Communist empire’s defeat began with the courage of one woman
By Catherine Hickley
Crane driver Anna Walentynowicz is barely known outside Poland. Yet her battle with the Lenin shipyard in Gdansk set off a wave of rebellions across Eastern Europe, ultimately toppling the Berlin Wall.
Volker Schloendorff, who won a best foreign language film Oscar for The Tin Drum shot in Gdansk in 1978, has returned to the Polish port to make Strajk — Die Heldin von Danzig (the English title is simply Strike). This unsentimental movie is based on Walentynowicz’s life.
Strike is a timely tribute to Poland’s part in the fall of communism as memories fade of events more than a quarter of a century ago. Yet the unsung heroine Walentynowicz, now 77, wants nothing to do with it and at first even threatened to sue.
So Schloendorff’s central character is called Agnieszka. She is played by Katharina Thalbach, who was also in the cast of The Tin Drum, grew up in the communist east and is among the finest German actresses working today. Thalbach’s Agnieszka is brave, warm-hearted, charismatic and uncompromising in her quest for justice — qualities the real Anna must have shown.
Shot in German and Polish, Strike dwells a little too long on the hardships of Agnieszka’s life in the 1960s and 1970s. In an age of overlong films, it could easily lose 15 minutes of its 104-minute run time and get more quickly to the crux, the start of the Solidarity movement.Model Worker
Instead, the film opens with Agnieszka as a welder at the Gdansk shipyard: a model worker who wins an award for filling her production quota by 270 percent. She is solely responsible for her son’s upbringing until she falls in love with Kazimierz (Dominique Horwitz). She learns to read in order to pass a test to become a crane driver. Agnieszka is told she has cancer, yet it is Kazimierz who dies first, of heart failure.
When her cancer inexplicably disappears and Karol Jozef Wojtyla is named Pope in 1978, Agnieszka feels that God has a purpose for her. The deaths of 21 dockers in an accident caused by terrible working conditions give her a cause, and she fights for the widows’ compensation and a memorial.
Agnieszka is dismissed on a pretext, sparking strikes and demonstrations that she leads alongside a more familiar Solidarity figure, the electrician Lech Walesa. Police brutality follows until eventually, the communist powers make concessions.
While Walentynowicz fell into obscurity after the protests, Walesa, the labor union’s chief negotiator, won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1983. He is played by Polish heartthrob Andrzej Chyra, who looks a little like the real Walesa, though he’s more handsome and his mustache much less impressive. (Walesa said after the premiere that his wife found Chyra more appealing too, according to daily newspaper Gazeta Wyborcza.)
True heroism isn’t glamorous until after the event and Schloendorff makes no attempt to prettify communist Poland. The decor and costumes are grim, the characters look appropriately careworn, the colors are drab and the weather is bleak.
The dramatic shipyard backdrop reminds us danger is never far off with the glow of hot metal, clank of machinery and black depths of the harbor.