Czlowiek z zelaza (Man of Iron) (1981)



Director:     Andrzej Wajda.

Starring:     Jerzy Radziwilowicz (Maciej Tomczyk / Mateusz Birkut),  Krystyna Janda (Agnieszka),  Marian Opania (Winkel),  Irena Byrska (Matka Hulrwicz),  Wieslawa Kosmalska (Wieslawa Hulewicz),  Boguslaw Linda (Dzidek),  Franciszek Trzeciak (Badecki),  Janusz Gajos (Z-Ca Szefa),  Andrzej Seweryn (Kapt. Wirski),  Marek Kondrat (Grzenda).

Solidarity labor movement that helped the Poles push for Polish independence from the Soviet Union (follow up to Man of Marble)


Spoiler Warning:  below is a summary of the entire film.  Some curse words. 

At the station they are recording for broadcast a little editorial which may not pass the censors.  Mundek says maybe the censors won't noticed because the authorities have butter and strikes on their minds. Winkel doesn't believe it.  He has to prep four women who will be discussing problems of concern to women such as the arbitrary work stoppages.  He wants the women to be a bit critical of the "arbitrary" work stoppages. 

Winkel has to go see the big boss, the first deputy, and he is very worried.  He gets in a limo and is driven to a government building.  He asks the driver why do they want to see him, but he doesn't know. The first deputy gives Winkel recording equipment and money which he has to sign for it.  And Winkel must keep this secret.  He is to gather information about the strikers at the Gdansk shipyard, but especially on one of the men who helped start the strike, Maciej Tomczyk.  Winkel is not happy about having this job and keeps asking why me? 

Winkel gets off at the railway station Gdansk Glowny and a driver picks him up.  He is taken to a room where he watches a recorded video of an interview with Tomczyk made on August 20, 1981.  In the interview the man admits that he was the first to call for a strike.  It began on the 14th, but was planned at an earlier date.  They wanted Anna Walentynowicz, who had been fired, to be reinstated.  They also wanted a pay raise with an inflation allowance.

Tomczyk says that from section K-3 20 to 30 of the men went out, while 170 stayed behind.  They went to the director's office and a crowd gathered behind them.  A small crowd was waiting for the strike leader Lech Walęesa.  The group accompanying the strikers got bigger and bigger.  Walęesa joined them and said a few words to the crowd.  He said he was fired after ten years of working at the shipyard. 

A secret agent talks to Winkel following the viewing of the interview with the strike leader.  Tomczyk's father was also a striker at the shipyard.  The agent says that Tomczyk is guilty of counter-revolutionary activity and they are going to nail him for this.  He says that Winkel's reporting will help.  Winkel tries to tell the man that he is not a reporter.  But Winkel is known to some of the people at the shipyard because he previously reported on the earlier strike that started at the shipyard in 1970.  Winkel is given a car, which he signs for.  The agent gives Winkel some liquor because there is a liquor prohibition in Gdansk that was ordered by the strike committee.  Winkel is very grateful for this because he has a bit of a drinking problem and feels he really needs liquor to help calm him down.  Before the agent lets Winkel leave, he goes on a rant about how Warsaw doesn't realize the seriousness of the situation in Gdansk and that the only government people in Gdansk are wimps.  He says:  "This is a counter-revolution."  He wants Winkel to help him convince Warsaw that this strike is a mortal threat.  The agent even wonders if they should get rid of Tomczyk.  The agent has some kind of attack of pain, which makes Winkel even more nervous. 

The driver tells Winkel that the director has had many such attacks since he lost his job.  He also warns Winkel that it is all going to start soon and he may end up on the shit list of both sides. Winkel is taken to his hotel.  He goes up to room 1303 where there is a man waiting for him.  This fellow tells Winkel something similar to what the director said.  He says the comrades at the top have screwed everything up.  He gives Winkel the secret files on Tomczyk.  The agent says that Tomczyk's mother owns a villa in Zakopane and supports him.  His wife Agnieszka is currently in jail.  He tells Winkel he has to prepare a script that can be used for a TV news report.  One of the things he wants Winkel to do is go talk with the wife.  The guy leaves.

Winkel doesn't like any of this and he wants a drink badly.  He gets a glass and puts the liquor bottle on the sink.  But as he turns around, he knocks the bottle off the sink and it smashes into pieces.  The desperate man takes a cloth to soak up some of the liquor, then wrings it out into a glass.  He removes a piece of glass and then drinks the liquor.  He desperately wants more and goes down to the bar to ask the bartender for a drink, but she tells him that there is a liquor prohibition.  Yes, he knows that, but there is always a way around the rules.  No, the bartender will not help him.  She says the strike committee put the ban in place and it's obvious she supports the strikers.  Winkel tries to telephone Warsaw, but he cannot connect to other cities because of some kind of blockade. 

