Agnieszka Holland: Grappling with humanity’s contradictions

Agnieszka Holland, director of “In Darkness,” has always been intrigued by the contradictions and extremes of human nature.
November 23, 2011

Agnieszka Holland, director of “In Darkness,” has always been intrigued by the contradictions and extremes of human nature.

“I always wonder at how fragile and how strong we are, how evil and irrational under some circumstances, and how brave and compassionate at other times,” she observed in a phone call from Prague.

Rarely were the extremes as visible as during the Holocaust, and that’s why it will continue to fascinate writers and filmmakers, even as the actual events recede into history.

“We still don’t have the answers to some of the basic questions,” Holland added. “How could the Holocaust have happened? What are the limits of human behavior?” It follows that, counter to the Never Again slogan, “this can happen again at any time.”

One of Holland’s first films to gain international attention in 1985 was “Angry Harvest,” about a Polish farmer who shelters a Jewish woman during the war, followed later by “Europa, Europa,” in which a Jewish boy becomes a German army mascot as the perfect Aryan.

Both films won Oscar nominations, and, in 1990, she wrote the screenplay for “Korczak,” based on the life of the Polish-Jewish doctor who established an innovative orphanage in the Warsaw Ghetto and voluntarily joined his charges on the final journey to Treblinka.

Holland was born in Warsaw in 1948 and got her professional start in the Polish film industry. She is now a truly international director and writer, equally at home making movies in Poland, Germany, France and the United States (“Washington Square,” “The Secret Garden”).

Her mother, Irena, is still alive, but her late father, the journalist Henryk Holland, was Jewish and escaped to the Soviet Union at the beginning of the German invasion of Poland in 1939.

Agnieszka’s paternal grandparents were shot and killed on the streets of the Warsaw Ghetto in 1942. After her father returned to Poland, he was arrested by the communist authorities, and he died in 1961.

“My father never once talked about his experiences, or how his parents died. He never even mentioned their names,” Holland said. “That was not unusual. For many years after the war, no one really wanted to hear the survivors’ stories, not in Poland, or in Israel or in America.”

When she was 6, Agnieszka learned about her background from her mother, who aided the Jewish resistance and fought in the 1944 Warsaw revolt against the German army, one year after the Ghetto Uprising.

“I came home and told my mother that at the playground someone had called me a Jew, and what did that mean,” Holland recalled. “So my mother told me about my father’s background and told me to be proud of it.”

For Holland, her half-Jewishness is “part of my biography and identity, and, unlike many of my colleagues, I never hid it,” she said.

But after three Holocaust-themed films, Holland decided that she had reached her limit and twice turned down pleas to direct “In Darkness.”

She relented only after the producers dropped their plans to shoot the film in English and accepted her demand that the actors speak in their characters’ native languages.

Of all her 34 films, she found making “In Darkness” particularly demanding, both psychologically and physically. Asked if she might make another movie set against a Holocaust background, she quickly answered, “never,” then paused and changed to “well, maybe.”

In any case, she is not abandoning her exploration of human limits under extreme pressure. She is now filming “Burning Bush,” centered on the Prague Spring of 1968, when attempts to liberalize the Czechoslovakian regime were crushed by Soviet forces.

Asked about the prevalence of anti-Semitism in Poland, Holland marveled at the changes during the last few decades.

During the Nazi occupation, many Polish “saviors” were paid handsomely by desperate Jews, but then turned them over to the Nazis, Holland said. Many genuine Polish rescuers kept their good deeds secret even after the war, so as not to incur the wrath of their neighbors.

“Now the situation has changed completely, and Poland has the least amount of anti-Semitism of any European country,” she said. “Now it is a sign of distinction to say that you have Jewish friends.”

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