Man of Marble (Czlowiek zmarmuru) grabs you from the beginning and doesn't let go for its over two and a half hours of running time. It's good enough, for first-time viewers and those not fully enmeshed in the filmography of its great director Andrzej Wajda, to elevate the perception of Wajda into the realm of the very best filmmakers from world cinema. All of this, too, stemming from a film which typically uses a picture of a sweaty worker in a cap as its key advertising image. The expectations which might follow probably do few favors for Man of Marble. And just how fresh and alive and engrossing the picture is should teach us a lesson about the cinema of Wajda. Second Run's previous editions of Innocent Sorcerers and The Promised Land created a varied portrait of a director capable of multiple strengths and styles. Man of Marble confirms Wajda as one of the greats.
Wajda, of course, also did his famous War Trilogy, which included A Generation, Kanal and Ashes and Diamonds, as well as Danton and, more recently, Katyn. He's certainly well-known, established and highly regarded on the world stage. It's just that, watching Man of Marble coupled with having seen those other films, the pieces begin to connect and this smallish window into his career engenders an especially strong respect. What Man of Marble does is to take a Citizen Kane-like structure and transform that into something far more political, if subtly so, while always retaining the mystery inherent in discovering the whos and whats of a stranger's life. Polish cinema, like Czech, Hungarian and most any Eastern European cinema, carries with it an assumption of political interest. Viewers less captivated by such concerns, either via geography, time or simple aversion, are left to judge the film in more narrow terms. By most any method, Man of Marble succeeds on a grand scale.
The film takes flight from its start, with black and white footage beginning immediately and prior to any opening titles. From there, we see a young blonde woman quickly moving down a hallway as she speaks in hurried tones to a man who seems to be her boss. The set-up, we learn, is that this woman is a film student named Agnieszka (played by Krystyna Janda) and she's trying to make a feature about a socialist worker hero from the 1950s, a couple of decades earlier. The man works in television and he somewhat reluctantly allows her to move forward on the project. She'll use a statue as inspiration - the "man of marble" of the title. Mateusz Birkut had posed for the large sculpture now stored away out of sight just as he was being hailed like our modern athletes. He was a bricklayer who became a celebrity and an icon, before he was betrayed, imprisoned and left to slip into obscurity.
Older newsreels and other footage tracked down by her editor are shown in black and white as Agnieszka watches from a screening room. Structurally, it's a wonderful peeling of the onion that continues as she visits a small handful people who crossed paths with Birkut (Jerzy Radziwilowicz). As they reminisce, the film flashes back to these events from twenty or so years previous. This is where the Citizen Kane comparisons come in, but Wajda's work never really feels like the Welles film. It's really just a jumping-off point, and the intentions seem quite different. Man of Marble may carry a slight sense of mystery as to who Birkut was in some of the same ways we anxiously learned of C.F. Kane, but the cause is quickly made to be the real concern. Birkut is more of a cipher or symbol than Kane was, among numerous contrasts between the two.
As such, the Birkut character never has to really function as a fully three-dimensional creation. He's an icon of a movement, ultimately discarded after showing a particular level of awareness. Plus Birkut is generally shown through others' memories and staged film footage. He was created as a pawn to inspire the workers. The darkness comes when he tries to move beyond that role and its required opinions. Birkut becomes involved and soon enough has to pay the consequences. The unraveling of his mystery is an ingenious device used by Wajda, and certainly inspires more interest than a simple focus on either him or Agnieszka would have. Having the latter character defy conventions as a young, chain-smoking female further shakes up the expected. The excitement of investigative journalism blooms with a special radiance. Regardless of whether this is the Polish Citizen Kane, it might also be the Polish All the President's Men.
There's a floating, intangible quality to Man of Marble that all truly great films of some length possess. It both feels important and works as substantial entertainment. The relative accessibility here is refreshing, particularly as part of a catalog in Second Run's which leans more in the direction of the abstract. This is a film unafraid of embracing its ambitions. Wajda's picture confidently marries classic narrative techniques with the more gritty, cynical time of its production. It's the rare movie open to exploration, whether due to political or cinematic ideas, without relying on it. Beneath the surface lies a fascinating element but the surface itself is pretty amazing too.
For the first time ever, Second Run has issued a two-disc set for a single film. Man of Marble is certainly worth such a distinction and it occupies spine number 086 in the line. The region-free PAL DVD release would probably have been a Blu-ray edition from most any other distributor (and, indeed, it came out in the high definition format in Poland) but Second Run has not yet flirted with BD, presumably over cost concerns.
Using a splendid new restoration, the transfer here is just about as good as it gets for standard definition. Colors are spectacular, as is the grain structure. There's a distinct lack of damage. Detail appears very strong. Overall, this is approaching reference quality for a foreign catalog title on DVD. The 1.33:1 aspect ratio used might seem odd for a film from 1976 but it's accurate.
Audio is presented in a Polish two-channel stereo track. It's a clean, robust listen. The sometimes strange and awkward musical cues hit pretty powerfully. Dialogue comes out minus any impediment. The mix as a whole sounds clear and consistent. Optional subtitles are available in English and are white in color.
An entire second disc's worth of supplements, running nearly an hour, has been included. There are three substantial interviews with probably the trio we most would like to hear from regarding the film. All are listed as being new and exclusive to this release. First up is a session (21:42) with director Andrzej Wajda. Here he discusses the initial attempt to make the film, in 1962, and the process that followed to get it actually done over a decade later. Next is a chat (13:40) with lead actress Krystyna Janda. She shares a little about herself at the time of her casting and how much she revered the opportunity to work with Wajda. Finally, the "unoffical" assistant director and one of the inspirations for the main character, Agnieszka Holland is heard from in an interview (20:09) that touches upon her own struggles and controversies around the time of the production.
A short restoration comparison (1:26) finishes off the bonus disc.
More information on the film and its background can be found in an essay by Michael Brooke, included in the 16-page booklet inside the case. Its references to various other notable Polish films makes one hope for Second Run's continued dedication in bringing such works to further light.