“Should the union president report me to the authorities?”
Strike is a fictionalized account of the contribution of one woman to the Polish Solidarity movement. When the film begins, it’s the 60s, and Agnieszka (Katharina Thalbach) works nights at the local Lenin shipyard to support herself and her small son. They live in a tiny cramped apartment, and life is a struggle. Agnieszka is a “heroine of labour” well respected by her fellow workmates and the bosses alike. When the film begins, she receives an award for exceeding work goals. The reward is a small television set, which she lugs home and turns on to the delight of her son and her neighbours.
While Agnieszka is obviously a hard worker, the first indication that she’s also a freethinker occurs early in the film when the workers ask for a longer lunch break. The 30 minutes they are given isn’t long enough to make it to the canteen and back, but the bosses egregiously refuse the request for a longer break. At this point, Agnieszka steps up and organizes lunch for her fellow workers at the site so that everyone can eat. Seems reasonable enough, but this action irks the bosses and the lunch period is reluctantly extended.
Agnieszka is illiterate when the film begins, but as the film progresses, she learns to read in order to become a crane operator. This new position will allow her to work days and help with the care of her son. As a crane operator, she must work all day long without coming down from her crane, and this means she will have to urinate in a bottle inside the crane. She accepts all of this very matter-of-factly and without complaint. Much of the film concentrates on the horrendous working conditions at the shipyard (“They pretend to pay us and we pretend to work”). Sloppy conditions combined with killer days and unattainable work goals lead to a horrendous accident in which many workers are killed. When the company rules that the workers were at fault, and uses this as an excuse to refuse to pay pensions (an action approved by the “so-called union”), Agnieszka goes to war against the bosses.
Strike does a good job of showing that the union bosses are in bed with the communist party. Union officials are not there to improve working conditions. Instead they concentrate on feathering their own nests while ensuring the passive cooperation of the workers. Agnieszka is portrayed as a remarkable, tenacious woman who refuses to bow to any ‘authority’ no matter the cost. The character of Agnieszka is based on the real life Anna Walentynowicz. Lech Walesa (Andrzej Chyra) appears here, but he’s shown to play a fairly minor role compared to Agnieszka. A few years after the formation of Solidarity, Anna Walentynowicz, critical of Walesa’s policies, left the Solidarity movement. The film hints at this, but does not explore this issue. In Polish with subtitles, Strike is from German director Volker Schlondorff. I’ve categorised this as Polish and German for obvious reasons.