10 Reasons Why Hollywood Wants Agnieszka Holland

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10 Reasons Why Hollywood Wants Agnieszka Holland

Agnieszka Holland takes the Hollywood formula for success, applies it to topics from the Old Continent, and takes 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. She slowly began smuggling her Slavic soul into American films and series.

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 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, and while being detained during the Prague Spring of 1968, she would try to bore her interrogators to death with the existentialist theories of Simone Weil.

From film school graduate, to three time Oscar nominee who casts Leonardo Di Caprio, Ed Harris, Diane Kruger, Julie Delpy  and directs episodes of American crime drama television series. American story telling and the history and legacy of Europe all rolled into one, we identify Holland’s 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 Actorswon the International Critics Prize at Cannes Film Festival.

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 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, world views and sensitivities begin to shine through. This is also where Holland’s signature style starts 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 the Oscar in best foreign language category in1985.

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 XXth century Candide he travels between countries and gets an insiders view of the battle camps and the lives of the people in the 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 the 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 the best screenplay.

4) The Secret Garden – 1993

This Frances Hodgson Burnett novel, first published in its entirety in 1911,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 left her footprints on this children’s classic. Mary Lennox looking through the window of her parents bedroom at an dinner in India has Holland written all over it. The 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”.

5) Total Eclipse – 1995

A historically accurate account of the passionate and violent relationship between the 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 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, 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”.

6) The Wire – 2004-2008

Holland directed three episode of 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 bringing to life characters that are often swept under the rug of American television and American society correlates with Holland’s own cinematic style (example: Holland’s Lonely Woman 1981).

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 an interview (with Monika Richardson from 2008) 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 the challenging beginnings, she is the one, the only female standing next to Andrzej Żuławski, Andrzej Wajda, Roman Polański, Ryszard Bugajski and Krzysztof Kieślowski on the cover of famous Polish film theoretician and historian’s Tadeusz Lubelski’s History of Polish Cinema. Not to mention that Holland is one of the co-author of Krzysztof Kieślowski’sThree Colours: Blue,Three Colors: White, Andrzej Wajda’s The PossessedandWithout Anasthesia (not to mention that she also acted in Zanussi‘s Illumination(among others).

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 “antisensationalist” approach, uncompromising naturalism, lack of characterological determinism and convenient narrative solutions are fully in line with Holland’s artistic preferences. Without Holland this time, Treme‘s fourth and final season will premiere on December 1, 2013.

Additionally, Holland directed three episodes of the American Fox Television Studios and Fuse Entertainment adaptation of a Danish crime drama television series – The Killing (running from April 2011 – to August 2013).

9) In Darkness – 2010

Leopold Socha, 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 relation 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, “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” Holland says, “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?”

10) Burning Bush – 2013

This HBO miniseries is an accurate, entertaining, politically and culturally charged production. 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 is HBO Europe’s most ambitious, big-budget project to date. 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. “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.” The script to Burning Bushwas written by a 25 and a 27 year old.

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Author: Mai Jones Jeromski Sources: Gorzkie Kino Agnieszki Holland by Mariola Jankun-Dopartowa, Holland Przewodnik Krytyki Politycznej