The power of one gets a vigorous workout in the Polish workers drama "Strike." Veteran German director Volker Schlondörff (the Oscar-winning "Tin Drum") traces the far-reaching effect one woman has on recent world history in this "ballad based on historical events."
Set over two decades in a Gdansk shipyard, the film features a luminous performance by German actress Katharina Thalbach (dubbed into Polish) as Agnieszka, a welder who overcomes adversity and tragedy before playing a major role in Poland's Solidarity movement. Her story is a fictionalized version of the life of Anna Walentynowicz, a compatriot of Lech Walesa in the formation of the iconoclastic labor union that presaged the eventual fall of Communism.
"Strike," which shares its title with Sergei Eisenstein's more complex first feature, is an inspiring tale of a small woman who stands tall in the face of injustice. It's "Norma Rae" staring down Lenin and is less an indictment of socialism than a rebuke to the bureaucrats who were in charge and a tribute to the importance of the individual's contribution to the collective good.
The film begins in 1961 and Agnieszka is a single mother and welder extraordinaire. Despite being illiterate, she works her way up to crane operator, earning the respect of both the party and her co-workers. Recognized as a "heroine of labor" for her prodigious efforts, Agnieszka evolves from a spitfire whose only concerns are hard work and the well being of her young son to a spokeswoman and lightning rod for the workers' grievances.
Despite the grim Cold War environment, Schlöndorff blends, mostly successfully, goofiness and melodrama into the overall social realist tone. The early scenes are jolting, with much of it playing like a communist-bloc situation comedy punctuated by newsreel footage and Jean-Michel Jarre's stirring industrial rock score, but Thalbach is so compelling that you go with it.
The comedic elements gradually slip away as Agnieszka's hardships pile up. The screenplay, credited to Andreas Pflüger and Sylke Rene Meyer — the latter made a 2003 documentary on Walentynowicz — puts Agnieszka through the wringer, establishing the basis for the emotional strength she exhibits later.
Thalbach is a formidable performer capable of pulling off the many and varied colors required by the role. A short, stout woman with a cherubic face and passionate sapphire eyes, she infuses Agnieszka with fierce determination buoyed by humor and compassion.
As the film moves through the 1970s and toward Solidarity, it takes on the feel of a docudrama, and some of the levity is missed. Walesa (played by Andrzej Chyra) eventually turns up at the shipyard as a disgruntled electrician, but his role as the leader of the movement is downplayed in favor of the personal journey of Agnieszka. Her resolve and willingness to take a stand on the smaller issues carry her, almost unwillingly, into the center of the gathering storm.
"Strike." In Polish with English subtitles. MPAA rating: Unrated. Running time: 1 hour, 44 minutes. At Laemmle's Music Hall, 9036 Wilshire Blvd., Beverly Hills, (310) 274-6869; Laemmle's One Colorado, 42 Miller Alley (inside plaza, Fair Oaks Avenue at Union Street), Pasadena, (626) 744-1224; and Regal/Edwards Westpark, 3755 Alton Parkway, Irvine, (949) 622-8609.