I knew I should have been a little suspicious of Andrzej Wajda's Man of Marble from the first. Why was such a supposedly political film so graciously received by the liberal-conservative critics here and overseas? Just who is disturbed by this film? Obviously not us: Poland, the Stalinist '50s, that's all somebody else's politics, presumably.
But the real problem is not one of content or subject matter. Wajda's film may well contain a complex and radical analysis of recent Polish history – I do not presume to be able to evaluate this aspect of it. In this dissenting note on the film, I am more concerned with the other side of the coin: is Man of Marble a work that has been made, arranged, structured politically, as a film?
The cinema is a social and cultural institution like any other; what is the place of this film within it?
The liberal-conservatives have been able to play a real trump card with this film. For they can immediately answer my sort of criticism by pointing to the film and saying: look, it's about filmmaking, about the way films falsify reality, about media-propaganda and state censorship of cultural production ... Man of Marble is Godard made simple!
No, no, no – that's too easy, too simple-minded. Point One: Man of Marble's analysis of how filmmaking can distort the truth borders on the facile. We see the deceit, the trickery: what was staged and re-staged for the camera, and what was edited out. Fine! But the ideological force of any piece of cinema is not simply a matter of whether it chooses to lie or tell the truth. (As if such a choice were so easy to consciously grasp and make!) A film is a signifying practice – everything it does, consciously or unconsciously, at the level of framing and timing as much as performance and cutting, is determined by cultural and social meanings. The very notion of a film Telling the Truth is itself a political myth.
Which leads me to Point Two: Man of Marble presumes to analyse the cinema. Thus, it must also analyse itself – its own meanings, its own order, its own patterns. No way – Wajda sees himself and his main character as utterly innocent, outside political contamination, able to see the truth and grasp it at once. The whole presentation of the filmmaker (more like some fearless female reporter from Willesee at Seven) corresponds to this idealistic notion: in she plunges, waving her hand-held camera, infused with zeal and one-hundred percent integrity (plus talent, according to her co-workers, though this is not evident to me).
But what of her own place within society – her class and economic status, her family, her interpersonal relations? What conditions her, politically? Where the film is aware of this problem, it is completely romantic (she has learnt all about the '50s from her sweet Daddy, who prompts her again to seek the Truth when all others have abandoned her ... ).
Point Three: if Man of Marble were to look at itself, it might not like what it finds. For, as a film, it is completely conventional – and thus ideologically complicit with dominant cinema. It exposes one sort of cinematic trickery, but tries to conceal its own: the film is full of carefully faked newsreel footage, blended with the real thing. It flashes back to the Truth via the confessions of characters, but what we see is far more inclusive than anything a single person could possibly relate. It constantly uses the most classical illusionistic devices: subjective shots, editing matches, music to smooth over scene transitions.
So what? Of course, hundreds of films, from Hollywood to Newsfront (1978), use the same devices. But these films are not as pretentious as Man of Marble, which proclaims itself a political film. Judged conventionally, it is certainly a fine work, and Wajda handles his material excellently. But that's not what's at stake. A film which is truly political, Straub/Huillet's From the Cloud to the Resistance (1979), screens for one night in Melbourne to an audience of two dozen. Man of Marble runs for a month and gets two separate reviews in The Age newspaper.
Which only goes to prove that, while Man of Marble may be a film that talks about politics, it is certainly not a politically radical film.
© Adrian Martin October 1980