AGNIESZKA HOLLAND. AN INTENSE CREATIVE ADVENTURE
Few contemporary directors as polyfacetic as Agnieszka Holland can boast such an extensive trajectory. She was born on 28 November 1948 in Warsaw to a Catholic mother and a Jewish father, graduated from the Prague Film and TV School (FAMU) in 1971, and embarked on her professional career amid the so-called New Wave of Polish films as assistant director to Krzysztof Zanussi and Andrzej Wajda.
Her first feature film, Provincial Actors (Aktorzy prowincjonalni, 1978), which dwelt on the political situation in Poland at the time, won the FIPRESCI Award at the Cannes Festival. Before she was forced into exile in France by the declaration of martial law by general Jaruzelski in 1981, she made The Lonely Woman (Kobieta samotna, 1981), a film she chose herself for her tribute at this year’s ZINEBI. It conveys the political slant and the critical gaze so typical of her early films, awash with allusions to bureaucratic machinery, governmental repression and the stifling atmosphere of a society trapped in the material and mental misery of the time.
Following her exile, she began a long creative trajectory in Germany, France, Canada, the United States, and subsequently the Czech Republic and Poland. In 1985 she was nominated for an Oscar for best non—English film with Angry Harvest (Bittere Ernte, 1985), a German production about a German woman on the run during the Second World War. The film which finally gained her international recognition was Europa Europa (1990), based on the biography of a Jewish teenager fleeing Germany and arriving in the portion of Poland occupied by the Soviet Union. This earned her great success in the United States, she was awarded the Golden Globe, and was nominated for an Oscar for best adapted screenplay. She was nominated for an Oscar again with In Darkness (W ciemnosci, 2011), also set in the territory of interwar totalitarian states, one of her recurring themes. In this case the film focused on the struggle of Polish Jews during the German occupation.
One of her more recent films, Mr. Jones (2019), which was a contender for the Berlin Festival’s Golden Bear award, also dwelt on this era. This time concerning the real case of Welsh journalist Gareth Jones, who investigated the atrocities perpetrated by Stalin during forced collectivisation in Ukraine in the 1930s.
Although it is obvious that the director has an interest in historical issues – experienced in the flesh during the vicissitudes of her own family — the intensity and proportions of her work associate Holland with much broader thematics, where her treatment of these always reveals her skill as a narrator, the virtuous mastery of audiovisual formats and languages, and her constant focus on narratives with a commitment to the complexity of each character and each story. Thus, Olivier, Olivier (1992) and The Secret Garden (1993) touch on the fragility of childhood and the loss of innocence; Total Eclipse (1995) describes the relationship between Arthur Rimbaud and Paul Verlaine; Washington Square (1997) interprets the Henry James novel from the feminist viewpoint; Julie Walking Home (2001) studies the emotional impact of a mother with a sick child; and Copying Beethoven (2006) provides a fictional account of the composer’s last years. In her more recent films — Spoor (Pokot, 2017), an animalist thriller which won the Alfred Bauer award at the Berlin Festival, and Charlatan (Šarlatán, 2020), a biopic about a Czech healer who was extremely popular in the 1930s — Holland continues to demonstrate her many thematic and stylistic interests.
She worked as scriptwriter for Danton (1983), A Love in Germany (Eine Liebe in Deutschland, 1983), The Possessed (Les possédés, 1988) and Korczak (1990), by Andrzej Wajda, and La amiga (Jeanine Meerapfel, 1988), and also played a key role as consultant on scripts for the Kieślowski trilogy Three Colours (1993-1994).
Always on the lookout for new creative challenges, Holland directed some episodes of a number of successful series: The Wire, The Killing, Treme (her work on the pilot episode was nominated for an Emmy), House of Cards, The Affair and The First. She also directed the miniseries Rosemary’s Baby (2014), an adaptation of the Ira Levin novel, and Burning Bush (Hořící keř, 2013), produced in the Czech Republic and based on the self-immolation of student Jan Palach in Prague as a protest against the Russian invasion in 1968. Here Holland, who had been an active participant in the so-called Velvet Revolution and was jailed for it, returned to a narration of historical facts closely resembling her own experiences in the country that was her scenario of formative, political and personal growth.
Agnieszka Holland started out in close contact with some leading figures, such as the Polish directors she admired and worked with. Against this backdrop, and also during her subsequent career, she was an exception, a rarity, because she was a woman. To counter all the barriers she came up against — a Jew in Communist Poland, a regime dissident, an immigrant — she had to overcome sexist restrictions at a time when film directors had still not strengthened their collective links. In 2021 she was appointed president of the European Film Academy (EFA), where she undertakes the challenge of bringing viewers back to cinemas amid the predominance of platforms and streaming formats. The richness of her work and her active contribution to the defence of cinema as part of cultural heritage have now earned her admiration and respect as a benchmark for the new generations of film directors. With this acknowledgement of her career, the 64th ZINEBI Festival now adds to the distinctions and prizes for her films by awarding Agnieszka Holland its Mikeldi of Honour.
Anna Solà, Marta Selva
Mostra Internacional de Film de Dones de Barcelona