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ReelTalk Movie Reviews
Behind Every Great Man
by Donald Levit

Political bioflicks run short on real politics and long on glamour, but German Volker Schlöndorff’s Strike/Strajk--Die Heldin von Danzig is not centered on Polish “internal history,” nor does it follow up the conception of Solidarity with that movement’s controversial future growth. Sylke Rene Meyer’s original factual treatment is given documentary gravity by being shot entirely in Gdańsk’s historical Lenin Shipyard but developed in a different direction by Andreas Pflüger and the director, who, “more a man of fiction,” admits to taking liberties.

Called “untrue” by my neighborhood Polish cleaning ladies, this is the story of a little person who unwillingly is drawn into events, acts instinctively in affecting their course, and then purposely fades into footnote status. The film’s Agnieszka (Katharina Thalbach) never read Simone de Beauvoir’s cautionary “a woman gets power, she loses the solidarity she had with other women” -- a recent feminist study by Sharon Penn uncovers political marginalization of Polish women who pushed for reform in the ‘80s -- but after her innate sense of dignity and justice gives rise to a first-ever strike, impetus to its spread, and hard direction when it is about to blunder into co-optation, she smiles, welcomes reconciliation with grown son Krystian (Wojciech Solarz), and pushes hothead electrician Leszek (Andrzej Chyra) into the spotlight.

That this moderate Lech Wałęsa would go on to a Nobel Peace Prize and eventually the nation’s presidency, is beyond the film’s agenda, along with real-life heroine Anna Walentynowicz’ running gun battle with him for what she saw as a selling out of Solidarity.

Addressed as Mrs. Kowalska, Agnieszka is self-effacing, Catholic and a single parent with an adored sickly son (Raphael Remstedt). On International Woman’s Day, 1961, her ten years’ bovine service is rewarded with a television set, red-letter DYPLOM which the illiterate woman cannot read, and assurance that her shipyard welder’s job is safe forever. Maintaining the propriety of a fictional deceased chemist husband, she braves acrophobia to apply for a crane operator’s position and is taught to read for the examination by Krystian and an admiring new neighbor, shipyard band trombonist Kazimierz Walczak (Dominique Horwitz, with Thalbach the only non-Polish actor, mirroring the dual language title).

Similar to a gratuitous false cancer scare in this “ballad based upon historical events,” the latter’s part is puzzling -- and brief, for following the foreseeable courtship and marriage, his heart gives out on a honeymoon beach. The metaphorical shipyard honeymoon goes up in smoke, too, as a spent match falls on petroleum in a tanker hold. Dismissing claims of inadequate safety enforcement, as against workers’ drinking and smoking -- impossible to “find” cigarette butts, so burnt whisky bottles have to do -- the government-appointee directors refuse widows’ compensation.

“Life always turns out differently,” so, her sole earlier defiance having involved cafeteria food, Agnieszka is moved by the women’s desperation to appeal to sad-eyed Henryk Sobecki (comedian Andrej Grabowski), who will not help but warns her against higher-up Bochnak (Dariusz Kowalski). Ignoring bribery, proposed Party membership, arrest, and cancellation of Krystian’s university matriculation, she gets involved.

The embittered son turns away from her, yet by 1978 she and Lech, the electrician who “needs a job, not a wife,” emerge as figures in illegal free trade union agitation. Roughed up, denied work hours, full salary let alone back pay, she is fired two years later, for “theft”-- failure to turn in Kazimierz’ company trombone -- and, a page out of On the Waterfront, there is an unheard-of work stoppage which, in solidarity, other shipyards join. Its shaky controlled economy crippled, Warsaw agrees to negotiate. But with workmen’s leadership set to sign on the dotted line, Agnieszka warns against accepting merely cosmetic reform, steps back, and passes the torch on to the men.

Swept into these happenings, some who seemed on the side of the oppressors will, in the predictable stuff of movies, reveal themselves to be true friends, while others will at least do the decent thing. Not until 1990 was the national Communist Party disbanded, and even today, the film first noting the falls of the Berlin Wall and the Soviet Union and Poland’s “joining Europe,” a hobbling aged Agnieszka underlines that “there is still work to be done.”

The future cannot but be brighter than the film’s atmospheric muted color scheme, captured in fall and winter -- “boring films or comedies are shot in summer”-- to the accompaniment of Jean Michel Jarre’s “shipyard sounds” score. Debatable as history, Strike sets its camera eye on the underplayed “secular saints” who contribute to that history. 

(Released by Red Envelope Entertainment and Laemmle/Zeller Films; not rated by MPAA.) 

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