Multiple award winner and nominee. Her “Angry Harvest” (1985), “Europa Europa” (1990) and “In Darkness” (2011) were nominated for Academy Awards. She works both in Poland and abroad. Her new movie “Spoor” won a Silver Bear Award on Berlin International Film Festival. Chairwoman of European Film Academy and honorary President of Directors Guild of Poland.
Leonardo DiCaprio, Christopher Lambert, Jennifer Jason Leigh, and Ed Harris all starred in her films, and she herself performed in Bugajski, Kieślowski, and Latałło productions. Her scripts were approached by filmmakers as acclaimed as Andrzej Wajda. One thing is certain: Agnieszka Holland is an inimitable personality in the worldwide film community
One of the most eminent and acclaimed Polish directors in the world, Agnieszka Holland is a prominent personality among contemporary female directors. In 2014 she was appointed Board Chairwoman of the European Film Academy. Holland received two Oscar nominations for best foreign language film for Angry Harvest and In Darkness and another for best screenplay for Europa, Europa, which won the Golden Globe Award for best foreign language film.
Holland’s movies, filmed in Poland, France, Germany, the US, and many other countries, starred Leonardo DiCaprio (Total Eclipse), Jennifer Jason Leigh (Washington Square), Christopher Lambert (To Kill a Priest), Ed Harris (The Third Miracle; Copying Beethoven), Miranda Otto (Julie Walking Home). Andrzej Wajda himself filmed scripts that she had authored or co-written (Korczak, A Love in Germany, Rough Treatment). Holland starred in episodic roles in Kieślowski and Latałło’s films, but her most important performance was the role of a Communist jailed in Stalinist times in Ryszard Bugajski’s Interrogation (1982).
Holland admits that she was greatly influenced by her time at the renowned FAMU film school in Prague under the tutelage of the most acclaimed filmmakers of the Czechoslovak New Wave. “In the mid-60s, when I was a high schooler, Czech cinema was definitely the most original genre in European film. My time in Czechia was incredibly important to me, I felt very close to the country and its culture,” the director recalled.
She was greatly influenced by her time at the renowned FAMU film school in Prague under the tutelage of the most acclaimed filmmakers of the Czechoslovak New Wave
During that period Holland became fascinated with the prose of Milan Kundera (years later she translated his Unbearable Lightness of Being – its first Polish version was published in London in 1984) and spent five weeks in jail, charged with collaborating with book smugglers and copying underground bulletins. She went back to these experiences in 2013, making Burning Bush, a three-episode miniseries for the Czech HBO, considered one of the most important historical films in the history of Czech cinema. Burning Bush won thirteen Czech Lions, including best film, screenplay, cinematography, and music.
“This is a movie about the most significant events of my youth: the crackdown on freedom in Czechoslovakia after the Prague Spring of 1968 and the Soviet invasion,” Holland said. “The story is structured around the self-immolation of Jan Palach, a history student who set himself on fire to protest the demoralization of Czech society and curtailment of liberties. I had been a FAMU student at that time; these events became a formative experience in my life.”
Holland returned to Poland in the early 70s after graduation. She worked as Krzysztof Zanussi’s assistant director and got involved with Andrzej Wajda’s Zespół X. Her first TV film, Evening at Abdon’s (1975), was based on a Jarosław Iwaszkiewicz short story. Holland’s 1978 feature debut, Provincial Actors, won the prestigious FIPRESCI film critic award at Cannes. Thirty years later Holland revived this formerly metaphorical story about actors preparing to perform Wyspiański’s Liberation in a provicial theater: she co-directed a stage version in the Jan Kochanowski Theatre in Opole in 2008.
She always went against the grain. In the heyday of the Solidarity movement Holland made one of her most acclaimed films – Fever, a tale of the failed 1905 revolution, based on Andrzej Strug’s historical novel Dzieje jednego pocisku. “I accidentally came across Krzysztof Teodor Toeplitz’s script, read it and thought: I’d like to film this. I didn’t think the censors would approve it for production,” Holland recalled years later. “Fever was the young Bogusław Linda’s on-screen debut. Holland’s impressive eye for acting talent amazed us all – where did she even find this guy?,” reminisced Andrzej Wajda. The movie was enthusiastically received in Poland, winning three awards at the Gdynia festival, including the Golden Lions for best film, as well as in Berlin – screened in the main competition, it brought the female lead Barbara Grabowska a Silver Bear for best actress. “Agnieszka Holland’s Fever is in many respects unique in Polish filmmaking,” Professor Maria Janion once wrote, “most of all in its cruel and ruthless depiction of the ‘philosophy of the bomb,’ brought to its tragic and ironic conclusion.”
