Agnieszka Holland: staying power

From her portrait of life under Communism in A Woman Alone to the plight of the Jews in World War II in Europa Europa to her TV work on The Wire and Treme, Polish director Agnieszka Holland’s remarkable body of work offers a masterclass in versatility. From our May 2016 issue.

Agnieszka HollandPhotography by Fabrizio Maltese/Contour by Getty Images

Agnieszka Holland was a precocious 15-year-old when she decided to become a filmmaker. She has notebooks from those years in which she wrote that three things were important to her: visual expression (she originally wanted to be a painter), telling stories, and – the really precocious bit – power, although she didn’t want to be a politician to get it. “It was the mid-60s, when cinema was very artistic, original and personal,” she tells me. “There were great filmmakers then: Andrzej Wajda and Andrzej Munk in Poland; Bergman, Pasolini, Antonioni in Europe; Kurosawa in Japan. Cinema was the medium of the times.” When she was 13, Holland’s father had died in police custody; the Communist authorities called it suicide. As a result, going to the renowned Lódz Film School was out of the question. Instead, inspired by Milos Forman, Vera Chytilová and the creativity she saw in the films of the Czech New Wave, she studied filmmaking in Prague. 

When Holland was arrested during the Soviet repression that followed the democratising efforts of the 1968 Prague Spring, she started a philosophical conversation with her interrogator in the middle of the prison. “Instead of talking about who helped me print illegal papers, we talked about freedom and justice,” she recalls. “I succeeded in creating a kind of human link. At the same time, I managed to control the situation.”

Holland graduated in 1971 and returned to Poland, but soon found that it wasn’t easy to make films. She sought out Wajda, who led a production group, but it was five years before one of her scripts was greenlit as she was regarded with suspicion by the regime. “Wajda, at this time, was quite naive,” she says. “He was so into his work that he didn’t realise how much the regime was controlling everything. At first he was a little annoyed by it all. Then, when he realised about this personal blacklist, he was extremely supportive. He even offered to adopt me and give me his name. That was very touching. But I didn’t want it.”

In the 40-plus years since, Holland has directed more than 20 films, including classic Polish dramas (Provincial Actors, 1979), romances (an adaptation of Henry James’s short novel Washington Square in 1997), gothic children’s tales (The Secret Garden, 1993) and films about the plight of the Jews during World War II (Europa Europa, 1990, and In Darkness, 2011). She has collaborated frequently too – on the scripts for Wajda’s Man of Marble (1976) and Rough Treatment (1978), and Krzysztof Kieslowski’s Three Colours trilogy (1993-94). She’s worked in Poland, across Europe, and in America and Canada. Making two films in Germany without speaking German made her realise verbal communication during filmmaking was overrated. “You can pass on feelings and information without knowing the language so well,” she says.

Burning Bush (2013)

She was quick to recognise the creative freedom that long-form television offered and has directed episodes of several acclaimed US series, including The Wire, Treme and House of Cards. She has also been showrunner on her own, very personal HBO project, Burning Bush. This 2013 mini-series revisited the aftermath of the Prague Spring, focusing on the repercussions of the suicidal political protest by the student Jan Palach, who in January 1969, aged 20, set fire to himself in Wenceslas Square; he was the same age as Holland. Over the years, she expected Czech filmmakers to do something substantial about the era of ‘normalisation’ after 1969, during which the Communist authorities reasserted full control over the country, but they never did.

Holland has a forceful voice, the kind you can tell has taken part in many filmmaking battles. When I ask where she had the greatest freedom to make films, her answer is, unexpectedly, 1970s Poland. “It was creatively and socially a very lucky and happy period in Polish cinema, even if it was shadowed by the censorship and persecution coming from the regime. It was very liberal, particularly compared with Czechoslovakia at that time, which was under a very dark regime. We knew the rules of the censorship and to some extent we avoided it. We were smart enough to shoot the movie in a way that would be acceptable for the censor. We threw him the fake, brutally unorthodox scene that he would censor, and then passing underneath was something that was really important to us. This censorship also had some creative value. We developed a stylistic language with metaphors and symbols, and the audience was trained to read them. Provincial Actors was just a small release, but it was popular, even though it was quite gloomy. The regime fought it a bit, but not so much as to ban it.”

“In Poland, no one was worried about the bankability of a film. No one told us we had to have this actor because otherwise the distributor wouldn’t buy it. Or that the pace is too slow. And the audience wasn’t spoiled by commercials; they were fresher and more sensitive. I have never found that kind of mutual understanding with my Western producers. In France it is better. In the US it is the industry. You have to be very strong to defend what you believe in.” She gets frustrated by demands about a film’s length. “I mostly like a film to be longer than it has to be. But compromises are inevitable. It’s somebody’s money, and he wants this money back.”

A Woman Alone (1981)

Unsurprisingly, outspoken characters feature regularly in Holland’s films, and have since the start of her career, with the forthright theatrical couple at the heart of Provincial Actors. The films’ anger is tempered by moments of dark absurdity. In A Woman Alone (1981) – one of the fiercest, bleakest assessments of life under communism – it’s single mother Irena who takes on the system and everyone who is taking advantage of her as she tries to break free of the tiny shack where she lives. To make it as realistic as possible, Holland went to the impoverished fringes of Warsaw to film. Poverty then was hidden away, she says, and many of the crew were shocked at what they saw. Such a vivid sense of place and commitment to authenticity would become trademarks of her work. For In Darkness (2011), about a group of Jewish people who survived the Holocaust by hiding in the sewers of Lvov, she shot with minimal light, often just using the actors’ torches. She was determined that the tunnels would not look too cinematic, like those in The Third Man (1949).

