Out of the Lenin Shipyard

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Movies about strikes and labor organizers are not uncommon in film history – think of the “Grapes of Wrath” and “Norma Rae,” to name just a couple. The usual plot line involves heroic union organizers fighting the heartless company to overcome horrible working conditions. But a recent movie out on DVD gives the formula an interest- ing twist.

“Strike,” directed by the accomplished German director Volker Schlondorff, was made in 2006 in Poland, with a mainly Polish cast, but with the lead played by German actress Katharina Thalbach. It hit art houses in America in the middle of 2007, and promptly disappeared. It is now out on DVD through a few video rental stores, but is more easily obtainable by sale through the ever-reliable Amazon. The film recounts (with some artistic license) the struggle by Polish workers to form an independent union and fight deplorable working conditions, set not by heartless capitalists in this case, but rather by the Communist state. The well-crafted script by Andreas Pfluger (based upon a biography written by Sylke Meyer) tells the story of how one uneducated, diminutive, and stubborn woman fought the Communist bureaucracy to improve working conditions at the Lenin Shipyard in Gdansk, Poland. She became a cofounder of the independent trade union Solidarity.

The woman, Agnieszka (based on the real-life character Anna Walentynowicz, the subject of Meyer’s bio) did not go on to achieve the renown of her friend Lech Walesa, but her role in the rise of Solidarity was great. Moreover, the worker revolt in the worker’s paradise of Poland helped bring about the col- lapse of Communism, which freed tens of millions of people. No small achieve- ment for such a small woman.

The events leading up to the historic 1980 shipyard strike are mirrored nicely in the story of Agnieszka’s life. She comes to Gdansk as a young woman after WWII, happy to find a job

Filmed at the actual Lenin Shipyard in Gdansk, the outstanding cinematography conveys convincingly the utter bleakness of life in that benighted Marxist utopia.

 

as a worker in the shipyard. She eventually becomes a welder, then a crane operator.

As the movie opens she receives a ribbon and a prize (a small TV) for being named a Heroine of Socialist Labor yet again. (We also see her taunted by fellow workers for setting the production quota too high, who scream at her the bitter old Soviet joke, “They pretend to pay us, so we pretend to work!”) She takes the ribbon and TV back to her shockingly shoddy flat where this model worker lives with her son Krystian.

In a subsequent scene she meets and befriends the Lech Walesa character, here an itinerant ship electrician, at the yard. She gradually begins to fight with the management for better working conditions. The resistance by the managers is ironic, given that they are all Communist Party functionaries, supposedly devoted to the betterment of the working class.

In the most riveting scene, a major industrial accident caused by a dropped cigarette igniting a fuel leak, Agnieszka tries to rescue two burning men by moving her crane to pick them up. Over 20 men die, but subsequently the Communist management refuses to give the widows any help. Agnieszka’s continued fight against the corrupt and heartless party hacks earns her an eventual beating, and costs her son a chance for a college education (which causes a major rift between them).

Communist mismanagement leads to the rise of the independent trade union Solidarit)r, and the famous 1980 strike, all of which – together with the appointment of the Polish Pope John Paul II – results in the eventual triumph of the movement on a scale beyond which its organizers ever envisioned. The evolution of the union’s rise is nicely intertwined with the development of her personal life.

Filmed at the actual Lenin Shipyard in Gdansk, the outstanding cinematography conveys convincingly the utter bleakness of life in that benighted Marxist utopia. The first-rate score, by Jean-Michel Jarre, accents the movie well – in the opening scenes, it has a kind of driving machine sound impressionistic of a factory, for example. The acting is excellent, with especially fine support performances from Andrzej . Chyra as Lech Walesa and Dominique Horwitz as Kazimierz, a trumpet player with whom Agnieszka falls in love.

However, it is the performance by Katharina Thalbach that stands out most, in a demanding role portraying Agnieszska from youth to old age. The final scene, where she walks along the shore, bent with age, and comments on the aftermath of the momentous events she helped shape, is especially moving.

The director, Schlondorff, has made several movies about . the struggle of individuals to follow their consciences in times of political peril, including “The Ninth Day,” about a priest persecuted by the Nazis. This tale, however, has an especially important historical story to tell, one well worth seeing, even if you have to make an effort to get the film.

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