One year later Holland filmed A Woman Alone (1981), a dramatic depiction of a single mother working as a mail carrier (Maria Chwalibóg), who starts a relationship with a disabled pensioner (Bogusław Linda). “I wanted to make a movie about people living in poverty, incapable of expressing themselves,” the director explained. “Maciej Karpiński and I found a couple of diaries that inspired us to write a script together.” This movie also stirred controversies with its gloomy vision of reality entirely devoid of hope. Even the Solidarity movement didn’t hearten the protagonists. “In one of the scenes Chwalibóg’s character encounters a Solidarity march demanding freedom for political prisoners,” Holland recalled. “She doesn’t join in, doesn’t even seem to notice it, pulling her son through the crowd as if it was an ordinary obstacle on their way. I didn’t make this scene out of whole cloth – many people felt this way at the time.”
Angry Harvest, filmed in Germany
and nominated to the Academy Awards
for best foreign film, became her ticket
Martial law was imposed weeks after Fever premiered in the cinemas in November 1981; the movie was shelved and banned for many years. A Woman Alone was only distributed as bootleg copies for seven years until its screening at the Gdynia festival, where it received four awards, including the Special Jury Prize. Holland had been in Sweden when martial law went into effect; instead of returning to Poland, she moved to Paris. The aggressive tone of articles in state-owned papers made it clear she wouldn’t have been able to continue making films in her homeland.
Several years had passed until she could begin directing movies abroad. Curiously enough, Holland only decided to tackle the subject of World War II and the Holocaust after she emigrated, even though she considered approaching these issues while living in Poland. That was the subject of her foreign debut, Angry Harvest (1985), loosely inspired by the novels of Hermann M. Field and Stanisław Mierzeński. A low-key, austere tale of fifty-year-old Leon (Armin Mueller-Stahl) who shelters Jewish refugee Rosa (Elisabeth Triessenaar) and forces her into sex, it became Holland’s ticket to Hollywood; Angry Harvest received an Oscar nomination for best foreign language film, bolstered by rave reviews in American papers. “The characters in this film are so authentic and the acting so excellent that next to Angry Harvest, Sophie’s Choice seems like mere rehearsal,” wrote acclaimed critic Andrew Sarris.
Even greater success followed five years later with Europa, Europa (1990), based on the experiences of Solomon Perel, a Jewish teen who survived World War II hiding in plain sight in the Hitler Youth. Perel personally recounted his story to Holland. “This story, while true, is so extraordinary that it seems like fiction,” Milan Kundera wrote about Europa, Europa. “An incredible tale that manages to reflect this whole hellish immorality of our age. Brave Agnieszka, obsessed by the problems of this existential immorality (which makes morality impossible), tries to capture, showcase, and understand it. Europa, Europa is a great film.” The picture won a Golden Globe for best foreign film and netted Holland an Oscar nomination for best script.
Diversity is what Agnieszka Holland values the most in cinema. She boldly tackles political and social topics which she transforms into existential parables (1988’s To Kill a Priest, starring Christopher Lambert as Father Alek, inspired by the Polish secret police’s murder of priest Jerzy Popiełuszko), but she also enjoys witty, low-key drama steeped in metaphysical yearning: Olivier, Olivier (1991) with François Cluzet, The Third Miracle (1999) with Ed Harris, or Julie Walking Home (2002) with Miranda Otto. She observes geniuses (1995’s Total Eclipse starring Leonardo DiCaprio as Arthur Rimbaud, Copying Beethoven (2005) with Ed Harris as Ludwig van Beethoven and Diane Kruger as his transcriptionist Anna Holtz), but she’s equally adept at reaching out to young viewers – The Secret Garden (1993), based on Frances Hodgson Burnett’s novel of the same name, remains her most popular movie in the US. “I made this film partly to give children experiences similar to those that shaped my childhood,” Holland said.
Even her costume productions are timeless dramas at heart, like Washington Square (1997) based on Henry James’ eponymous novel. Portrayed by Jennifer Jason Leigh, the homely daughter of a wealthy doctor falls in love with a handsome, penniless youth (Ben Chaplin); this love story also depicts the process of growing up, invariably coupled with loss and disillusionment. True stories – like the notorious Gary Gilmore murder case from the 70s, which inspired Shot in the Heart – give Holland a starting point for profound, existential questions about exploring another person’s soul, the limits of intimacy, and the right to die.
Agnieszka Holland enjoys working for the TV. She co-created the excellent Polish TV series Prime Minister with Magdalena Łazarkiewicz and Kasia Adamik. Her productions for American TV stations include episodes of House of Cards, starring Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright, while her work on Treme (2010-2011), set in New Orleans, was recognized with an Emmy nomination for outstanding directing. Holland also directs stage plays (1999’s Dybbuk, winner of four awards at the Two Teatry festival, including one for best direction) and TV movies: Girl Like Me: The Gwen Araujo Story (2006) about a transsexual Latina (over five million American viewers tuned in when this movie first aired) and Rosemary’s Baby (2014), a four-episode miniseries based on the famous Roman Polański picture.