A Woman Alone was banned in Poland under martial law, introduced just as the film was ready to be screened. Holland was abroad, but says Wajda tried in vain to save the film by cutting some scenes the authorities didn’t like. Her brother-in-law stole a print and Hubert Bals, the late director of the Rotterdam Film Festival, who was visiting Poland at the time, smuggled it out in his suitcase.

A woman’s place

From the powerless Irena in A Woman Alone to the lawyer Dagmar in the recent Burning Bush, who takes a huge risk by fighting the regime, Holland’s films have often probed the position of women in society. It’s a subject she is giving more and more thought. She is currently editing Game Count, her adaptation of a novel by Polish author Olga Tokarczuk. “It’s a very strange kind of story. The main character is an old woman living in the mountains. All the men around her are killed. They are mostly hunters. I call it an anarchistic feminist ecological black comedy with some thriller suspense aspects.”

But she says that she has never thought of herself as a ‘female’ director: “I thought, ‘I’m a filmmaker. I’m making films, and they are mine.’ Yes, I am a woman. That makes them slightly different. But only slightly.” Agnès Varda’s films were important to her when she was growing up, particularly Le Bonheur (1965). It made her realise that “you can have the sensibility of a woman and the sharpness which some people thought that only men can have”. In 1970s Poland there were a lot of women on set with her. But when in 1992 she came to Britain to shoot an adaptation of the children’s novel The Secret Garden, she was surprised there was not a single woman in the crew, even in the traditionally feminine roles of costume and make-up. “Sometimes I was the only woman on the set – plus Maggie Smith,” she recalls.

The Secret Garden (1993)

The Secret Garden was one of Holland’s favourite books as a child. When she came to adapt it, she didn’t see just a sentimental story but a story about cruelty. It was her first brush with Hollywood and she clashed with the Warner Bros executive on the film. He was expecting cute, sympathetic children and wanted re-edits. Holland wanted to show the film to the heads of the studio as it was. She went on a three-day strike in the cutting room and won.

Just as Holland’s films have had a grand scope, critiquing life under Communist and Nazi rule, many of the TV projects for which she has directed episodes have the same critical and panoramic ambition, but put the moral decay of America under the magnifying glass instead. “If the series is smart and deep,” she says, “it allows you to do something that has an epic dimension. The audience needs that. Our times are very complicated. They are simplified by the means of communication – by the internet, social media. Simultaneously people need to see the reality in some corners of life.” She regards some prestige series as being today’s equivalent of novels by Dickens, Dostoevsky and Victor Hugo.

Cinema no longer holds the power Holland hankered after when she was younger: “A single movie can very rarely have the same impact as TV. I was watching how a TV series can change the minds of people in America. I’m sure that without West Wing or 24, Obama would never have been president. Once it became possible for a president to be black on TV, people could accept it in reality.” But she also believes television can have a dangerous impact: “House of Cards is shaping the negative vision of Washington politics – and that leads us to Donald Trump.” Her motives for working in television are varied: “A film can be a very lonely affair. It’s a one-time meeting with people. And sometimes it’s not a happy meeting. Cinema is my first love and my main goal. I really enjoy making films, but it’s not so easy these days. One movie can take at least three, maybe five, years. To do TV in between is very refreshing.”

Holland believes part of the reason she is so often approached to direct episodes of series with tight shooting schedules is down to her formative filmmaking years in Poland, where she had to comprehensively map a film out before shooting began. “They didn’t produce film [stock] in Poland. They had to export it from the West, and it was expensive,” she explains. “We had the freedom of 50 or 60-day shoots, but we were shooting on a ratio of one to four. So for one hour of finished film we could have only four hours of footage. You can’t shoot the way everyone does today. They shoot master shots from all directions and then assemble it in the editing suite. We had to storyboard and edit the film in our heads. That was a great lesson. It taught you about point of view. To choose a very strong point of view and follow it.”

The Wire (2002-2008)

I ask what level of creative input is feasible as a director of one or two episodes in an established series. “You are serving the series. You are not expressing yourself so much, but I hope I do bring something extra to it.” In ‘Moral Midgetry’, the first episode of The Wire that Holland directed, in season three, the camera is notably dynamic, roving the chaotic streets of ‘Hamsterdam’ with characters coming in and out of focus and also imaginatively framed in mirrors and windows. “I have a very strong need to put the camera in a certain place; to do a shot in a specific way,” she says. “I’m controlling everything. Most directors probably give it to the cinematographer. I’m fighting for every camera movement. That’s why it has a different energy.” The way Holland, at the end of that episode, handled the fight scene and its tense aftermath between gang leader Avon Barksdale and his number two, Stringer Bell, was what she says made David Simon entrust her with further episodes and the pilot for Treme.

That desire to bring a different energy to her TV work is also helped by her aversion to cliché. “I try to avoid the traditional television storytelling way of when somebody speaks you have a close up. And then another close-up,” she says. She still uses the close-up regularly, however – it’s how her own series Burning Bush starts, with the detail of the points being switched on a tramline. “I like watching things and human faces in close-up. But I try and use them in a subtle and meaningful way.”

The main work of a director though, Holland believes, lies with the actors. The opportunity to create and people her own “parallel world”, as she puts it, was what drove her to create Burning Bush. “Ninety per cent of the film is decided when the actors are cast. The most important thing is that they feel familiar with each other. During the rehearsal, it’s more of a therapeutic session than a regular rehearsal. I like to do it some weeks before the shoot, so they have some history before they meet on set. Afterwards I like to read through and rehearse a bit, but not too much. When I see an actor feels it and is going in the right direction, I like to stop the rehearsal. I don’t want the performance to be final because, afterwards, he or she will be looking to repeat it and it will be lost. They should be secure but curious. Secure that they know and feel the character, but curious what this character will do when the camera starts running. It should be somewhere between deep preparation and improvisation.”

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