The people on the street complain about their low wages and the high cost of goods and services.  They complain that the trade unions "are just for hushing things up."  Winkel joins the big crowd in front of the entrance to the shipyard.  Workers bring out a big wooden cross and erect it as a memorial to what happened in December 1970 at the shipyard where there was a massacre.  Winkel runs into a man named Dzidek, who reminds Winkel that Winkel got him a job some ten years ago.  A plane drops leaflets from the government.  Tomczyk is speaking to the crowd and he tells the people not to pick up the leaflets, nor read them.  Winkel and Dzidek go for some coffee.  The crowd applauds the speaker.   

After coffee Dzidek shows Winkel some film of different clips about the strike of 1970.  The film shows the order imposing a police curfew December 15, 1970.  There are scenes of tanks in the streets and thrown canisters of tear gas.  There are a lot of strike messages on the walls of the buildings.  An armored personnel carrier arrives and arrests are made.  Women shed tears over what is happening.  Demonstrators are struck repeatedly with rubber truncheons. 

Dzidek gives Winkel some drinks of vodka, for which Winkel is very grateful.  He tells the reporter that he knows Tomczyk from their college days.  The man was very secretive and especially so after the student strike of 1968.  Truncheons were used on the students.  Dzidek remembers that he and Tomczyk were black and blue from being hit repeatedly.  Back in March of '68, the workers did not join them.  And, worse, Tomczyk's father didn't support the students. 

Flashback.    Tomczyk and Dzidek are very excited as they come into the apartment and tell dad that "it's starting".  Tomczyk wants dad to get the workers to support the students, but instead dad locks his son in a back room to stop him from leaving.  Dad says that the authorities are just using the students to "reshuffle the deck" not change the deck.  Dzidek asks dad if he doesn't believe they will win.  He says:  "No lie can last forever."   Dad just doesn't believe that now is the time.  He says:  "When it really begins, we will go together."  He lets Tomczyk out and the son is so emotional that he tells his father:  "We're finished!" 

When the students went on strike the shipyard workers did not support them.  So when the workers went out on strike in 1970, the students did not join them.  A worker with a loud speaker asks the students to come out of their dorms and support them, but the students did not turn out.  Shots are heard.  Tomczyk's sister with a bloodied face comes to see him in his dorm room  Tanks roll down the streets.  She tells him to get up out of bed because:  "They've killed your father!"  She tells her brother that he still lays where he fell.  Tomczyk jumps up and says they must go and retrieve the body. Meanwhile, men have picked up dad's body, put it on a door and carry it to the shipyard.  The authorities watch this and say they must get that body because it will be a provocation for the strikers. 

Tomczyk and the other arrives at the death place, but the body is already gone.  The son desperately wants to find the body.  Dzidek warns him:  "You'll get shot!" 

Tomczyk and Dzidek go to watch a television report with a large group of people in a big room.  Tomczyk gets very angry at the way the events are being reported and attacks the television screen.  Three men in white coats arrive and grab him.  They put him in a straight jacket and take him to a mental hospital. 

Dzidek visits the hospital and talks to one of the doctors there.  He asks if Tomczyk can be released?  She says there is nothing mentally wrong with Tomczyk, but he has liver and heart problems and needs to be careful with his health.  Dzidek is allowed in the room to talk to his friend.  The patient tells his friend that he is dropping out of college and will work in the shipyard.  Dzidek is very disappointed and tries to talk his friend out of this idea.  Tomczyk asks him to do him a favor.  Sure.  "Fuck off!" 

Tomczyk disappears for an entire year.  Then he suddenly came back.  Dzidek runs into him and they talk.  Tomczyk says he was in the army, but now he works at the shipyard.  Later he became a foreman. 

Back to the present.  Dzidek asks why is Winkel so curious about Tomczyk?  Winkel tells him that he wrote about the father back in 1970s and now he wants to write about the son. 

People gather around the memorial cross.  Winkel tries to get inside the shipyard saying he is a journalist, but only foreign correspondents are being allowed in.  They just don't trust the local reporters. Winkel runs into Tomczyk's mother.  They are not allowing mothers in either.  He strikes up a conversation with her.  She tells him that her son suddenly just stopped writing to her.  She is afraid that the authorities will kill him, just like they killed his father. 

It's the eighth day of the strike.  The Polish reporters want Winkel to sign a petition protesting against the biased way the news of the strike is being reported.  Winkel is afraid to sign, so he makes up some lame excuse.  The other reporters seem skeptical of Winkel because he won't sign.  Winkel is more afraid of their reactions, so he says sure he will sign and does so. 

