“I see (Agnieszka Holland) as a transnational émigré director,” said Screen Arts and Cultures Prof. Dan Herbert. “I think her identity as a person and a director is more transnational than national.”
A Conversation with Agnieszka Holland
Wednesday at 5 p.m.
On Oct. 9, Herbert moderated a question session with Holland, the Polish-born, Czechoslovakian-trained, critically acclaimed director. The discussion was part of a series of events centered around Holland’s trip to Ann Arbor. The Michigan Theater hosts free viewings of her films, leading up to her appearance at this year’s Annual Copernican Lecture. Additionally, REEES 410: “The Lens of History: Holocaust Memory through the Films of Agnieszka Holland” was offered as a mini-course this semester.
The complexity of political events surrounding Holland’s life explains the difficulties in pinpointing her identity. A student of the Academy of Performing Arts in Prague during the 1960s, Holland came into contact with many of the directors who were a part of the then-emerging Czechoslovakian New Wave, and was exposed to other avant-garde European cinema of the era.
Holland is also an acclaimed screenwriter, particularly for her film “Europa, Europa,” which received an Academy Award nomination for Best Screenplay in 1992. The film follows a young Jewish boy as he attempts to survive Nazi oppression by posing as an Aryan in the Hitler Youth.
“When you look to place Agniezska Holland in the history of Polish Cinema, she is definitely associated with the Cinema of Moral Anxiety,” said Paulina Duda, a graduate student in the Department of Slavic Language and Literature and Screen Arts and Cultures.
“She definitely made films and wrote films that were about the individual, a larger social structure, and the moral ethical problems that the individual faces,” Duda added.
Holland experienced first-hand this tension between individual and society; she served time in prison for participating in the Prague Spring of ’68, a liberal uprising in Czechoslovakia. Later, she left Poland just as the Polish government declared marshal law to suppress political uprising.
One of Holland’s films played at the Michigan Theater this semester includes “Total Eclipse,” about the enfant terrible of French Symbolism, Arthur Rimbaud, and his love affair with the French poet Paul Verlaine.
“The common theme of all her works is to show the complete happenings between people oppressed by society and history, in a way that is never sure whether the main character is simply a positive or negative hero,” Duda said.
This theme is prevalent in “Total Eclipse,” in which the poet Rimbaud leads an outsider’s life of nihilistic nonconformity that is incapable of assimilation into the bourgeois. Verlaine, impressed by the poet’s writings, invites Rimbaud to live with him, commencing a destructive relationship between the two. Verlaine slowly deteriorates, abusing his wife and child in drunken fits of existential crisis.
It’s not surprising that Holland’s lecture is titled “A Filmmaker’s Approach to Society’s Most Vexing Problems.”
“She will be mostly talking about what it means to make films that are truthful, emotionally deep, and at the same time, deal with very complex and tragic periods of our history,” Duda said.
An example of this recourse to truth can be found in Holland’s most recent film, “In Darkness,” which will be discussed in the lecture.
“To preserve the truthfulness of the story of Jews hiding in sewers in Lviv, she wanted to stick to the linguistic reality of the period.“ Duda said. “As a result, her characters talk in Polish, Yiddish, German and Lviv jargon called Balak. This alone shows how seriously she takes the historical accuracy in making films.”
After the attention she garnered from her appearance at the 2012 Academy Awards for “In Darkness,” Holland makes this event an opportunity for students to hear an acclaimed and experienced director speak about her art.