Adam Holender’s life is worthy of a film adaptation, and not just one. It could be about the war seen through the eyes of a child from a Siberian gulag. About an immigrant who started off as a truck driver, and after a few years became the cinematographer of iconic Hollywood films. And about the child of bourgeois Jewish parents, who, instead of an engineer, wanted him to be an artist.
Cinematographer. Director of photography of Midnight Cowboy by John Schlesinger, The Panic in Needle Park by Jerry Schatzberg and To Kill a Priest by Agnieszka Holland. Born on 13th November, 1937, in Kraków.
Table of contents: Death was Nonchalant | The Best Time of My Life | New York – the World in Miniature | Midnight Cowboy and The Panic in Needle Park – New York Jungle | Brooklyn Walks with Paul Auster
When the Second World War broke out, he was two and a half years old. He was living with his grandmother in Lviv. Shortly before that, his father, a lawyer, had decided that his wife and son should move. The upcoming war could be felt in the air and Lviv was 300km further from the German border than their native Kraków. It was supposed to be safer there. But on 17th September, 1939, the Soviet Union invaded Poland, and it was not long before the Russians appeared in the city. In the winter of 1940 the three-year-old Adam was exiled with his parents to Siberia. They travelled to the camp in a cattle truck for two and a half months. The hunger, cold and dirt present in the carriage, as well as the deaths of his fellow passengers, became part of his childhood memories.
Adam and his parents spent six years in the Sverdlovsk camp near Krasnouralsk. The father, together with the other men, went to cut timber in the taiga every morning.
Many perished due to exhaustion and disease. Death was nonchalant. Soldiers pulled out their guns and shot at people just by the way. Silence fell upon the camps, the prisoners closed their eyes.
– recalls Adam Holender in an interview with Agnieszka Niezgoda.
His father, a provincial court judge, and his mother, who was the daughter of a lawyer from Tarnów, educated in Switzerland and spoke four languages, now had only one goal: to survive. He worked hard in the taiga, while she tried to take care of her husband and son. She cooked soups rich in vitamins using weeds growing in the camp. When one day the gulag shop received cotton wicks for oil lamps, she bought so many of them that she was able to weave felt boots for her son. Adam walked in them for the next three years. When he went to school outside the camp to become a Soviet soldier, he smuggled food in his gloves for his starving parents.
He watched his first film in the camp. One summer, a truck with Soviet soldiers and a projector arrived there. The prisoners sat on wooden benches, and the screen showed a Hollywood film. This is how Adam Holender remembers his first film screening in an interview with Agnieszka Niezgoda:
A beautiful lady in ballroom silk, in an evening dress, enters the living room of a stately mansion amid satin curtains and crystal chandeliers. A table richly laid with porcelain groans under the weight of delicious food. The lady throws a sausage to the dog on the floor with her hand adorned with rings, bracelets and jewels. ‘Mum! Mum!’, I cried hysterically, and my parents took me away as I went into convulsions. We were fed potato soup.
It was provided once a day, in a boiler placed on a sledge. Everyone got one ladle. Like the other prisoners, the Holender family lived in a wooden hut with no electricity, toilets nor water for six years. They shared a house with a family from Estonia and a lawyer from Moscow. ‘This was my daily life, my childhood (...). The square was fenced with barbed wire, with a narrow gate in the middle surrounded by wooden watchtowers, each guarded by Soviet soldiers with rifles.
In 1945 the war ended. Yet the Holender family had to wait before they left the camp. In 1946, they were taken to the nearest town, Krasnouralsk, and then to Odessa, where they spent half a year. They only returned to Kraków in 1947. The father returned to his job as a provincial court judge and the family recovered their apartment on Krasiński avenue. It had been looted and the furniture had been stolen by a neighbour. Every day there were news about family and friends who had died in the Holocaust.
In high school Holender became interested in photography. He received his first camera from his parents – a big, American Kodak. He was hooked. He read books, looking for tips from experts. He earned some money by working at a photo lab at the medical school. Although he began his studies at the Faculty of Architecture at the University of Technology in Kraków, his love for photography turned out to be stronger. He sent a portfolio to the Film School in Łódź and became a student of cinematography:
I think this was the best time of my life. My colleagues and I were united by a common passion. This was not a school that we wanted to escape from immediately after lectures. We breathed cinema.
– shared the cinematographer with Barbara Hollender.
He worked on short films by Krzysztof Zanussi and Roman Polański, and after graduating in 1966 he became a member of the United Film Crews / Zjednoczone Zespoły Filmowe located on 61 Puławska street. His last project in Poland was the panning for Four Tank-Men and a Dog, a cult TV series of that era.
Soon after, Adam Holender left Poland. He sailed to Canada on board the transatlantic ship Batory. He keeps the return ticket in his New York apartment to this day, though the Batory was cut for scrap long ago. Eleven days after sailing from the port in Gdynia he arrived in Montreal and took a bus to New York.
In my pocket I had a few hundred dollars and a map of the city, on which a friend from Warsaw had marked the cheapest hotels. The bus was arriving from the side of New Jersey. Behind the escarpment, which we were passing by, an island suddenly emerged through the greenery: skyscrapers soaring skywards. I was overwhelmed by the view of Manhattan. [Holender recreates this scene in Midnight Cowboy – ed. B. S.] (...) A shocking impression of the city. Unusually intense, urban character of the space, with people of all races, bouncing off one another, sometimes kind and sometimes not, with extreme poverty and opulent wealth all around. The centre of humanity! The world in miniature.
