Strike with Volker Schlndorff

“Strike” premiered at the 2006 Toronto Film Festival and is now playing in select U.S. theaters.

Q: What was the impetus for you to make this film

Volker Schlndorff: Most of all, it was to see in a concrete case how world history works. That it is not great men, like Churchill, Mao or Napoleon, who shape history, nor is it the struggle of the classes, as Marx would have it, but, like in the theory of evolution, it is chaos. In chaos, even an individual has no greater designs than just by their mere behavior to achieve great things involuntarily and almost unbeknown to themselves. That struck me when I read this screenplay.

Here you have a simple worker, illiterate, an orphan, who has no ideology or major view of how the world should be except that she cannot tolerate the daily little injustices. So, she tries to tackle these and, step-by-step, becomes an idol for the other workers. When she is dismissed, first her brigade and then the entire shipyard, and finally the whole of Poland, go on strike. It is a strike out of solidarity, which gives birth to the word and to the movement. But when the political wheelings and dealings begin, she retreats into the background and says, “Politics are not for me”.

Q: When did you join the project and what was the form for this story

VS: When I was still working on “The Ninth Day”, the producer Jrgen Haase said he had this follow-up project and asked me if I would be interested in directing. At the beginning, it was a very documentary-style project because it had been based on a documentary by Sylke Rene Meyer. She wrote a screenplay, which was then further developed by Andreas Pflger [of “The Ninth Day”] with me. The idea was to turn this true story into fiction mostly because of the main character, which could have come out of a Brecht play like “St Joan Of The Slaughterhouses” with a touch of “Mother Courage”. We thought that we should bring out everything that is universal about her and beyond this specific case. When working on the screenplay, I thought back to the form of those ballads at traveling fairs as a way to recount the story of this woman who changed world history.

We decided to change the name of the lead character and took certain liberties in compressing the story, but this was also particularly necessary for the lead actress Katharina Thalbach because she didn't want to perform an imitation. She had the freedom to create her own character, which would be believable in the story we wanted to tell. It is true that there is a strong similarity to “The Ninth Day” where I also changed the name of the central figure, but that's simply because I don't feel at ease with the genre of the so-called “true story.” I am more a man of fiction. The person who originally inspired the story, Anna Walentynowicz, was unhappy with the screenplay, but that had mostly to do with the fact that she wanted an entirely different movie. She had said that it was more important to speak about Lech Walesa and how he was a traitor to the cause of Solidarnosc (solidarity). Her main goal was to use the film for the vendetta she has been carrying on for the past 20 years against Walesa. However, I was more interested in the genesis of Solidarnosc rather than in its aftermath and, furthermore, I didn't want to meddle in Polish internal history.

Q: Had there been previous attempts to make a film on Anna Walentynowicz

VS: Strangely enough, no. In the Polish mind, all of “Solidarnosc” has become very remote from the original impetus. I can tell from the participation of the actors that they were very happy to be involved in the film and thankful to us for reviving this part of their history.

Q: You had worked with Katharina Thalbach on your Oscar-winning Tin Drum in Gdansk in 1979

VS: I have never dealt with this kind of proletarian woman before and here Kati was a great help. She and the part are completely undistinguishable: she is Agnieszka and Agnieszka is Kati. She had this background of growing up in the German Democratic Republic where she had to work in the fields and factories during her vacations from studies, so this was home territory for her. 50% of the reasons I made the film are simply that when I read the script I thought of Katharina Thalbach and, from there on, I made it for her as well as for the deeper reasons. At the same time, what kept me going when we had our ups and downs in putting financing together was the promise I had made to Kati.

Q: Apart from Thalbach and Dominique Horwitz as Kazimierz, the cast is exclusively Polish. How did this mix of German and Polish actors work

VS: Originally, there had been the ideal of a purely German cast, but I said that would be fine if the film was being made for German television only. However, if we wanted a film that has relevance for the rest of the world–and particularly for the Polish people–then we would have to make the film in Polish. One exception was having Kati in the lead, but even Andrzej Wajda said that we wouldn't have found a better actress for this part in all of Poland.

We didn't go for a look alike for Lech Walesa, but took the most charismatic of the current Polish actors–Andrzej Chyra–who is wonderful. He's blond and blue eyed and physically very different from Walesa, but he has presence and wit–that was more important. He has a great understanding of the irony in his relationship with Agnieszka, who is pushing him up as a front while at the same time keeping tight control in the background. They made a good couple. I was also very pleased to have Andrzej Grabowski who plays Sobiecki, the father of her illegitimate child–he is the most popular comedian in Poland and, for him, it was a challenge to switch from comedy to a dramatic part.

Q: Do the Polish and German acting styles differ

VS: The Polish go more for understatement whereas Germans still tend to overact and perform the meaning as well as the situation. I was struck by how much the Polish actors held back. It is a very good school of acting.

Q: Are all of the film's locations in Gdansk

VS: It was shot entirely in the shipyard. In fact, they have the same means of 'socialist' production as before, but they are, of course, in competition with the Asian shipyards. I became very conscious of the fact that this film may be the last document on 35mm about this shipyard and a certain way of building ships. So, I did that part of the film in a very documentary style on purpose because I felt that the audience should know by the end of the film how a ship is built – even to the point of including some historical footage. The thing is: the movie has two main characters: one is Kati as the heroine, and the other is the shipyard.

Q: How was the Polish reaction the movie

VS: We organized a preview in Gdansk's main theatre. There was a lot of normal audience, some political figures and old Solidarnosc activists. They felt it was very 'Polish', very authentic. They showed great enthusiasm, even gratitude, and it was a very emotional night for all of us – and the greatest satisfaction for me and all of those who worked on it.

Q: The score by Jean Michel Jarre is unexpected. How did this happen

VS: His music is for me a very important part of the movie, because it adds the feeling of an epic, of a story that goes way beyond its heroine, and because of his contemporary feeling. I heard his concert for the 25th anniversary of Solidarnosc in Gdansk and asked him to expand his themes for the film. He worked exactly along the lines of the shipyard sounds, the hammering of steel, all these sounds reminding one of Wagner's “Rheingold”, plus the trumpet as a solo instrument, the tribute to Pope John Paul II and, above all, the freedom theme of “Solidarnosc”–all these elements fitted perfectly into my own aesthetics, and I think his score is just as efficient as his father's score was for “The Tin Drum.” My hope is to some day work with both of them together on a film, maybe the upcoming “Pope Joan”.