Agnieszka Holland is a truly international filmmaker who has blazed a trail for politically and socially relevant work in her five decades in the entertainment field.
Born in Warsaw, Poland, Holland witnessed the tumultuous events of her youth, including the Prague Spring of 1968 in Czechoslovakia, when she was arrested and imprisoned. The experience had a profound effect on her and shifted her desires to the arts. But she has always remained politically active, especially fighting for women’s rights.
Holland went on to direct and/or script over 30 films in many different countries including Bitter Harvest (also called Angry Harvest) which was nominated for the 1985 Best Foreign Language Film Oscar and Europa Europa which garnered her great international acclaim and the Golden Globe Award for Best Foreign Language Film as well as an Oscar nomination for Best Adapted Screenplay.
Her other credits include, Olivier, Olivier, The Secret Garden, Total Eclipse (with Leonardo DiCaprio and David Thewlis), Washington Square (with Jennifer Jason Leigh), In Darkness (2011 Best Foreign Language Film Oscar nominee), Spoor, and the underrated Mr. Jones.
For television, Holland has directed episodes of The Wire, The Killing, Treme (Emmy nomination), House of Cards, the HBO miniseries Burning Bush, and the NBC remake of Rosemary’s Baby.
Her latest film, Charlatan, just made the International Feature Film Oscar shortlist and is based on the true story of Czech healer Jan Mikolášek (played by father and son, Ivan and Josef Trojan, at different ages), an irascible fellow who dedicated his life to treating the sick using plants and herbs. His epic saga spans the two great wars and beyond boasting a surprisingly tender gay love story at its center.
If Charlatan is among the five chosen this year, Holland would become the first director nominated for three different countries (Germany, Poland, Czech Republic). It would also be one of the few gay-themed films nominated in that category.
This past year, Holland became the first woman elected as President of the European Film Academy.
Awards Daily had the pleasure of Zooming with Holland to discuss the film and her career.
Awards Daily: Tell me about the genesis of Charlatan. Why did you want to make it? And were you already familiar with Jan Mikolášek’s story?
Agnieszka Holland: No, I was not. I studied in Czechoslovakia and I’m pretty familiar with Czech culture, literature, film, history, but I did not know this particular (story). He was actually forgotten…he was extremely popular during his lifetime but after they arrested him, it was somehow forbidden to talk about him… His (great) nephew…found some documents, photos, books in his house and he came to Czech television to propose a documentary. The dramaturg who was taking care of this read the material and decided it wasn’t enough content for a documentary film but that it could be a great fiction…So he contacted one of the most talented young screenwriters (Marek Epstein)…and he wrote the script and when they thought the script was in good shape they sent it to me.
It was (shortly) after I completed the miniseries, Burning Bush, for Czech HBO. That was a very important work for me because it referred to my youth, to my experience with the Prague Spring and with the Soviet invasion. The young student was exactly my age, Jan Palach, who immolated himself to death to protest the invasion. So I made this miniseries…a story so important to me and relevant because it was talking about the so-called normalization, the conformization of the Czech and Slovak society after the Soviet invasion. And you can see this normalization in different countries. In Poland, now…to survive, to have nice lives, they have to accept it.
AD: I was speaking with the director of Quo Vadis, Aida?, Jasmila Žbanić, and a similar thing happened in Bosnia.
AH: Very powerful film, in my opinion, Quo Vadis, Aida? It was a very important and lucky experience–a happy experience shooting Burning Bush in Prague. So when I received another Czech script immediately, I said yes…when I read it I realized that it touches on a lot of the subjects I developed in my previous movies and that in this one they meet together. I found the character very interesting, very complex and ambiguous. And I think (during these) times when everything is judgmental and polarized and we think that we are right and others are all bad, (I wanted) to show a character who has the best and worst qualities struggling inside of him, struggling with his situation.
It’s a very intimate story but a very epic background. Mikolášek passes from the first World War, the period between the wars, the rise of Fascism, the Nazi occupation and then the Stalinist regime…and he was a conformist, most of the citizens in central Europe in the first part of the 20th century were. So he’s a bit like the hero of Europa Europa…he wanted to survive and he wanted the opportunity to practice his skill, his vocation, which he thought was the most important part of his identity. His ultimate value. But it’s also a love story. And the story of a man who is so close to nature, to plants, to herbs and takes all his power from nature and at the same time cannot accept his own nature and his own identity…
But I had movies already lined up. Spoor and Mr. Jones. So I asked them to wait for me. They faithfully waited for four years, which was lucky because during those four years, young Josef Trojan who is the second son of Ivan, grew up…
AD: What a coup, casting father and son, Ivan and Josef Trojan as Jan and Young Yan. How did that come about?
