Saturday, December 29, 2007


Strike (Strajk)
Directed by Volker Schlöndorff
MPI (in Polish with English subtitles)

“Strike” is not such a happy word in Hollywood right now, but it still has heroic connotations in Poland. Perhaps the great irony of labor cinema is that one of the more effective strike movies involves workers marching on the Communist Party Committee, rather than “greedy” capitalists. Directed by the German Volker Schlöndorff, Strike (now on DVD, trailer here) dramatizes the early events of the Polish Solidarity union through the eyes of Agnieszka Walczak, a character largely modeled on early Solidarity hero Anna Walentynowicz.

Agnieszka has a hard life. She is a born worker and a devout Catholic, but not necessarily anti-Communist. However, she gradually loses faith in the party as she witnesses its corruption at the Gdansk shipyard. First her activism is relatively circumspect, motivated by very concrete concerns, like pensions for the widows of workers killed through party negligence. A single parent, and borderline illiterate, she fears for her son’s future when she is diagnosed with cancer. However, it is her recent husband, mechanic and jazz musician Kazimierz Walczak, who dies an untimely death, while “Holy” Agnieszka makes a miraculous recovery.

Schlöndorff does a nice job integrating the fictionalized Agnieszka into the very real events of Solidarity, most importantly the violently quashed strike of 1970 and the breakthrough strike of 1980, which led to the recognition of free trade unions. German actress Katharina Thalbach plays Agnieszka, with her Polish dialogue dubbed (essentially the reverse casting of the Polish Krystyna Stypulkowska in the East German Trace of Stones), but still delivers an amazing performance. There is pain in her Agnieszka, but also defiance, as when she boards a tram, beaten and bloody, after her release from the militia’s interrogation, challenging the confused stares of passengers.

Strike’s depiction of Lech Walesa is a bit touchier. The actual Walentynowicz has made no secret of her differences with Walesa after the fall of the regime. Evidently, she has criticized the film for not being sufficiently anti-Walesa. Yet the film certainly sides with her (or at least her surrogate), suggesting Walesa was at times shortsighted and personally ambitious. Hardly a dead-ringer for Walesa, Andrzej Chyra’s role is not any easier given Strike’s point of view, but he does humanize his celebrated subject quite well.

It is no secret that Walesa has had many pubic feuds since his presidency. Polish democracy is messy, just like any other, particularly the American version. Yet a democracy it most certainly is, and not about to change, which is why Agnieszka’s final voice-over rings somewhat hollow. However, Strike is quite adept at capturing historical events of thirty years past. When the workers do march on the Party Committee in 1970 it is stirring stuff, and when the Solidarity banner is first unfurled it is an emotional moment (but not overplayed).

Powerfully underpinning the drama is a score by Jean Michel Jarre, which brilliantly blends symphonic themes with industrial sounds and the jazz of the Andrzej Trzaszkowski Sextet. In fact, Strike will be of particular interest to jazz listeners due to the score and through the character of Kazimierz, whose trumpet unexpectedly plays a significant role in the story.

Strike filters its history through its biases, but does so in earnest, and with good faith. Though hardly a love-letter to Walesa, he is never seen as the villain. Those judgments are reserved for those who served and profited from a corrupt Communist system. Strike is a remarkably well crafted film, conveying the oppressive drabness of the now hallowed Gdansk shipyard and creating some riveting (and at times horrifying) scenes. It is a valuable contribution to cinema of the Communist experience.