The Pebble in the Shoe: An Interview with Agnieszka Holland

The acclaimed director discusses "Green Border" and the dark forest of history.
David Schwartz

Green Border (Agnieszka Holland, 2023).

Agnieszka Holland begs to differ with Claude Lanzmann. The director of Shoah (1985) had attacked the idea of depicting the Holocaust in a fiction film, claiming that its unfathomable horrors would inevitably be trivialized. In a 2013 National Gallery of Art lecture, “Viewing History through the Filmmaker’s Lens,” Holland made two counter-arguments: that feature films are a tool to educate as many people as possible about the Holocaust, and that “taking on issues that are impossible to explain or grasp rationally is one of the most important challenges of an artist.” 

Holland had made a number of provocative Holocaust dramas, including Angry Harvest (1985), Europa Europa (1990), and In Darkness (2011), all of which involve the plight of Jews who have improbably escaped capture and death. With these films, Holland looked back at events from decades in the past. In her latest film, she is dramatizing history while it is unfolding.

Urgent without sacrificing artistry, Holland’s gripping and visceral Green Border (2023) is a present-tense epic, dramatizing the crisis that is taking place in the dark forests of the Belarus-Poland border, where Syrian refugees are helpless pawns in a horrific East-West chess game. As she has done in so many of her films, Holland dives deeply into a specific time and place, revealing acute truths about history, politics, and psychology. She saw this same quality in the work of her mentor, Andrzej Wajda: “Through film, Wajda searched for the essence of a historical experience; he portrayed the nation’s collective fate and its existential consequences for the individual. In this way, he inscribed the Polish experience onto that of humanity while remaining a Polish artist.”1

Sympathy for exiles, and an intimate understanding of the suffering that governments can impose on people, is ingrained into the 75-year-old director’s personal history. Holland’s mother was a Catholic journalist who joined the Polish underground during World War II. Her father, a Jew whose parents were both killed during the war, and who often concealed his religious identity, was apparently murdered in 1961, thrown from a window. In the 1960s, Holland studied filmmaking under Miloš Forman in Czechoslovakia, where she was inspired by the Prague Spring, until she was arrested during the Soviet crackdown in 1968 and spent six weeks in prison. Disillusioned and transformed, she returned to Poland, and after working with Wajda and Krzysztof Zanussi, embarked on her own career as a director.

Against the backdrop of Poland’s uneasy efforts to free itself from Soviet control and the short-lived success of the Solidarity labor movement, Holland made a remarkably candid, unflinching, and deeply ambivalent trilogy of films about her home country: Provincial Actors (1979), about the rivalries and dissent within a touring theater company; Fever (1981), a period drama about the failure of Polish revolutionaries to counter the Russian army; and A Woman Alone (also 1981), an astonishingly bleak drama about a single mother who is rejected or ignored by coworkers, family, and all of the government institutions supposedly meant to help her. All of these films were banned at the time of their release. Martial law was imposed in 1981, leading to Holland’s long exile—and to a successful, prolific career in Europe and the United States, with films including Europa Europa, The Secret Garden (1993), Washington Square (1997), Spoor (2017), and Mr. Jones (2019), and several notable television projects. Holland drew on her experiences in Czechoslovakia to write and direct the three-part series Burning Bush (2013). She had previously worked with David Simon, directing episodes of The Wire (2002–08) and Treme, (2010–13).

Europa Europa, whose Jewish protagonist survives by masquerading as a Nazi, exemplifies Holland’s understanding of the messiness of history, and the fact that there are no easy answers. As Holland once said, in a statement that could apply to all of her work, “The basic point is that I think the world is very complicated.”

Agnieszka Holland. Photograph courtesy Kino Lorber.

NOTEBOOK: Green Border has been very successful theatrically in Poland. But when it opened, the government required that a video be played before the film with their official version of the story. 

HOLLAND: They wanted to play a two-minute clip praising the wonderful activity of the Polish military and border guards, but most of the theaters refused to play it. And it was totally irrelevant, because if somebody came to the theater to watch my film, the two minutes of propaganda couldn't change their opinion. 

There were attacks coming from the highest authorities, the president, the prime minister, and the minister of justice, calling me names and saying that I’m an enemy of the state, and stabbing the back of the Polish soldiers. But it was so overdone that the reaction of the audience was the opposite. It was actually a great promotional tool. 

The film was received by the democratic audience with a lot of emotion, and the discussions have been incredible. And it was a big success, as you said. But a year later, I'm not sure if the reaction would be the same, because the new government took over the right-wing agenda and is using the same vocabulary, and doing the same things, but even worse, because they are allowing the army to shoot people who are trying to cross the border.

NOTEBOOK: I was going to ask if the new government is an improvement. 

HOLLAND: No, not really. We hope that it will be to some extent, at least in the humanitarian issues with care for the weakest, but actually, recently, they decided that they can win more when playing a very hard agenda, as the nationalists did. It's very interesting, you know, because it gives credibility to the nationalists and fascists, because if our government is saying the same, it means we don't have another solution. We have to go with that. 

So suddenly, I started to receive threats again. And many politicians, again, are calling my movie mistaken. And the people whose conscience has been worked up suddenly think, oh, it's better to close their conscience. 

NOTEBOOK: Wow. Well, the way you’re describing politics and its complications applies to the rest of the world, not just Poland. 

