13 Reasons Hollywood Loves Agnieszka Holland
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Agnieszka Holland has made silverscreen Oscar sensations, ambitious big-budget HBO productions, and seminal cinematic works of art. As she celebrates her 70th birthday, Culture.pl looks at some of the extremely watchable reasons she enchants audiences across the world by combining American storytelling with a European perspective.
In a completely non-Silence of the Lambs way, Stanisław Latałło, with whom Holland had worked in Poland just after graduating, once said that Agnieszka is just one of those people who 'makes you want to eat her brain'. Indeed, by the age of 16, that brain had incorporated all the literary knowledge of the Polish classics. She grew up in a household where politics was discussed at the dinner table, studied film-making in what she calls the most beautiful city in the world, Prague. When she was detained during the Prague Spring of 1968, she would try to bore her interrogators to death with the existentialist theories of Simone Weil.
Agnieszka Holland's trademark is to use the Hollywood formula for success, apply it to topics from the Old Continent, and then take America by storm. She started directing in Poland in the 1970s and only a few features later, international and American producers became enticed by her trademark style. Soon enough, she was slowly smuggling her Slavic soul into American films and series, and getting nominated for Oscars.
Here we examine Holland's ability to roll American storytelling and the history and legacy of Europe all into one, and identify her ironic, yet warm treatment of the protagonist, realism reminiscent of documentaries, and unhurried plot.
1. Provincial Actors (1978)
Her first feature tells the story of an actor who ruins his life over a lead role which he approaches too ambitiously. While her later pictures go in a different direction, this film was one of the flagship pictures of the 'cinema of moral anxiety' a genre deeply entrenched in the reality of 1970s Poland (characterised by showing human struggles to maintain dignity under the most trying circumstances). Provincial Actors ended up winning the International Critics Prize at the Cannes Film Festival.
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2. Angry Harvest (1985)
The film tells the story of a Jewish family that jumps from a train in order to escape a brutal fate and then gets separated in the woods. The wife is saved by a man who hides her in his cellar and hides his knowledge of her husband's whereabouts. The more they get to know each other, the more their origins, worldviews and sensitivities begin to shine through. This is also where Holland's signature style began to shine through. Wild, emotion-stirring scenes and plots cooled down by how the protagonists' characters develop. Holland's protagonists are never good and bad guys. Leon Wolny saved Rosa from the Nazis, but he manipulates her into staying with him and turns out to be a man who can't control his libido when a local harlot seduces him in the forest. The film was nominated for Best Foreign Language Film at the 1986 Oscars.
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3. Europa, Europa (1990)
The film's plot follows Sally Perel, a young Jewish boy during World War II who, in a chameleon-like stint, disguises his identity and passes for a Pole and Volksdeutscher (ethnic German) and survives the Holocaust. Like a 20th-century Candide, he travels between countries and gets an insider's view of the battle camps and the lives of the people in helmets. Sometimes blissfully enjoying the privileges of a German, sometimes a Soviet orphan, falling in love (among others with a young Julie Delpy) and discovering cinema, he lives in constant fear of being found out, his sole giveaway being his circumcised penis. While it may seem that the film is driven by a series of Hollywood-like 'coincidences' that keep Sally safe, the film's authenticity is warranted by Holland's keen eye for detail and historical accuracy. It's in German, Russian, Polish, Hebrew and Yiddish and the screenplay is based on Salomon Perel's memoirs (also the name of the protagonist). The film was an Academy Award nominee for Best Screenplay.
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4. The Secret Garden (1993)
This Frances Hodgson Burnett novel, first published in its entirety in 1911, has had several film adaptations. American Zoetrope's 1993 production directed by Holland is, however, the one that made the mystery of the magical garden famous. Following Hollywood's rules for getting a good cry out of the audience, the Polish director firmly left her footprints on this children's classic. Mary Lennox looking through the window of her parents bedroom at a dinner in India has Holland written all over it. This signature shot can be found in Fever (1980), to To Kill a Priest (1988) and Europa, Europa. Jakub Majmurek goes deeper in his analysis: 'The garden comes back in Agnieszka Hollands films in different forms and under different variations, and the key to it is always held by children'.
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5. Total Eclipse (1995)
A historically accurate account of the passionate and violent relationship between two 19th-century French poets: Paul Verlaine (David Thewlis) and Arthur Rimbaud (Leonardo DiCaprio). The film is based on a 1967 play by Christopher Hampton. It marks Holland's brief flirt (or the beginning of a drive) to reach a wider audience. It's 'cinema of the middle': understandable to the average spectator, yet 'with a certain scale of complexity and an intellectual message' (Rzeczpospolita newspaper, 2000). In Total Eclipse, Holland 'uses the language of kitsch' (Mariola Jankun-Dopartowa), that 'should please both a mass audience and more discriminating viewers, though, admittedly, sometimes both are disappointed'.
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6. The Wire (2004-2008)
Holland directed three episodes of what has often been described as 'The Greatest Show in the History of TV'. How could David Simon have known she was the right person for the job? There is no doubt that the life experiences of an Eastern European were an asset in the portrayal of the drama of contemporary cities. The show's sociological realism and naturalism in depicting poverty, and the way it brings to life characters that are often swept under the rug of American television and society, correlates with Holland's own cinematic style (example: Holland's A Lonely Woman, 1981).
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7. Copying Beethoven (2005)
A woman's composing is like a dog walking on its hind legs. It is not done well, but you're surprised to find it done at all.
Those are the words of Ludwig Van Beethoven, played by Ed Harris, in this romantic period drama. Wanting to be a film director in 1970s Eastern Europe, Agnieszka Holland felt exactly like that acrobatic dog. In a 2008 interview with Monika Richardson, she said
From the beginning I met with patronising opinions about my chances of becoming a director. What's interesting is that it was these sorts of situations that made me who I am today.
