Strike (2007): Schlondorff’s Unabashedly Sentimental Biopic of Solidarity Movement Heroine

Wearing its ideology and politics on its sleeves Volker Schlondorff’s Strike is an unabashedly sentimental biopicture.

It celebrates Agnieszka, the heroine of the Polish movement Solidarity, who was the cause of the strike on the Gdansk shipyard in August 1980, which led to the creation of the first free unions, and ultimately the downfall of the Soviet system.

Subtlety doesn’t exist in Schlondorff’s vocabulary when it comes to honoring heroes and causes that he believes in. Whenever there’s a big argument or struggle on screen, he plays the music so loud to make sure that we don’t miss the point. Structurally a mess, “Strike” tries to capture the multi-faceted personality of Agnieszka (Katharina Thalbach) as an orphan who becomes a mother, a refugee who finds a home, an analphabet who writes history, a communist activist, and fervent catholic. She was a woman who fought with wit and cunning for justice at her workplace, not knowing that she would end up changing world history, just by being stubborn.

Inspired by historical events and a true character, Strike unfolds as an old-fashioned, populist ballad honoring the “little people” as heroes, showing that it is neither “Great Men” like Churchill or Napoleon, nor the struggle of classes that makes History, but ordinary human beings.

Schlondorff would like to have it both ways. On the one hand, “Strike” deals with the Marxist paradigmatic aspects of history, the recurring genesis of rebellious political movements. On the other, embracing the Western romantic view of history, the film celebrates an individual blessed with strong, charismatic personality, who inadvertently causes a revolution.

According to Schlondorff, historical hierarchies consist of the dreamers, then the rebels, the radicals, and finally the politicians (in that order). I suppose you can take reductionist approach to all major movements, the civil rights movements, the Green parties, the French Revolution, the Russian Revolution, by focusing on the role of one (or few) individual. Gender also plays a role: It is often the women who start the ball rolling. It is always those who follow their calling, the secular saints whose strength and vision empower countless others.

Ultimately, though, “Strike” is an uplifting story of personal courage, showing Agnieszka’s life to be a constant uphill struggle. According to the film, she was a poor and lonely soul who could just as easily have ended up as an alcoholic, a broken and embittered woman.

Agnieszka’s extraordinary life is told in three decisive periods, beginning in 1961. Though short and nearly illiterate, she manages to work her way up, with sheer diligence and discipline, from unskilled laborer to crane operator in the Gdansk shipyard. Agnieszka accepts an invitation to receive an honor on International Woman’s Day with the same good nature as she does the assurance of the shipyard management that her job will never be in danger. She draws her strength from her illegitimate son, Krystian, and the budding love she has for Kazimierz (Dominique Horwitz), a trombone-playing worker in the shipyard. Her short-lived happiness threatens to come to abrupt end, when the shipyard doctor callously informs her that she has cancer and will soon die.

Problem is, who will look after her son Kazimierz wants to marry her now more than ever. He wants to be a good father to Krystian. The small family becomes the basis for each of them to support the other. But even before their borrowed time runs out, Kazimierz suddenly dies. Agnieszka quarrels with God and numbs herself with work.

Meanwhile, the working conditions in the shipyard are disastrous and inhuman. Turning point occurs when Agnieszka witnesses a fatal accident that was caused by insufficient safety measures. As a result, her unswerving trust in her employers begins to waver. The worker’s death is not classified as an accident so that the shipyard will not have to pay the widow a pension.

It’s a wake-up call: Agnieszka’s clear sense of justice mobilizes her. She helps the widow receive a pension by organizing public protests, but, predictably, her personal commitment is not welcomed by the management. They try to silence her, offer her money, and even threaten her with refusing Krystian admittance to the university. Despite all threats, Agnieszka persuades workers to initiate a solemn vigil to commemorate the unnecessary death of their co-workers.

Around this time, she meets a young man who is working with others in the underground for free labor unions. Agnieszka’s unconditional, straightforward nature appeals to them. They are arrested almost simultaneously. Agnieszka spends only one night in jail, but the authorities let her know that they will stop at nothing if she continues her opposition.

By 1978, Agnieszka has experienced several grueling years. The slight advances in the struggle against an increasingly draconian regime cannot make up for the fact that Krystian has turned away from her, and Agnieszka is fired.

We are led to believe that this act is much more than just losing a job. She misses the esprit de corps: Up there on the crane with her coworkers and friends, with the magnificent view of the sea that is where her home is. A miracle happens: thousands of shipyard workers go on strike on her behalf.

Agnieszka then realizes that by spreading the strike to other large, state-run factories throughout Poland, they can mobilize the masses in the struggle for free labor unions. Once again, it is she who is not fooled by the halfhearted concessions the powerful promise if the workers end the strike. She plays a decisive role in the inception of Solidarity and becomes the symbol and heart of the movement in Gdansk.

Who will disagree with the subject or cause of this picture. Yet “Strike” is a film and thus should be analyzed as art work, not as rousing piece of propaganda. For critics who faulted American films that celebrated ordinary heroines, “Norma Rae,” “Silkwood,” “North Country,” for being too simplistic, too individualistic, or not deep-enough, “Strike” is useful case study, a schmaltzy chronicle that offers the audience nothing to do but nod with agreement.

End Note

The screenplay is credited to Andreas Pflueger and Sylke Rene Meyer, who in 2003 directed a documentary on Anna Walentynowicz, the real-life inspiration for the film. who charged “Strike” with major hisrorical inaccuracies.


A Provobis Film, Mediopolis, BR, ARTE (Germany), PAISA Film (Warsaw) production.
Produced by Juergen Haase.
Executive producer: Wolfgang Plehn.
Directed by Volker Schlondorff.
Screenplay, Andreas Pflueger, Sylke Rene Meyer.
Camera: Andreas Hoefer.
Editors, Peter Przygodda, Wanda Zeman.
Music: Jean Michel Jarre.
Production designer: Robert Czesak.
Sound: Hubert Bartholomae, Frank Heidbrink.

Running time: 111 Minutes.