneously rejects the idea of cinema as a self-contained, immutable object with a manipulated, objectified viewer. The concerns raised by Wajda’s film thus penetrate into the heart of phenomenological debates concerning the reception of cinema itself. Post-war structuralist and psychoanalytic reception theories such as that of Jean-Louis Baudry and Christian Metz posited a passive spectator subjected to the film’s tyrannical apparatus, in which the film’s vision and consciousness replace our own in the act of perception, alienating our body from its subjectivity. (45) In Metz’s formulation, the cinema requires a “vacant” viewer, “at once alienated and happy”, who has no choice but to submit their passive bodies to the vision of the apparatus.

In describing the film experience as monologic, such theories deny the emergence of disjuncture, rupture, and dialogue in the encounter between the spectator’s ‘autobiography’ and the film. (46) If the totalitarian film facilitates its own consumption by employing the cinematic signifier to

remove the traces of its own steps, to open immediately onto the transparency of a signified, a story, which is in reality manufactured by it but which it pretends merely to transmit to us after the event, as if it had existed previously, (47)

Man of Marble

the physically and cognitively dynamic techniques of awareness which Wajda employs can be seen to at once activate the spectator’s critical engagement and function as a critique of narcotic, mystifying and politically demobilising art.

Placing Wajda’s film and phenomenological film theory in dialogue with each other allows us to see how the film encourages the viewer to undertake a “lived-through” (48) experience in which we are addressed by the film’s thematic presentation, but are also encouraged to “speak back” to the film from the subjective location of our physical bodies and our socio-political experiences. We are addressed by the film’s vision and perception at the same time as its provoking openness and ambiguity encourages the viewer to thicken its images with our own subjectively produced memories, associations and meanings. In a political context in which attempts were made to ossify the individual into a sublime object of ideology, Wajda’s fracturing of homogenized social and æsthetic facades attempted to physically and intellectually and dynamise and invigorate the subject, reclaiming the space of their lived experiences. It is a measure of the film’s success in doing so that it provoked often violently divergent opinions and urgent debate, both verbal and printed in underground newspapers, in the millions of people who saw the film upon its release in Poland. However, whatever the particular trajectory of opinions taken by an individual viewer, the strength of these reactions reveal how it is almost impossible for the spectator, “especially the Polish spectator, to remain unmoved during the screening” (49), rendering viscerally palpable what the scripted pages submitted to the censors could never encompass.

This article has been peer-reviewed.


  1. Announced at the All-Union Congress of Soviet Architects, Moscow, 1947. Igor Golomstock, Totalitarian Art (London: Collins Harvill, 1990), p. 266.
  2. Czlowiek z marmury (Man of Marble, Andrzej Wajda, 1977), Film Polski Film Agency/Zespol Filmowy ‘X’.
  3. Carl Tighe, The Politics of Literature: Poland 1945-1989 (Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 1999), p. 28.
  4. Maureen Turim, “Remembering and Deconstructing: The Historical Flashback in Man of Marble and Man of Iron”, John Orr and Elzbieta Ostrowska, The Cinema of Andrzej Wajda (London: Wallflower, 2003), p. 94.
  5. This was the period between 1970-80. Andrzej Wajda, commentary, Man of Marble.
  6. Ibid.
  7. Andrzej Wajda, Double Vision: My Life in Film (London: Faber and Faber, 1989), p. 122.
  8. Vivian Sobchack, The Address of the Eye: A Phenomenology of the Film Experience (New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1992), p. 25.
  9. Laura U. Marks, The Skin of the Film (Durham: Duke University Press, 2000), p. 77.
  10. Kristin Ross quoted in Allan Siegel, “After the Sixties: Changing Paradigms in the Representation of Urban Space”, in Mark Shiel and Tony Fitzmaurice (Eds), Screening the City (London: Verso, 2003), pp. 143.
  11. Emma Widdis, Visions of a New Land: Soviet Film from the Revolution to the Second World War (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2003), p. 160.
  12. Golomstock, p. 266.
  13. Ibid, p. 157.
  14. Ibid, p. 160.
  15. Performed by Alibabki, one of the most popular bands of the time.
  16. Irena Grudzinska Gross quoted in Jessie Labov, “Kieslowski’s Dekalog, Everyday Life, and the Art of Solidarity”, Shiel and Fitzmaurice (Eds), p. 113.
  17. Siegel, p. 143.
  18. Golomstock, p. 281.
  19. Elzbieta Ostrowska, “Dangerous Liaisons: Wajda’s Discourses of Sex, Love and Nation”, in Orr and Ostrowska (Eds).
  20. Marks, p. 215.
  21. Labov, p. 128.
  22. Ibid.
  23. Janina Falkowska, The Political Films of Andrzej Wajda (Providence: Berghahn Books, 1996), p. 78.
  24. Marks, p. 28.
  25. Giuliana Bruno, Atlas of Emotion: Journeys in Art, Architecture and Film (New York: Verso, 2002), p. 7.
  26. Slavoj Zizek, “The Fetish of the Party”, in Willy Apollon and Richard Feldstein (Eds), Lacan, Politics, Aesthetics (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1996), p. 4.
  27. Widdis, p. 148.
  28. Richard Feldstein, “Subject of the Gaze for Another Gaze”, in Apollon and Feldstein (Eds.), pp. 50-1.
  29. Jean Baudrillard, Simulations (New York: Semiotext(e), 1983), p. 2.
  30. Gleb Prokhorov, Art Under Socialist Realism (Sydney: Craftsman House, 1995), p. 74.
  31. Feldstein, p. 51.
  32. Ibid, p. 52.
  33. Willy Apollon, “A Lasting Heresy, The Failure of Political Desire”, in Apollon and Feldstein (Eds), p. 33.
  34. Falkowska, p. 155.
  35. Gilles Deleuze, Francis Bacon: The Logic of Sensation (London: Continuum, 2002), p. 4.
  36. Barbara Kennedy, Deleuze and Cinema: The Aesthetics of Sensation (Ediburgh: Edinburgh Univeristy Press, 2000), p. 135.
  37. Kennedy, p. 129.
  38. Wajda (1989), p. 73.
  39. Sveta Lukic, ‘Borba’, Belgrade, 24 February 1979, URL: http://www.wajda.pl/en/filmy/film20.html.
  40. Sobchack, p. 97.
  41. Falkowska, p. 149.
  42. Ibid, p. 150.
  43. John Orr, “At the Crossroads: Irony and Defiance in the Films of Andrzej Wajda”, in Orr and Ostrowska (Eds), p. 3.
  44. Groys, quoted in Orr and Ostrowska (Eds), p. 43.
  45. Joan Copjec, “The Anxiety of the Influencing Machine”, 23 October (1983) p. 54; see Jean-Louis Baudry, “Ideological Effects of the Basic Cinematographic Apparatus”, in Gerald Mast, Marshall Cohen and Leo Braudy (Eds), Film Theory and Criticism (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992); Christian Metz, The Imaginary Signifier: Psychoanalysis and the Cinema (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1982).
  46. Sobchack, p. 271.
  47. Metz, p. 40.
  48. Sobchack, p. 9.
  49. Falkowska, p. vii.

About The Author

Matilda Mroz is a British Academy Postdoctoral Fellow and the Charles and Katherine Darwin Research Fellow at the University of Cambridge from October 2009. She is currently writing on Polish cinema during the Socialist period.

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