In spite of challenging beginnings, she is the one and only female standing next to Andrzej Żuławski, Andrzej Wajda, Roman Polański, Ryszard Bugajski and Krzysztof Kieślowski on the cover of the famous Polish film theoretician and historian's Tadeusz Lubelski's History of Polish Cinema. Not to mention that Holland is one of the co-authors of Krzysztof Kieślowski's Three Colours: Blue, Three Colours: White, Andrzej Wajda's The Possessed and Without Anasthesia (not to mention that she also acted in Zanussi's The Illumination, among others).
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8. Treme (2010-2013)
Directed by The Wire's David Simon (with Eric Overmyer), the three-season series shows the life of New Orleans in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Holland directed three Treme episodes. She could relate to illustrating a post-Katrina landscape by 'thinking about Poland just after World War II. There are lots of things that can be taken from there,' she said. Both The Wire and Treme's 'anti-sensationalist' approach, uncompromising naturalism, lack of characterological determinism and convenient narrative solutions are fully in line with Holland's artistic preferences.
Additionally during this period, Holland directed three episodes of The Killing, the American Fox Television Studios and Fuse Entertainment adaptation of the hit Danish crime series.
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9. In Darkness (2010)
Leopold Socha (Robert Więckiewicz), a small-time Polish crook and sewer worker is another one of Holland's non-Manichean protagonists. This obtuse anti-Semite hides Jews in the labyrinthine sewers beneath the bustling activity of the city above because he believes that 'Jews have money'. But his instrumental relationship to the men, women and children who all together try to outwit certain death during 14 months of ever increasing and intense danger turns into a moving friendship. In Darkness derives from a true story, and is based on Robert Marshall's In the Sewers of Lvov. One of many attempts at keeping the memory of the horror of the Holocaust alive, Holland says:
One might ask if everything has now been said on this subject. But in my opinion the main mystery hasn't yet been resolved, or even fully explored. How was this crime (echoes of which continue in different places in the world from Rwanda to Bosnia) possible? Where was Man during this crisis? Where was God? Are these events and actions the exception in human history or do they reveal an inner, dark truth about our nature?
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10. Burning Bush (2013)
This HBO mini-series is another accurate, entertaining, politically- and culturally-charged production. At the time, Burning Bush was HBO Europe's most ambitious, big-budget project to date. It's the factual story of Jan Palach, a student at Charles University in Prague who, in a protest against the military aggression of the Warsaw Pact against Czechoslovakia, committed suicide by self-immolation in January 1969. For Holland, Jan Palach’s story is of personal importance. As a student at the Prague Film School (FAMU) in the 1960s, she took part in the student movement and the Prague Spring and knew some of the real-life characters. 'There are few stories in which the contemporary viewer can see himself,' Holland says.
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I wanted to show young viewers what it looked like back then, that those were the heroes choices – between lesser and greater evil. The fact that HBO decided to go with these kinds of productions and is fighting for them to have their own identity is incredibly worthy.
11. House of Cards (2013-2018)
The American political thriller House of Cards took Netflix by storm. Created by Beau Willimon, it is actually an adaptation of the 1990 BBC miniseries and based on the novel by Michael Dobbs.
Set in Washington D.C., House of Cards follows the antics of Congressman Frank Underwood (Kevin Spacey) and his wife Claire Underwood (Robin Wright) on their path to attain power. Cunning, ruthless and methodical, the Underwoods slowly but surely climb the hierarchical ladder by slowly picking off both their friends and foes.
Although now it may seem surprising, the show was the first online-only series to receive major Emmy nominations.
Holland herself said:
It’s a very ‘directorial’ series. In most TV series, the director fulfils a purely functional role, in ‘House of Cards, they make sure that [the director] has a say. It's no coincidence that David Fincher is one of the creators [of the show].
She directed four episodes of the show: Chapter 36 (2015), Chapter 37 (2015), Chapter 62 (2017) and Chapter 63 (2017).
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12. Spoor (2017)
Spoor, based on Olga Tokarczuk’s novel Drive Your Plough Over the Bones of the Dead, tells the story of a single 60-year-old woman, who takes up the fight for animal rights and declares war on hunters. And then one of the hunters turns up dead… The film is a combination of a crime story and a fairy tale, as well as an ecological thriller and a dark comedy.
Directed by Agnieszka Holland and Kasia Adamik, it caused quite a stir: Spoor was one of the most controversial and talked about films of the 67th Berlin International Film Festival. Holland and Adamik ended up winning the Silver Bear (Alfred Bauer Prize).
For those who enjoyed Holland’s movie, Tokarczuk’s novel is now available in a new English translation by Antonia Lloyd-Jones, published by Fitzcarraldo Editions.
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13. 1983 (2018)
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In 2018, everyone was waiting (im)patiently for Holland’s latest foray into television – the new eight-episode thriller 1983 for Netflix.
1983 presents an alternative history of Central and Eastern Europe. The story begins in 2002, with the USSR still playing a major role on the international stage. Though Poland had hoped for freedom, a violent terrorist attack effectively prevented the Soviet colossus from falling. Two decades later, a surprising duo made up of a student-idealist and a bad cop come across evidence of a conspiracy which makes the Iron Curtain even thicker and more hostile.
Agnieszka Holland is co-directing the show with three other well-known Polish female directors, including Kasia Adamik, Olga Chajdas and Agnieszka Smoczyńska.
Author: Mai Jones Jeromski 15.11.2013. Sources: Gorzkie Kino Agnieszki Holland by Mariola Jankun-Dopartowa, Holland Przewodnik Krytyki Politycznej. Updated Nov 2018 by AZ & NR.