Winkel goes to see Dzidek.  They are filming an interview with Fiszback, the regional secretary.  He says this time there will not be a bloody ending to the workers' strike. Dzidek tells Winkel that the strikers now have got 400 plants behind them and that's real power.  He then tells Winkel that Mrs. Hulewicz has agreed to talk with him.  Dzidek adds that her daughter is in the eye of the cyclone.  The woman is very influential and she can arrange for Winkel to get a pass to get into the shipyard.

Winkel meets with the older woman.  She tells him that Tomczyk's father deliberately walked right into the firing, as if he were seeking death.  She knows because she was close to him at the time.   Mrs. Hulewicz cries over the many dead strikers and the way the bodies were callously treated.  They had to sneak the father's body into the cemetery to get it buried.  The director tells them not to mention this to anyone.  When they came back on another occasion to visit the grave, there is someone else buried where his father was buried.  Tomczyk is very angry.  The men at the shipyard make him a tall iron cross and Tomczyk plants it right where his father fell. 

Tomczyk was trying to organize the workers, but was getting nowhere.  The workers offered so many different reasons for not doing anything.  Tomczyk starts arguing with the government trade union official and criticizes him for doing nothing.  The official gets angry and tells the young man to stop making trouble. 

One day the security guards grab Tomczyk and take him to the personnel office.  There a woman gives him his pink slip, while apologizing to him for having to do it.  A woman comes in, gives him less money than he earned and then the guards show him out of the shipyard. 

Back to the present.  Mrs. Hulewicz says she will speak to her daughter about the pass and Winkel can talk to her. 

Winkel goes into the shipyard to speak to the daughter.  She tells Winkel that her mother has told her about him.  She tells Winkel that Tomczyk was so sick of the lack of support he was getting that he decided to protest on his won.  He put up posters around the shipyard and on the streets and was quickly picked up by the police.  He spent three months in jail.  The daughter is very convinced that the worker will win this time.  Winkel is not convinced.  Anyway, his hostess tells him that he will get the best pass possible and will get to see the historical moment when an agreement is signed between the workers and government. 

Winkel gets a call from the authorities, but he pretends it's a wrong number and hangs up.  He tries to sneak out of the hotel.  He goes through the kitchen looking for a rear exit.  One of the employees, however, grabs him and takes him to the first secretary.  Winkle is very nervous and is sweating.  The boss thinks that Winkel is going through withdrawal from liquor.  He tells Winkel to tell him what material has he gathered together.  They broadcast in two day.  The first secretary asks if Winkel has gotten inside the shipyard and their organization?  Does he have a contact?  Suddenly Winkel just snaps and says he doesn't want any part of this.  He says:  "I am not an informer."  The first secretary brushes this aside and tells him that he wants Winkel to go talk to Tomczyk's wife in prison. 

Winkel does get in to see Agnieszka.  He whispers to her that the authorities are trying to use Tomczyk as a scapegoat for the strike.   Agnieszka is a very hyper person, but still cool about danger.  She says she used to make films.  She came here for the first time looking for Birkut (Tomczyk's father), not knowing that he was already dead.  She met Tomczyk for the first time outside the shipyard. 

Flashback.  She takes Tomczyk with her to Warsaw to talk to a film producer.  She introduces Tomczyk as Mateusz Birkut's son.  Agnieszka tells the man that she needs a camera, film and crew so she can finish her film.  The man asks Tomczyk to give them a minute, so the shipyard worker goes into the next room.  The producer then scold Agnieszka for being too political.  He says:  "You want to erect a statue to a guy who's an Enemy of the State!?"  He takes her pass to the building and says she will never set foot in the building again.  Agnieszka fires off:  "You S.O.B." 

As the couple leaves they run into Winkel.  Agnieszka tells him:  "They pulled my film!"  Tomczyk tells her to come with him to Gdansk.  There she will be able to talk to his father's friends and take still photographs for the film.  On a visit to the cemetery, she does not find a grave for Birkut and leaves her flowers hanging on the cemetery gate. 

A government representatives comes in to see Tomczyk and asks him why is he helping Agnieszka make a film about an enemy of the people?  He tells her friend to abandon the film or they may force him to take another job far from Gdansk.  Agnieszka is devastated by all this bad news.  It was then that she spent her first night with Tomczyk.  Once she packed up her things and left Tomczyk, but she soon returned to him.  That is when Tomczyk told her that he loved her. 

Back to the present.  Agnieszka calls the shipyard to talk to her husband.  She manages to get him on the phone, but as soon as they start talking, the phone call is cut off.  So she goes on with her story.  She says that she and Tomczyk worker together then he asked her to marry him. 

Flashback.  Tomczyk and Agnieszka marry.  Lech Walęesa is at the ceremony.  Tomczyk and Agnieszka pass out leaflets on the train.  Later Tomczyk was arrested for taking part in forming the free trade unions (independent of the government).  Agnieszka is now pregnant and her husband is in jail.  The union men give her some money so she can live more comfortably. 

