Walker Art Center

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Filmmakers Agnieszka Holland: In Retrospect

Dialogue: Agnieszka Holland with Amy Taubin

  • Retrospective: September 13–29, 1995
  • Regional Premiere: Total Eclipse

Agnieszka Holland makes films about displacement, abandonment, and loss—the traumas from which identity is formed. The child of a Jewish father and a Polish mother, Holland has never not been alienated. Her sense of being in between—a point of attack for both worlds—made her resistant to dogma and party lines. Rather than begging acceptance, she stubbornly cultivates her outsider position. From that vantage point, she can see that the world is complex, that no one is totally good or evil, that everyone operates out of mixed motives.

Holland was born in Warsaw in 1948, the year Stalinism triumphed in Poland. Her father escaped to the Soviet Union during World War II; his family died in the Warsaw Ghetto. Her mother had worked in the Polish resistance; after the war she joined the Communist Party, believing that the communists were the only Poles who weren’t anti-Semitic. Her father edited the Young Communist newspaper and was influential during the 1956 thaw. Holland describes him as “by temperament, more anarchistic than communist.” When she was 11, her parents divorced. Two years later, her father was arrested for “Zionism and espionage”; he fell to his death from a window of the police headquarters on Christmas Eve. The authorities claim he committed suicide, the family believes it likely that he was pushed.

Banned in Poland, Holland’s first three features, Provincial Actors (1979), Fever (1981), and A Woman Alone (1981) won major prizes at festivals abroad. The unadorned tale of a single mother whose desperate attempt to flee a life of hatred and drudgery goes fatally awry, A Woman Alone may well be the grimmest film ever made and certainly one of the greatest. Holland refuses to aestheticize a situation in which anxiety, fear, and hatred are the only possible emotions. Gallows humor, which she provides in abundance, is not enough to insulate the audience from the agony of this woman’s life.

Compared with A Woman Alone, her next film, Angry Harvest (1985), which is loosely based on a World War II memoir, seems almost florid. A German coproduction starring Armin Mueller-Stahl, the film explores the relationship between Poles and Jews that figures so crucially in Holland’s personal and professional life. The central character is a Polish Catholic farmer who hides an upper-middle-class Austrian Jewish woman and becomes emotionally and sexually involved with her. Differences of class, race, and religion, plus the power play implicit in the captor/captive situation, fuel a violent sadomasochistic attachment. Brutal but remarkably lucid, Angry Harvest lays bare the dynamics of Catholic anti-Semitism and the erotics of hatred and contempt. (Although unsuccessful at the box office, it was nominated for an Academy Award for best foreign film).

Like Angry Harvest, the controversial Europa, Europa (1991), which made Holland’s reputation in the United States and nearly destroyed it in Europe, is a World War II saga based on a real-life story. This one is as incredible as it’s true. The Jewish teenager Salomon Perel survived the Holocaust by passing as a Polish-born German in a Nazi military academy. Holland saw the chameleonlike Solly as a Candide figure and shaped the film as a picaresque comedy of the absurd. One of the rare period pieces that also seems to be about current events, Europa, Europa is about Jewish identity, but it’s also about the instability and fanaticism of European nationalisms, ideologies, and religions. Holland is less concerned with mapping Solly’s psyche than with tracing his journey across a Europe that refuses his existence.

Released in 1993, The Secret Garden, adapted from Frances Hodgson Burnett’s 1911 children’s classic, was Holland’s first Hollywood film. Although she describes it as “a respite from painting black on black,” it also allowed her to uncover a source of her imaginative landscape. The ruined garden that the young protagonist Mary Lennox nurtures back to life resembles the ruins of Warsaw where Holland played as a child. The ruins are what connect The Secret Garden to Holland’s other films: to the crumbling shack of A Woman Alone, the dismal underground hideout of Angry Harvest, the bombed-out landscape of Europa, Europa. The difference is that Mary finds not death but life (eros with full Freudian implications) in the ruins. For all their pessimism, Holland’s adult films are a protest against the state of being in the world. The Secret Garden touches the sources of that vision.

—Amy Taubin

Amy Taubin is a critic for Film Comment.

Agnieszka Holland