Agnieszka Holland: Singing the Unsung
Even if you don’t know her name, you know the movies of Agnieszka Holland, the poet of displacement, director of In Darkness (a subterranean Schindler’s List, only unsentimental), set in the sewers of Lvov during World War II. It lost the foreign film Oscar to the even more deserving A Separation.
Most observers ascribe Holland’s loss to “Holocaust fatigue.” It might also be that her other Oscar-nominated films, Angry Harvest and Europa, Europa, were superior to her most recent effort. Still, she is one of the most prolific, talented (and unsung) filmmakers, one who is almost unfailingly drawn to unsung characters. (Her least-interesting films are about well-known figures: Verlaine and Rimbaud in Total Eclipse, the composer and his helpmeet in Copying Beethoven).
Polish-born, the child of a Jewish father and Catholic mother, Holland studied film in Prague with Milos Forman and Ivan Passer. (She would later write the screenplay for the Oscar-nominated Anna, about an Eastern European actress involved with a Forman-like director in New York.) But first she worked in Poland, writing screenplays like Without Anesthesia and Danton for the great Andrzej Wajda and, later in Paris, Blue for Krzysztof Kieslowski. In the late 1980s she began writing and directing her own films like A Woman Alone (Kobietna Samotna), a portrait of poverty and isolation that remains one of the most shattering film experiences I’ve ever had. Artful without artiness, Holland knows how to put the viewers into her characters’ shoes.
Angry Harvest, her 1985 film about a Jewish refugee hidden by a German farmer during World War II, was a revelation, emotional and erotic without fetishism or sentimentality. (I still remember my fury when it lost the foreign-film prize to the decorous Argentine entry, The Official Story. I was even angrier when Germany failed to nominate her masterpiece, Europa, Europa, a funny, nervy, anxious tale of a Jewish boy who passes for Aryan during World War II.)
Over the last 25 years, Holland has been prolific. You’ll see her credit on the best episodes of The Wire and Treme, and she’s continued to make wonderful, surprising feature films such as Washington Square, a version of the Henry James novel starring Jennifer Jason Leigh, one that liked its heroine a lot more than James did, and The Third Miracle, with Ed Harris as a priest who has lost his faith and regains it when he investigates the life of a Chicago nun nominated for sainthood. I also liked her 1990s remake of A Secret Garden, another story of displacement, one that permitted Holland to both literally and metaphorically visualize how transplants bloom in unaccustomed earth.
Film is richer because of Agnieszka Holland. So go see In Darkness. But before you do, tell me your favorite Holland film.