Agnieszka Holland was born on November 28, 1948, in Warsaw to a Jewish father and a Catholic mother. Her father Henryk Holland was a sociologist, journalist, active in the ruling Polish United Workers’ Party (PZPR), mother Irena (nee Rybczynska) was a journalist and participant of the 1944 Warsaw Uprising; Henryk Holland’s parents died in the ghetto. Holland’s husband Ladislav Adamik is a film director, and their daughter Kasia Adamik is a director and screenwriter.
Holland attended the Stefan Batory Lyceum in Warsaw and in 1971 graduated from the Film and TV School of the Academy of Performing Arts in Prague. Upon her return to Poland she was assistant to film directors Andrzej Wajda and Krzysztof Zanussi and appeared in several cameo parts. Since mid-1970s she started making her own films. Holland’s full-length movie Provincial Actors (1978) won the FIPRESCI Prize in Cannes.
After 1981 Holland worked abroad: first in Germany and France, later in the US. She has made feature, documentary, and advertising movies. Holland’s 1995 biopic about Arthur Rimbaud, Total Eclipse, featured the young Leonardo DiCaprio in one of his earliest and best roles. In Darkness (2011), an account of the Holocaust in Lviv, was nominated for Oscar.
Holland wrote scripts for Andrzej Wajda (Without Anesthesia, A Love in Germany, Danton, The Possessed) and Krzysztof Kieslowski (Three Colors: Blue). She has worked on TV series, in particular, on several episodes of the political saga House of Cards, and has been a guest speaker at Brooklyn College of the City University of New York.
We talked to Holland at the Odessa Film Festival, where she received the Golden Duke for her contribution to cinematography and presented her recent film Spoor.
In your early years you worked together with Wajda, and you come from an artistic family. Who was your major influence and teacher in your profession?
“Wajda was very important to me as a producer, as a master, and as a friend. I met him after I graduated from the film school in Prague, in Czechoslovakia. He had a film unit, and several young filmmakers decided to be the part of it. It means I started to know him and collaborate with him, started to write scripts for him. He was present in my entire professional and artistic life.
“Another important colleague – he had a big influence on me, but in a different way – was Kieslowski. And there were several other filmmakers who were important to me, writers, painters, and it’s also difficult to pick the one who has had the most influence on how I see cinema and how I’m making cinema. Of course everyone is different, and Wajda’s style, and Kieslowski’s style, and my style are different styles; but this feeling of responsibility when telling the story through the cinema and the desire to communicate to the audience – I think it’s similar for the three of us.”
Do you enjoy being a teacher yourself?
“I don’t like to be a teacher. But I like to be the inspiration to people – it means to share with them what I think is important but not in the arbitrary, ex cathedra, way. I’m interested in the exchange more than in preaching. I don’t say that the role of the teacher is something I refuse, but it’s not it the way that I tell people what to do – I share with them what I think it could be. Authority is something that we cannot decide to be. I think it comes from trust and exchange. And if I am a kind of authority for some of my younger colleagues, it’s not because I’m judging their work, but because of the mutual respect.”
Now actually about your work. What must a plot have to be able to become your script?
“It’s pretty mysterious. I’m receiving a lot of scripts. And sometimes it has a really good quality, but it doesn’t wake up in me the desire to tell this story. Sometimes I say that I would like to watch this movie, but I don’t feel that I have to make it myself. And why this one and not the other one? I think it has something to do with my life experience and the way I see the world. If the story is clear to everybody, I don’t feel the need to tell it. I need to feel some kind of mystery, some kind of challenge. I like when in the beginning I don’t know how to tell it and what will really come out of that. The process, the potential of the process, is very important to me.”
You mentioned an inherent mystery in a plot. Arthur Rimbaud’s biography might be such a mystery. I love your Total Eclipse, and I really think it is one of Leonardo DiCaprio’s truly interesting appearances.
“He is a very good actor, and today he still is. But he lost this... magic.”
Coming back to our discussion of the choice of script: why did you take up a project dedicated to Gareth Jones, the British journalist who confronted the West with the truth about Holodomor? Our paper gives a lot of attention to this theme. It was no one other than James Mace, The Day’s English digest consultant and long-time author, who was the first to offer the Ukrainian public a detailed account on Jones, in particular, in his article A Tale of Two Journalists.
