Strike while the Iron Curtain's hot, Judge Joel Pearce always says.
Our review of Strike, published June 9th, 2009, is also available.
In poverty, she found strength
How many of us have heard of Agnieszka Kowalska? Probably not very many, but after watching Strike, I'm inclined to think that should change. Kowalska became a national hero in Poland when she spearheaded several labor movements at the Lenin Shipyard in Poland, and pushed the country towards democratic reform. This film tells the story of her life, taking us through these monumental events through the perspective of one very brave, very tough woman.
Kowalska got her start as an illiterate welder, trying to juggle her work responsibilities with the task of raising her son. After a disaster in 1970, she fought for the rights of the widows of twenty-one workers who died on the job. That sparked a series of battles against the Communist party and the Company. The last of these strikes in 1980 got national attention and enough solidarity throughout Poland to enforce a series of labor laws. This recreation of that story is directed by Volker Schlondorff, more famous for his fictional films such as The Tin Flute.
Biopics are a bit of a risky proposition. Some can be excellent, exploring true stories with passion and intensity. It's easy for them to become too idealistic, though, losing the hue of reality, and turning into a TV movie of the week. I'm glad to report that Strike is certainly the former, an intense, passionate, believable telling of a woman's life. Kowalska is a compelling character, never seeming larger than life or idealized. At the same time, it's impossible not to be impressed with her accomplishments, as she did so much more than most people do to change the lives of the people around her. She is the kind of woman that would make Erin Brockovich feel embarrassed to get so much attention.
Fortunately, the production values also steer Strike out of bad television territory. The film was shot on location at the Lenin Shipyard, which lends a serious air of credibility to the whole production. Most of the shipyard sequences are cold and blue, contrasted with the warm colors of Kowalska's home. It's not a massive effect, but it at least creates some tone and depth, which is all too rare for the genre. Most of the attention, though, has gone to German actress Katharina Thalbach (in the title role). This is not without justice, as her performance is both intense and understated. The highest praise I can offer is that it never seems like a performance at all, I went through the entire film thinking of her as Kowalska. Her voice is dubbed, which is occasionally distracting, but they would have been hard-pressed to find someone else who could have slipped so naturally into this role (I should admit, however, that I know nothing about Kowalska).
Thalbach is supported by a fine Polish cast, each one as reliable and believable as the main role. Watching Strike is like being transported into '70s Poland, as the cast was clearly chosen for their ability to act, not their attractiveness. It's hard for someone in North America to really know what this movie would mean to the people of Poland, but I can only expect that it is highly respected. It tells an important story, tells it with passion and dignity. It's important to recognize the struggles and sacrifices that people have made for freedom, and this is a story I knew little about before I saw the film. It's a film that all fans of true stories will want to check out.
Anyone who does check out Strike on DVD will be impressed by the transfer. It looks fantastic, which means it's been properly converted from its PAL source. The dark levels are excellent, as is the color balance. The sound is equally impressive, delivered in an unusually engaging surround mix for this kind of film. The dialogue is crisp, music is spread nicely across all six channels, and there's a surprising amount of ambient noise. The producers of this film took their jobs seriously, as did the producers of the DVD. The only real failing is a lack of special features—I would have liked to see some footage of Kowalska and more contextual information on the Polish Solidarity movement. It's a minor complaint, though, as the film really does speak for itself.
Whether you are an expert on recent Polish history or just interested in social justice issues, Strike tells the fantastic story of one woman's struggle against injustice. It's not just a great biopic, it's a great film that tells an important story. It's well worth checking out.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Dokument Films
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