AH: Well, we had fantastic makeup artists and that it was possible, with Ivan’s acting skills to make a credible change from age 40 to age 60. But I knew he could never play 20 years old. So we were looking for different actors, it’s always difficult to match it convincingly. Even if they look alike it’s difficult to find somebody who has a similar aura. And when we were a bit desperate, young Josef presented himself to the casting director’s office and he said that he decided he would like to be an actor. He was still in high school. He was 17 or 18. She did a test and he was just fabulous. The guy’s a natural born actor. He’s very much, psychologically, like his father. He has the resemblance and the same kind of soul.
AD: The political backdrop is important to understanding Jan’s situation, although it’s complicated and sometimes confusing. You manage to present it in a manner that makes sense.
AH: Thank you. It’s always difficult to tell this complicated history without being too expository and too educational. And at the same time make it clear. You can always leave little zones of confusion if the story is not damaged by that, because in our days especially people go to Google and check it if they have some doubts…
But I think that it’s fairly clear, yes. Of course, you don’t know the details. For example, maybe for a Westerner it could be difficult to understand why the Stalinist regime would be so angry with him. And the main reason was that he sticks out. He thought that he was invisible. He didn’t conform. He thought that he had such a powerful cover that he can have this big car and employees and private practice, which no one had at this time in Czechoslovakia. Stalinist Czechoslovakia was very gray, very nationalized, very collectivized. No one had the right to have a private business.
AD: This is one of two films on the Oscar short list that has a queer-theme. For me, the heart of this film is the gay love story. And I loved the structure. At the beginning we’re uncertain about the central relationship and midway through you really go there and it takes off. Was this always the way you wanted to present it.
AH: Yes. The structured was already presented in the script and we reinforced it after and made the situation more expressive. What I really liked is that we are familiar with those two characters and we see the special bond but we don’t exactly know the depth and the reality of this bond. And the love story explodes in the middle of the film and I found it structurally very powerful. It infuses the film with a totally new energy—emotional energy because the love story is the emotional heart of the film for me.
AD: What a beautifully realized moment between František (Juraj Loj), who may be gay or bi, and Jan when they first kiss. His struggle.
AH: With most of the people who are not directly homosexual or heterosexual, you had this, what Kinsey already said but now it’s much clearer. Non-binary. You are able to love. If you think of yourself as a straight person you are able to love somebody of the same sex…I think this acknowledgement opens up all notions of homosexuality from (being) a minority to being just part of human nature.
AD: How true is the real love story in the film?
AH: …We don’t have the proof. We don’t have the letters. We don’t have the testimonies. We have only the records…Five or six years ago when Marek Epstein was talking to the inhabitants of the area where Mikolášek was—talking with some old people and they thought he had this special relationship…but it was never official. For many reasons. First it was punishable at this time, it was illegal. But also I think personally for Mikolášek it was very important to have this authority, this persona, this superiority. And for him this homosexuality, certainly I think he perceived this as a weakness. At least in the eyes of others.
And there was also some mention of that in letters to the authorities. People who wanted to blame him for things. In depositions. So there were some depositions speaking about it. But what really happened between them that is, let’s say, the fruit of the psychological imagination of the writer, myself and the actors.
AD: You worked with Kevin Spacey on House of Cards, a gay man who could never admit to being gay and someone who abused his power sexually. For me there were some interesting parallels with Jan in a way. There’s that shame that queer people are taught. Can you maybe share your observations?
AH: Well, when I was talking to the actor, Ivan Trojan, who never played a homosexual man before and had big fears to do it right, to understand exactly this ambiguous quality of Yan, I was talking to him about Kevin because I immediately (made) that connection. It is the story, for me, of a man who has a special gift, a talent—because he wasn’t a crook, he wasn’t a charlatan really, he was somebody who had the skills, knowledge and intuition to help people in different ways, especially with the very innovative and very creative combination of medical herbs. And also to diagnose based on this (simulates holding up glass) beautiful urine. And what is the price you are paying for this special gift?