Tomczyk comes home and hugs his wife.  Then he goes over to look at their baby boy.  They subsequently moved in with Mrs. Hulewska.  One day the police came and searched through everything.  On another day Agnieszka gets on a train with the baby.  Tomczyk says goodbye.  She goes to her father's place and, in fact, the baby is still there.  When the strike began she wanted to be with her husband, so she got on the train and that's when they arrested her. 

Back to the present.   Winkel hands in the folder given to him by one of the government agents.  The agent talks to him for awhile and is very critical of Winkel.  The fellow is big and strong and practices his fighting techniques on a long series of dummies.  Winkel picks up a kind of baton and starts going crazy smashing the different dummies.  The agent grabs him to stop him.  Winkel tells him that his files did not contain enough information for any kind of script.  The agent warns him that they also have a file on him. 

Winkel goes to the shipyard.  He calls Warsaw telling them that he quits.  That's when he finds out that they have all new bosses there.  Winkel attends the historic meeting that he thought would never come.  Agnieszka is there and she sees her husband.  She rushes over to him and they hug.  She cries.  Lech Walęesa signs the document.  He then says to the crowd gathered for the signing:  "I said we'd win the first day, and that's the way it's happened."

Winkel see Dzidek.  The man is very cold to him.  Winkel is confused.  Dzidek comes over to him and takes off the wire around his neck.  The first driver Winkel had provided by the government informed on him.  Dzidek leaves disgusted, while Winkel tries to tell him it wasn't like that. 

Tomczyk goes to speak to his father at the place of the iron cross to tell him that they finally won. 


Good movie, especially compared to the other movie Man of Marble.  I did not like that film, but this one was understandable and interesting.  This story is one dealing with the beginning of the end of Russian communist rule in Poland.  Lech Walęesa was the hero of the strike and a leader in the Solidarity movement.  He appears in the film as himself.  The actor playing Winkel was very good because he really gave a good portrayal of a man caught in the middle and suffering because of it.  I also like the actress playing the role of Agnieszka.  She caught perfectly this nervous, hyper person on the one hand and the calm person in facing danger and punishment. 

Patrick Louis Cooney, Ph. D.


Historical Background:

1945 (June) – a Polish Provisional Government of National Unity forms.

1947 (January) – communists control the elections, so the Communist Party creates a Polish People's Republic (Polska Rzeczpospolita Ludowa).

1956 (October) – destalinization begins. Workers in Poznańn riot. First Secretary Włladysłlaw Gomułka begins to liberalize internal Polish life.

1966 – the celebrations of the thousandth anniversary of the Baptism of Poland led by Cardinal Stefan Wyszyńnski and other bishops turns into a huge demonstration of the power and popularity of the Polish Catholic Church.

1968 – student demonstrations are suppressed with violence. This mark the end of the liberalizing trend.

1970 (December) – a price increase in goods leads to disturbances and strikes in the port cities of Gdańnsk, Gdynia, and Szczecin. There is deep dissatisfaction with living and working conditions in Poland. Edward Gierek replaces Gomułlka as First Secretary.

1970s (first half) – infusions of Western credit make Poland's economic growth rate one of the world's highest. The centrally planned economy can’t deal with this effectively. Debt burden becomes too high.

1979 – negative economic growth in Poland.

1980 (July 1) – government increases meat prices to try to deal with the more than $20 billion dollars of foreign debt.

1980 (by the end of August) – strikes virtually paralyze the Baltic coast. Poland in an economic crisis.

1980 (August 31) – workers at the Lenin Shipyard in Gdańnsk, led by electrician Lech Walęesa, sign a 21-point agreement with the government that end the strike. Negotiators also sign similar agreements at Szczecin and Silesia. Now workers have the right to form trade unions independent of the government and the right to strike.

A national union movement "Solidarity" sweeps Poland.

1980 (September 1980) – Gierek is replaced by Stanisłlaw Kania as First Secretary.

1980 (December) – the Soviet Union has a massive military buildup along the border with Poland.

1981 (February) – Defense Minister Gen. Wojciech Jaruzelski becomes Prime Minister.

1981 (October) – Wojciech Jaruzelski becomes First Secretary of the Communist Party.

1981 (September-October) – at the first Solidarity national congress, Lech Wałlęesa is elected national chairman of the union.

1981 (December 12–13) – government declares martial law. The army and ZOMO riot police crush the union. Virtually all Solidarity leaders and others arrested or detained. Martial law is gradually rescinded.

1982 (December) – martial law suspended, but there were still several hundred political prisoners in jail.

1984 (July) – general amnesty is declared.

1986 – the government releases nearly all political prisoners, but dissidents and Solidarity activists are still harassed.

late 1980s – government has to negotiate with Solidarity in the Polish Round Table Negotiations. Elections are called.

1989 – Polish legislative elections marks the fall of communism in Poland.


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