Holland returned to the subject of war in 2011, making one of the best and most famous films in her portfolio – In Darkness. “This is my third movie set during the Holocaust; this period remains very challenging in art,” the director admitted. “I specifically wanted this one to break with the insufferable, annoying stereotypes in depicting the tragedy of Jews.” Unlike in Angry Harvest, war isn’t just a backdrop here – it’s ever-present, and the several dozen Jews who escaped from the Lviv ghetto are very aware of it. Hiding out in the sewers, they’re aided by Leopold Socha (Robert Więckiewicz), a crooked sewer maintenance worker. Death keeps dogging their heels – the protagonists must fear Germans, Ukrainians, and Poles alike, and communicate in a blend of overlapping languages (the director worked hard to retain the original languages: Polish, Ukrainian, German, Yiddish, and bałak, the dialect of Polish used in Lviv).
Holland enjoys working for the TV – she directed Prime Minister in Poland, while her US productions include Treme and several episodes of House of Cards
The movie was met with worldwide acclaim; its extensive list of awards includes the Golden Lions for best film, as well as nominations to the European Film Awards and Academy Awards for best foreign language film. ”Shockingly realistic,” ”veritable triumph of the human spirit – epic, heartwarming cinema,” ”glorious, painful, and spectacular,” raved the critics. Stellar acting performances by Robert Więckiewicz, Benno Fürmann, Agnieszka Grochowska, Kinga Preis, Krzysztof Skonieczny, and Julia Kijowska also received widespread praise.
Holland’s latest production, Spoor, based on Olga Tokarczuk’s novel Drive Your Plow over the Bones of the Dead, will premiere in February 2017 in the Competition section of the Berlin Film Festival alongside the newest offerings of Sally Potter, Volker Schlöndorff, Danny Boyle, and Aki Kaurismäki. The protagonist, Janina Duszejko (Agnieszka Mandat), lives with her dogs in a small town in the remote Kłodzko Valley, working as an English teacher. An enthusiast of astrology and animals, she wages a private war with hunters and poachers; when they start dying in grisly circumstances, the protagonist suggests that brutalized wildlife might be exacting its vengeance.
“It’s a bit of a generation story,” Holland said recently. “The society doesn’t see me and doesn’t accept the things I consider important, so I’ll build my own world, alternative and slightly crazy – a space of goodness working against the evil of the world. That’s what my protagonist thinks.” Interestingly enough, Agnieszka Mandat starred in Holland’s debut, Provincial Actors, almost 40 years ago, but the subplot featuring her bike-riding journalist character had been removed. Wiktor Zborowski, Jakub Gierszał, Patrycja Volny, Miroslav Krobot, Borys Szyc, and Andrzej Grabowski will appear alongside Mandat in Spoor.
2017 Spoor (feature film)
2015 House of Cards (series)
2014 Rosemary’s Baby (series)
2013 Without Secrets (series)
2013 Burning Bush (series)
2011 Dochodzenia (series)
2011 In Darkness (feature film)
2010 Treme (series)
2009 Janosik: A True Story (feature film)
2009 Janosik: A True Story (series)
2007 Prime Minister (series)
2006 A Girl Like Me: The Gwen Araujo Story (TV feature film)
2005 Copying Beethoven (feature film)
2004 Cold Case (series)
2004 The Wire (series)
2002 Julie Walking Home (feature film)
2001 Golden Dreams (short)
2001 Shot in the Heart (feature film)
1999 Dybuk (teleplay)
1999 The Third Miracle (feature film)
1997 Washington Square (feature film)
1995 Total Eclipse (feature film)
1993 The Secret Garden (feature film)
1991 Largo desolato (TV feature film)
1991 Oliver, Oliver (feature film)
1990 Europa Europa (feature film)
1988 To Kill a Priest (feature film)
1985 Angry Harvest (feature film)
1985 Czapski (documentary)
1985 Kultura (documentary)
1981 A Lonely Woman (TV feature film)
1980 Fever (feature film)
1980 Proces (teleplay)
1979 Łamanie kołem (teleplay)
1978 Provincial Actors (feature film)
1978 Lorenzaccio (teleplay)
1977 Coś za coś (TV feature film)
1976 Sunday Children (TV feature film)
1976 Screen Tests (feature film)
1975 Pictures from Life (feature film)
1975 Wieczór u Abdona (TV feature film)
1975 Wino domowej roboty (teleplay)
1974 Dłużnicy (teleplay)