It’s interesting when you analyze the actors. The artists. The geniuses. I made two films about famous artists. One about Beethoven and another about Arthur Rimbaud, the French poet, with Leonard DiCaprio. And it was a similar question there. You pay the price for that…You have to be lonely and somehow fighting with all the weight of that. And Kevin is also very talented. And I’m curious if he’ll ever return somehow. But he was an extremely talented actor, one of the most talented I’ve seen. At the same time, he had this ego problem. And this mix of hubris and fragility. That he wouldn’t admit today when it’s not a big deal in Hollywood to say that you are gay, especially that everybody knew. I don’t know what he thought—that the people are not seeing it or what? And I think that it made his personality very twisted. He was not capable (of) being really open. Normally, with actors, I have very warm, very visceral and very physical relationships very quickly because the actors are people who are so generous that they give you emotions—their trust immediately. And if you don’t make mistakes, they really embrace you as a friend or mother or whatever. Not him. He was one of the most distant. To everybody practically. Even to his fellow actors. I think, even to Robin. So he reminded me of Mikolášek very much.
AD: You referenced Total Eclipse. I just rewatched it a few nights ago. It’s a wonderful film.
AH: It aged very well. I like this movie a lot. I think Leonardo (DiCaprio) was magical. He was so beautiful and so deeply right for this role.
AD: I agree. And the gay relationship in that film was almost more accepted at that particular time. It wasn’t as taboo among artists.
AH: A lot of them had homosexual relationships and a lot of them were bisexual. And I think for him (Rimbaud) and Verlaine and for Gauguin and Van Gogh, it was that you could be so close with somebody who is like you, to understand this lonely place (you’re in). It was a romantic time. Romanticism. And after came puritanical times, which we are living in also now!
AD: We sure are.
AH: Now, we are going in both directions. The justice for women’s rights and rights for different minorities but at the same time this puritanical judgments are quite dangerous, especially for art. And for erotic freedom.
AD: There were 33 female directors among the International Feature Film directors this year. Are things a little bit better, maybe?
AH: There are several countries that have opened more (doors) for women in production. For example in Scandinavia, film institutes in Sweden, Denmark, I think and Norway decided they will be giving grants for productions to 50 (women)…If you look at the selections they made from those countries (for the Oscars), except for Another Round by Thomas Vinterberg, all the others are directed by women. And one, Hope, was shortlisted. We had the same situation with the European Film Awards. I am president of the European Film Academy and we run a kind of European Oscars. And this year there were more women (honored). I think that the girls are not afraid anymore. And they are much more assertive. They don’t bow (down). They say, we are 50% of humanity, maybe 51% even, and you think it’s right we realize 7 or 8% of the movies? Where is our voice? The audio-visual storytelling is so powerful in shaping the vision of the world. I hope that it is changing for good.
AD: You’ve been Oscar shortlisted four times and nominated three times, once for the Europa Europa screenplay. You’ve directed films in Germany, Poland, Czech Republic, France and here in America. You seem to feel so comfortable directing in so many different languages.
AH: Cinema is a special language. Of course dialogue is important but it’s less important than we used to think. I think an emotional partition is something you can follow without understanding every single word in the dialogue. You feel if it’s right or wrong. And after a while you understand the logic of the crew and you always bond with the actors–except with some exceptions like maybe Kevin (Spacey). They’re special…regardless of whether they’re big Hollywood stars or provincial actors from small towns. They’re like my family. So moving from country to country…we recognize each other immediately and that is my bond. I love shooting in the Czech Republic. It’s one of my favorite places. I have a fantastic crew there. And the people are very generous, very professional, easy-going. And very democratic. I like a crew where you don’t have a hierarchy. (At) the end of the day sitting in the same pub are the electrician and the main star and they are drinking beer together and talking about the same things. I like this culture.
AD: Mr. Jones dealt with the horrors of Stalin’s Famine–The Holodomor. I wish that film would have gotten more exposure.
AH: Me, too. It wasn’t bad because it was released on (streaming) platforms and had very good box office. But if it wasn’t for the pandemic maybe we would have been able to promote it better. In France it was a very good success…I think it’s an important film and really relevant. It really speaks about today—about fake news and the role of the journalist, propaganda and manipulation of the truth, which we can see in many countries including your country.
AD: Is there a particular film that you look back on with great pride that changed things for you and your career and is there one you feel was not appreciated the way it should have been?
AH: Certainly, the crucial change internationally for me was Europa Europa. It put a spotlight on me. Personally I am more attached to a film I did just after that called, Olivier Olivier, which is probably the most intimate film I made.
And not recognized? I think two of my American films are better than the way they were received when they came out. Washington Square with Jennifer Jason Leigh. And practically completely forgotten is The Third Miracle. You’ve never seen it?
AH: Watch it! It’s with Ed Harris, Anne Heche and Armin Mueller-Stahl and it is quite a powerful film. Very strange. It’s my mystical period.
Charlatan’s US distributor, Strand Releasing, is planning on opening the film in mid 2021.