“I’m reading a lot of scripts about different genocides. I did several movies about Holocaust, these movies have been successful. And I’m a politically active person, my vision of the world is not that I have to just live my life – I have to try to make a change, little by little. And so I’m receiving a lot of subjects like that: about Armenians, about different things. And mostly I don’t see it wakes in me the kind of urge to tell the story. And when I read Andrea Chalupa’s script, I immediately felt that this story had an incredibly powerful resonance to the contemporary situation, and spoke about history in a way that makes this history very urgent and present. But this story also has an artistic form, which is mysterious, which is not obvious. Making this movie will mean a real jump to me. A real travel, you know? Into the past, but also into the present and into the future.”
Do you already have an idea what the movie will look like?
“It’s difficult to say at this stage. It is a process. But what is great in the script is that the script doesn’t have the flatness of a historical reconstruction and documentary drama; it has some real artistic challenge. Hopefully it will be the film which will become an important expression of some personal fears and hopes. I hope that it will be complex and complicated, but at the same time it will be clear for the audience: what is important and how it could be important today as well.”
It is not your first work in the historical genre…
“For me, when I’m doing historical movies, it’s not about the history, it’s about the history that is present. It’s present in our lives, it’s present in our personal and political choices, it’s present in the dangers, which we may not see around ourselves now, but which leave the premonitory feeling they can happen in the next years. So, historical films are about our human conditions today, on Earth, and about what we can do with it.”
You are right. I believe we, Ukrainians, are somehow prisoners of our own history. There are recurrent situations in our past and present.
“But what is the worst thing about history is that you see the history of a nation – like the Polish nation, or the Ukrainian nation, you see them unable to deal with the history in a deeply honest and challenging way. By the end of the day, the same mistakes, and the same mythological lies are building up, shaping up our today’s politics, like they had shaped the politics in the 20s and 30s of the past century.”
Can film influence it somehow?
“I don’t think a film can change history. If it’s efficient, honest, powerful it can help many people suddenly understand that the history wasn’t what they supposed to be, and that it is, in some way, a way to think about the future. But it happens very rarely. But we have to keep trying anyway.”
Speaking of your work on series, in particular, House of Cards: how much freedom do you feel you have there? Do they satisfy you as an artist?
“The role of the film director in doing the TV series, especially the series that was rather formatted than created, it’s more the role of a servant. It’s not as creative as it is when I’m doing a movie or if I’m doing my own mini-series. I like the format of mini-series – it’s like doing a very long movie. I don’t know if you have seen the mini-series I shot in the Czech Republic for Czech HBO called Burning Bush. I think it’s one of my best works. But when I’m doing one episode of House of Cards or The Killing or something, it’s an interesting stylistic exercise for a director. And I like doing it not too often. I usually don’t do more than two episodes a year. It happens between my other works, between my feature films and mini-series. But it’s interesting to be part of a bigger project, which is important to the general audience. And I’m choosing very carefully the series I participate in. It has to be very interesting for me – not only to watch, but also to fulfill the obligation and at the same time make a little difference. House of Cards is an important series, its subject is very interesting for me, and the two main actors are fantastic – it is a pleasure working with Kevin [Spacey] and Robin [Wright].”
You have worked both in Europe and in America. What is the major difference concerning people’s approach to work on both continents?
“In America it’s very difficult to make an independent film. It’s more like an industry. I think in Europe it’s sometimes too easy to make an independent film. It’s not such a big challenge of the quality and at the same time it gives the possibility to make something very personal. I think that the situation is changing. It’s still possible to do a film in Europe with its box office not as the main criterion. In America, even if you are doing an independent film, everybody looks at the box office at the first place.
“But because American cinema stopped being really creative, it became quite formatted and predictable, the TV series took over have become the place where creative, new ideas in storytelling are coming. But at the same time TV series have to be conventional to some extent, because they have to be constructed in a way to make the viewers, after seeing one episode, want to see another. You must always have this kind of cliffhanger, which makes the storytelling a bit tiring after a while for the director. That’s why I don’t like doing many of them. I think you can lose your handwriting when you do too many of them.”
But you enjoy working in the American movie industry, don’t you?
“Yes. There are really organized people, not only professional but very enthusiastic. There are a lot of talents, a lot of fantastic acting. They are not just writing the script and send it, they keep working on it till it’s good. I think it’s a good combination. My next work this fall will be doing the pilot and the second episode of the new series by Beau Willimon, the creator of House of Cards. He has a new series and he asked me to develop, to format it.”
And the last question, albeit a little strange: what does humanity need cinema for?
“Why the cinema? I don’t remember, you know...” (Laughing.)