At first glance, the late Polish director Andrzej Wajda’s acclaimed films, Man of Marble (Człowiek z marmuru, 1976) and Man of Iron (Człowiek z żelaza, 1981) may seem to be about Agnieszka, an endearingly stubborn filmmaker on her quest to discover the truth about a long-forgotten fictional Stakhanovite bricklayer, Mateusz Birkut.
As is often the case, there is more to what initially meets the eye. The production and release of both of the films come at crucial times to the development of the Solidarity (Solidarność) trade union movement in Poland. As evident in Człowiek z marmuru, the toleration of such a subversive film under the repressive Polish United Workers’ Party government, reflects the ostensibly liberal state of affairs in communist Poland that percolated the setting of the film. So too does the stunning reverberation of sombre 70s Polish funk, which features heavily in the opening sequence. Nevertheless, any references to the workers’ uprisings on the shipyards of Gdańsk in December 1970 (Grudzień 1970), which portrayed Birkut’s death, were subsequently censored by the government.
In the Wajda’s subsequent film, Człowiek z żelaza, he was freer to explore more provocative topics than previously allowed. Agnieszka’s journey to get to the bottom of the truth of Birkut’s rise and fall, leads her to marry Birkut’s son, Maciej Tomczyk. The production of the film closely traced the rise of the Solidarity movement, so much so that footage of real demonstrations by Solidarity were included in the final cut. Even reference to, and recreations of, the scenes of the clashes in 1970 that were previously censored were now permitted.
The Solidarity movement’s swift emergence in the early 1980 was a main factor in the government’s further liberalisation amidst an underlying economic crisis. Eventually, by December 1981, the Polish People’s Republic became subject to martial law. Despite receiving the Palme D’Or at Cannes and having been nominated for the Academy Award for Best Foreign Film, the authoritarian government had no sympathy for the film’s political message, banning it from local circulation after its initial release, not to be seen again until the establishment of the post-communist Third Polish Republic.
In spite of the renewed censorship, the Polish experience and the Eastern bloc nation’s domestic unrest were ever so clearly broadcast to the entire world. Eventually, this was the beginning of the death knell of the authoritarian government, leading the Solidarity movement to prevail over the communist regime, with Solidarity leader Lech Wałęsa becoming the first democratically-elected Polish president.
Although it is important not to overlook the full history and development of the movement, however, the focus on the overall sentiments of the movement should suffice. Solidarity, as both one of the biggest workers movements in Europe since the aftermath of World War II, and the first independent labour union in the former Eastern bloc countries, was able to build a movement that represented the interests of its people, and the workers in the face of a national government that had a penchant for political repression and social oppression, using the state to further these ends.
It took building a broader progressive movement to affect change, to combat the crafting of false narratives as a means to serve the interests of, and to accumulate power for, those in advantageous positions in a given societal structure.
The Communist government in response to such a sustained movement that built momentum, compromised. They released political prisoners, reversing the tide of political repressions resulting in roundtable talks between the trade union leaders and government representatives, setting the foundations for a more democratic Poland.
Despite the current state of affairs in Poland under the governance of the fervently anti-democratic social-conservative Law and Justice Party, the lessons from the Solidarity movement still ring true.
Often students can feel apathetic towards the political process and feel as if they can’t harness their political power and affect change. This is especially relevant when our next opportunity to participate in a democratic process is a postal survey, that was once described as a process that would “unfairly disenfranchise millions of [Australian] voters,” by Prime Minister Turnbull who ultimately implemented it.
Apathy does not sustain change, but rather allows hard earned progress to slowly erode. Those who are apathetic would do well to realise that by getting involved in activism and volunteering or working with a student union, for instance, a real difference can be made. Students can let their voices be heard and rise up against the failings of institutions and governments, who should be held to account.
If the postal vote survey is to be won, it will need the contribution of everyone possible to fight for the legislation of marriage equality. This is an objective that has its core support from students and young people, so how about we mobilise to achieve a common goal.
If there is one unifying and timeless message from Wajda’s films, it is this: people power works. All it needs is a little touch of solidarity.
One would hope this message is worth your consideration.