German filmmaker Volker Schlondorff's drama about the roots of the Polish revolution against communism borrows its title from Sergei Eisenstein (who would have loved its juxtaposition of archival footage of Polish workers and Jean-Michel Jarre's "Industrial Symphony"), and revolves around a fictionalized version of Anna Walentynowicz. Dubbed the "Mother of Modern Poland," her lifelong contributions to the struggle for workers' rights have been largely overshadowed in the West by those of Lech Walesa, the face of the Solidarity Movement.
Danzig, 1961: Barely literate Agnieska Kowalska (Katharina Thalbach, star of Schlondorff's THE TIN DRUM) has worked as a welder in the Gdansk shipyard since 1950, and has been lauded as a model worker for 10 years in a row. Both a member of the Communist party and a staunch Catholic, she's grown increasingly disenchanted with the realities of workers' lives: low pay, bosses who care more about production quotas than safety, and petty inconveniences no one seems to care about — like the fact that the cafeteria is a mile from the yards and lunch hour lasts only 30 minutes. Agnieska bears the stigma of being a single mother: Her son, Krystian (Wojciech Solarz), is the product of a youthful fling with Sobiecki (Andrzej Grabowski), who arranged her shipyard job and later became the workers'-party representative. Hoping to spend more time at home, Agnieska qualifies to become a crane operator just as she meets gentle, fun-loving coworker Kazimierz Walczak (Dominique Horwitz), who loves Krystian as though he were his own and isn't fazed when Agnieska is diagnosed with terminal kidney cancer. Their marriage is cut short by his weak heart, but her health improves unexpectedly and she becomes convinced that God has plans for her. Agnieska throws herself into labor agitation, redoubling her efforts after 22 coworkers die in a fire and the government refuses to pay benefits to their survivors. She's branded a troublemaker and her activism throws a shadow over Krystian's (Raphael Remstedt) hopes to attend technical college in Warsaw. Her efforts culminate in a 1971 strike that's put down brutally by the military, but in 1980 she becomes the catalyst that sparks a larger, general strike, the strike that begins the dismantling of the Communist regime.
Though both Walentynowicz (who's played herself in several films, notably Andrzej Wajda's MAN OF IRON) and Walesa complained that Schlondorff's film plays fast and loose with historical details, it's a deeply affecting drama that pays tribute to a woman who's little known outside of Poland — so much so that Schlondorff shot it under the working title "Forgotten Hero." Thalbach's passionate performance is the film's center, but she's aided by a strong supporting cast, Jarre's propulsive score and the gritty locations: It was shot at the very shipyard where real-life history was made. leave a comment --Maitland McDonagh