In New York, Holender’s cinematographic education did not impress anyone. He got a job as a truck driver. He transported lighting equipment for a small company producing commercials and documentaries. He carried lamps and laid out cables. One day an additional shot had to be filmed, and the cameraman had already gone. Holender stood behind the camera and filmed the missing material. A few days later he got another opportunity. He began to climb the professional hierarchy. He made documentaries for the BBC and CBS, filmed commercials for airlines, cars and drugs. He was constantly on the go.
The work in advertising opened the door to cinema. Thanks to Howard Zieff, the king of New York advertising at the time, Holender met John Schlesinger. The British director was already an important figure in world cinema – he had been nominated for an Academy Award and a Golden Globe for Darling, Kind of Loving earned him a Golden Bear in Berlin, and Billy Liar – a nomination for a Golden Lion in Venice. In New York, he was searching for a cinematographer for his first American film. Recommended by Roman Polański, Holender got the job and in 1969 he stood behind the camera of Midnight Cowboy.
Schlesinger turned out to be a great director to work with. (...) He likes the dirt of New York life, I took him on his first subway trip, we wandered around the streets and observed reality. I knew we were making a good film, but that it was going to be an Oscar-winning film, I had no idea.
– said Holender years later in an interview with Agnieszka Niezgoda.
In Midnight Cowboy Holender tried to recreate the brutal beauty of New York City. He showed the realities of the street. In the story about a guy who moved from Texas to the largest US city, he found traces of his own life experiences. And he incorporated what he had learned in Łódź – to everyone’s surprise, he used diffused light instead of bright lamps when filming indoor scenes – the hallmark of Jerzy Wójcik and Kurt Weber’s school. The effect was excellent, and Midnight Cowboy became a legend of its time.
Even before the film was released, Holender was contacted by Jerry Schatzberg, a famous fashion photographer and a New York bon vivant. In 1971, they filmed The Panic in Needle Park together, a story about addiction and love sacrificed at its altar. For Adam Holender this film was a journey to a well-known territory – ‘Needle Park’, as they called Sherman Square, was his neighbourhood for several months after he arrived in New York. Back then he lived on Upper West Side, and almost every night his sleep was disturbed by the sirens of police cars hunting for drug traffickers.
The success of The Panic in Needle Park led to new opportunities for Holender. He only picked a few. He became a partner in an advertising company, where he was simultaneously a director and a cameraman. This is how he earned a living. He could afford the luxury of being choosy. In the following years he made three more films with Jerry Schatzberg, as well as The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds by Paul Newman, among others.
Ever since he moved to America, Holender hasn’t had the opportunity to work with Polish directors. The exception was Agnieszka Holland, with whom he made To Kill a Priest in 1988, a story about the murder of Father Jerzy Popieluszko, the legendary Solidarity priest.
I was full of admiration for Agnieszka, but most of all I felt that I had to make this film as a Pole. We tried to recreate the Polish atmosphere, depict the conflict between the security forces and the Church. This was a Poland I did not know any more, but I read about it. Krzysztof Zanussi sent me Kultura magazine every week. I followed all the articles about Poland in the New York Times and the Parisian Kultura. There were a few people who were knowledgeable about our national issues, mainly Timothy Garton Ash. This film allowed me to almost breathe Polish air again. Well, it turned out as it turned out. I know it was not well received in the country. But for me it was important.
– said the cinematographer in an interview with Barbara Hollender from Rzeczpospolita.
Seven years later, in 1995, he went through another great artistic adventure as he met Wayne Wang and Paul Auster, and worked on their New York diptych, which included Smoke and Blue in the Face. They were a tribute to Brooklyn, the multicultural enclave of New York full of extraordinary energy. Jerzy Jarniewicz wrote about the films:
In this film representation Brooklyn – the American ‘homeland’ – seems to have a life of its own, and its ethnically diverse inhabitants constitute an almost tribal community. It is true that small and big tragedies take place in the sunny landscape of the city portrayed by Auster, but they all reach a successful conclusion, as if the residents of Brooklyn were protected by some friendly power. Thanks to Auster’s talent we are ready to believe that even Brooklyn’s darkest characters show a human face. Auster’s vision of Brooklyn is made up of personal stories, which are implausible and ordinary, as well as farcical, lyrical and dramatic. To enter this community, you need to be all ears and open up to what the multicultural Brooklyners have to say.
Holender, a citizen of New York in love with its diversity and beauty, was the perfect choice for the directorial duo. Together with Wang and Auster he created films-tributes, expressions of love for a place that had become his home. In the following years he stood behind the camera several times, but the new films failed to repeat the success of the Brooklyn diptych. In 2012, he told Barbara Hollender:
I have my years and it is increasingly difficult for me to decide what to do. A good and a bad film require the same amount of effort. In both cases you have to get up at five in the morning, argue all day, then go home or to a hotel room to spend the night. This is why I reject bad proposals. I am waiting for something significant, which will give me satisfaction.
Bartosz Staszczyszyn, March 2015, transl. Bozhana Nikolova
- Agnieszka Niezgoda, Jacek Laskus, Hollywood.pl, Hollywood PL Publishing, 2013.
- Barbara Hollender, Warto było nie przesypiać nocy, Sukces Magazine
- Jerzy Jarniewicz, Szaleństwa Brooklynu, Gazeta Wyborcza