I never expected iron to be such a moving metal. Primo Levi’s “iron” story in his beautiful book The Periodic Table (first published in 1975 and in 2016 transformed into a gripping radio play by BBC radio 4) first made me reconsider iron. Therefore I start Follow the Iron with a homage to Levi who recalls his how his fellow chemistry student and friend Sandro who discovers “iron” as one of the substances of a powder they have been given to analyze: Habemus ferrum. (A later image from a chemistry lab in a documentary on British Steel works also is meant to evokes Levi at work as a chemist). Sandro speaks with a Piedmontese accent, is generous, brave and seems to be made of iron. He took Primo Levi into the mountains, leading him consciously into challenging encounters with the four elements. Levi is certain it helped him later on to survive under the bitter circumstances in the camps. It didn’t help Sandro: Sandro Delmastro, was killed fighting in the resistance in 1944. Levi’s iron memory is devastating.
Iron ore is blasted from the earth (4% of the earth crust contains iron; 98% of the core of the earth is also iron). Iron rust has been used as pigment since the cave paintings in Lascaux (France) and the black ink on the dollar bill is still made of iron dust. Iron has been transformed by blacksmiths since the iron age (1200 BC until the Middle Ages) into tools and weapons. Knights were armed in iron helmets, chain mail, and spears (the battle on ice in Eisenstein’s Alexander Nevsky ). The two World Wars of the twentieth century were by and large fought in iron (guns, helmets, battleships, tanks). The transformation of iron into steel (by de-carbonization) boost to the industrial revolution in the 19th century. The Eiffel tower, the Empire State building and the Skylines of the modern city would not have been possible without steel and the steel workers photographed by Lewis Wickes Hine and described in 1930 by the London Daily Harold in the following way: “These are classical heroes in the flesh. Prosaic, nonchalant, crawling, climbing, walking, swinging, swooping the gigantic steel frames, fusing the iron of their nerves with the steel girders they built into modern cities.
Steel workers in the industrial age are connected to the labor movement that brings the iron trail to Eisentein’s Strike and the Ballad of Janek Wiesniewski composed by Andrzej Korzinski for Wajda’s Man of Iron. The people that crawl out of their holey spaces in Strike are the “disturbing people” that Deleuze and Guattari in A Thousand Plateaus refer to as metallurgists. Of course the labor movement and communism also relates to the Iron Curtain, as famously proclaimed by Churchill in his speech of 1947.
Iron is related to bodily strength and body buildings “pump iron”, famously propagated by a young Arnold Schwarzenegger. Iron man takes his strength rather from the steel armature around him, as a super hero knight of the digital age. Magneto in X-men uses his super powers to bend steel to even take iron out of blood. Iron and steel is literally everywhere, in the earth, on its crust, in our modern transport, buildings, weapons, and many other tools. It is essential in our bodies, carriers of oxygen in our blood. And finally, in alchemy iron is related to Mars. The crust of Mars contains 22% iron, hence its red color of oxidized iron. And manned missions to Mars is a serious option for the future.