Exiled, Then Exalted: Agnieszka Holland on Communist Censorship, the Holocaust, House of Cards and Spoor

She left Poland twice: first when she went to study at the Film and TV School of the Academy of Performing Arts in Prague (FAMU) on the verge of the so-called Prague Spring, then when she fled to France before the martial law was imposed in 1981. She always came back.

Agnieszka Holland is a living legend of Polish cinema, who has worked with Krzysztof Zanussi, Andrzej Wajda and Krzysztof Kieslowski. Just like those directors, she is known not to shy away from exploring political and moral issues—in her films she’s tackled demons from the past such as the Holocaust or communist oppression.

Outside her home country Holland has worked in France, Germany, the Czech Republic and the U.S., where she has directed episodes of The Killing or The Wire alongside several feature films. Holland scored Oscar nominations for 1985’s Angry Harvest and 1990’s Europa, Europa. And she was recently awarded the Silver Bear Alfred Bauer Prize in Berlin for her latest film, Spoor, described as “an anarchistic-feminist crime story with elements of black comedy.”

In March, Holland came back to her alma mater in Prague, where she received an honorary degree and held a masterclass. Read the highlights of her class below.

On the Purpose of Art and Artist’s Role in Society

“I believe that it’s the wrong choice not to get involved. Being passive means you are active against freedom. That said, artist’s role in society is to make art. And it’s up to everybody to decide what it means exactly. I don’t think it should be defined and specified. An artist should make art. And if he feels like it, he can be civically or even politically engaged. But that’s up to him or her. It can’t be forced.”

On Holocaust as a Film Topic

“I don’t care for stereotypes. What I am interested in are the people, their fate and the complexity. Some would say that Poles are like that and the Germans are like this… To me the holocaust is not a matter of Jewish-Polish relations or any other relations; it’s a matter of humanity’s experience. It’s all about the moment when we were forced to look into the asshole of mankind and realized that the extent of evil in man is immense. And that everybody is capable of evil. I don’t see the struggle as inter-national—after all the Poles for example played the roles of victims and murderers at the same time. It is definitely about the inner struggle of a man.

With holocaust films I realized people always expect their portrait to be flattering. When you take somebody’s picture so that it captures what he really looked like at the moment, he won’t be satisfied. Make some changes and suddenly it’s ‘a good picture’. But good isn’t true. The highest-grossing holocaust films in Germany were always those with a good German hero–such as Schindler’s List or The Pianist. They didn’t want to watch films with only evil Germans in them. It’s the same with every nation.”

On Directing Actors

“I usually talk a lot with the actors—not just about the role, also about their life experience and all sorts of things really. Sometimes we rehearse a scene or try a little improvisation. But that’s before shooting and then, if the casting is done right and the actors trust you and know what the character is about, there’s no more talking. In my experience, at that point it would do no good and it would only disturb them. Of course there might be a problem with a scene or a dialog and then it’s my work to make things clear and better. But usually the actor understands the character more than the director or even the screenwriter so the only thing I have to worry about is not to interrupt the actor’s inner emotional process.”

On TV and Film Differences

“I don’t think there are that many differences. Sure, the medium is different. But quality TV is pretty similar to film. You just have to construct the episodes so that the audience wants to tune in again next week. I’ve always loved working for television, it’s not boring like theatre where you have to rehearse and rehearse forever.

It’s interesting to see how popular quality TV’s become and how restorative and innovative it is. It could be compared to what happened in the 19th century with epic novels–they were aswell serialized and very popular, be it works of Balzac, Stendhal or Dostoyevsky. The success of quality TV shows us that two hours are not enough for epic understanding.”

On Shooting a Multi-Director Series

“In the U.S. the real author of a series is always a showrunner who plans and supervises everything. Director is just a hired help, unless he’s an executive producer too. So when I am working on a project like that I have to realize that my film-craft is in service of something that’s not just mine and I have to forget the usual authorship. I try to deconstruct the overall style of a series and adapt. But of course it’s never without the ambition to try and do something different or better. When I worked on the House of Cards I always tried to do things differently, use a hand-held camera or a steadicam. I wasn’t allowed! And no zoom either. The Wire was something else–I could do pretty much what I wanted and the showrunner David Simon appreciated it enough to ask me to work with him on the Treme series. That would be a nice exercise for film students–to look for differences between episodes of a multi-director series. Because at first sight there are none, yet the styles differ.”

On Directing Under the Communist Regime

“When I came back to Poland from Czechoslovakia in 1971, it was definitely hard but it was also a time of great solidarity among filmmakers, foreshadowing the establishment of the Solidarity movement in 1980. Young filmmakers collaborated tightly with the older ones such as Krzysztof Zanussi or Andrzej Wajda. For example when the authorities were against me working on Wajda’s Man of Marble as an assistant director he offered to adopt me. Even if there was censorship I remember those times as the best years of my filmmaking life. And censorship was in a way inspiring as we had to encrypt certain messages that couldn’t be stated directly. In connection to that I think the Polish audience was way smarter under the Communist regime than it is now–it was capable of decrypting complex metaphors and symbols. Nowadays there are people who can react to a murder on screen as if it was sort of an instruction, something to imitate. Comfort leads to mediocrity and film is no exception.”

On Having Her Last Pre-Emigration Film Banned

“We shot every movie knowing it can be banned or censored. There were documentary filmmakers who made five films and all of them were banned. However, I think the ban for A Lonely Woman made the film popular. Even though it was available only on illegal underground VHSes and in a terrible quality, it had a bigger audience than it would without the ban. And we’ve shown it at least 200 times at our apartment in Paris. Later, my brother-in-law was able to steal a film reel of A Lonely Woman from the corridors of the Polish television building and Huub Bals, the first director of the International Film Festival in Rotterdam took it to Netherlands with him. There he made a 16mm copy of the film which I could screen at festivals.”

On Being an Immigrant Director

“Emigration was a tragical experience for me. I didn’t want it and I had to reconstruct myself. First country I went to was France. That’s where I also started shooting again and I had the opportunity to make a few feature films there. However, there still was this feeling that I am a foreigner. Like if I was invited inside but never got into the living room. My idea of storytelling was different from the French one, too pragmatic and accessible maybe, more Anglo-Saxon than Romance. I guess that’s why Americans liked it and after Europa Europa I started getting offers from them. I picked a movie based on a children’s book The Secret Garden. The shooting took place in England and casting was mainly child actors–I thought that way I could work out of sight of Hollywood executives and without big stars and their big demands. Well, I was wrong. I had to fight hard to make a movie I wanted to make. And my experience with Communist censorship was very useful in dealing with studio executives. Anyway, I’ve had great experience with American film crews. When shooting in Poland, Germany or France I always have to shout in order to get what I want. In America I don’t even have to raise my voice.”

On the Late Andrzej Wajda

“Wajda was somebody with his antenna constantly in receiving mode. Meaning he was always looking for things to read or watch, for people to meet, for ideas. Excited about history as well as the future… He took a lot from his surroundings and other people. Certain people might even call it stealing but I wouldn’t go that far.

Wajda was on my mind when I went shooting winter scenes for Spoor. Everything was ready except it hadn’t been snowing. And then, as we started shooting, snow started falling. Andrzej Wajda used to say that good directors have weather luck. So I’ve realized I’m a good director at last.” MM

Agnieszka Holland held her master class as a part of the 24th International Film Festival Prague – FEBIOFEST on March 24, 2017.

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