HOLLAND: Exactly. It’s a global situation, and I knew that when I was doing the film, but I also wanted to show a specific place and specific situation. Because it's mine, you know. It happens next to the town where I was born.

NOTEBOOK: Which couldn't help but make me think about the three feature films you directed in Poland at the beginning of your career, Provincial Actors, Fever, and A Woman Alone, where you were also talking critically about your country, and making films that you knew would put you in trouble in some ways, politically.

HOLLAND: I have the impression I will constantly be in trouble. Even if the people I know personally and voted for are in power, by the end of the day, I understand that they all want admiration, they don't want criticism when they make terrible mistakes. They don't accept it. I am popular in my country, you know, but I am at the same time like the pebble in the shoe. 

Green Border (Agnieszka Holland, 2023).

NOTEBOOK: You spent time in jail as a protester when you were living in Czechoslovakia [in the 1960s], and you've said that that was very formative to you. I feel like that kind of courage, and something about that experience, has carried through your career.

HOLLAND: To see the quick corruption of the revolutionary minds and the ease with which the general population accepted conformism as the way to go through the life, it was an interesting experience which shaped my feelings about reality, when I'm thinking about history, and the sociological and psychological mechanisms of people and societies.

NOTEBOOK: You’ve said that it was almost like journalism, making this film. How did you decide how to craft the fictional narrative? You had to create characters. The border guard Jan, for example, is somebody who changes during the film. He is a conformist to begin with.

HOLLAND: He’s not a conformist, he’s just a regular guy in uniform. If you’re in the military, you have to follow the orders. It's not conformism, it’s a life choice. It's your role. Conformism starts when you mentally conform to the situation, which is against your education, your feelings, your beliefs. And he did it somehow. But he didn’t do it completely. 

I decided to make the feature film very quickly. The events started in the end of August 2021, and one month later, the government locked a vast zone around the border, and forbade access to the media and to medical aid workers, practically to everybody who didn’t live there.

At the same time [Deputy Prime Minister Jarosław] Kaczynski, who was essentially the ruler of the country, had a very interesting statement. He said Americans lost the war in Vietnam because they allowed the media to go there. That for me was the trigger. I said, okay, you don't want the Polish population to see images of what we are doing. I will recreate those images. The documentary filmmakers cannot go, but I can reconstruct it somehow, and that is exactly what a feature film can do. 

I had done this with the Second World War, concentration camps, ghettos, the famine in Ukraine, so I can also do it while it’s going on. It’s easier because I don’t need the costumes and props from the time, and I have plenty of witnesses and images and statements of people who went through it. So I thought, This is what the feature film is for: to create the reality when we cannot see the reality. 

Green Border (Agnieszka Holland, 2023).

NOTEBOOK: One of your Syrian actors, Jalal Altawil, talked about how when you were filming, the same things you were filming as fiction were happening to people in real life. And that was a difficult thing for him.

HOLLAND: Yeah, it was schizophrenic. But when you are doing the film you forget about that stuff, you have to be cold somehow, like the surgeon while doing an operation. I tried to handle my emotions with respect. It was tricky, because I was working with real refugees, including children. And I didn't want to re-traumatize them. So we were very full of these considerations while shooting, but at the same time, I tried to do it efficiently and fast, because that was the goal I had.

NOTEBOOK: I think about how visceral your films are. They are so physical and so emotional. It’s interesting that you have this split, where you can sort of operate like a surgeon, but you're always telling a very emotional story.

HOLLAND: I always wanted to make a comedy, but it hasn’t happened.

NOTEBOOK: We’ll wait for that! In terms of storytelling; you've talked about your experiences doing television in the United States, specifically, The Wire and Treme with David Simon. You said that was inspirational to you. Green Border moves around so fluidly between stories and brings them together…

HOLLAND: The Wire was absolutely great, and Treme has many interesting things, and certainly the experience helped me make Green Border quickly and keep its quality. So yes, it was a good lesson. 

But The Wire and Treme were not so much lessons in filmmaking for me, because I had the skills before; they were lessons about American society. It's one of the deepest cuts into the American tragedy. I’ve lived in America for a long time; I’m still traveling between continents. But I think I would never know so well the social and political problems of America, and its tragedy and the incapacity to deal with that, if I didn't work on The Wire. So when Donald Trump was trying for the first time to become president it was pretty clear to me that he would win.

NOTEBOOK: Because of what you knew about the American people?

HOLLAND: Not so much about American people, but about American society, and about the ones in the society who are not acknowledged  and are not treated seriously by the political class.

Green Border (Agnieszka Holland, 2023).

NOTEBOOK: When you made Europa Europa, you talked about a duality that you saw in Europe, both the goodness of people but also the darkness that people are capable of. That seems to come up over and over in your films, and we definitely see it here in Green Border.

HOLLAND: And now it's coming up in reality, as well. We had the feeling that [the Holocaust] is over and could not be repeated. Now I’ve had this feeling for fifteen to twenty years that it will happen again. 

NOTEBOOK: Nature—the forest and the woods—plays an important part in a number of your films. Spoor recently, Angry Harvest [1985], and Olivier, Olivier [1992]. And here, the dangerous forest in Green Border is so expressive.

HOLLAND: Nature is important. And you know, the fact that the Polish-Belarusian border goes through such a vast and wild forest, makes the situation much more metaphorical than if it happens on another border, because people are really lost in that forest, like in nightmares or in Brothers Grimm tales. And it adds to that feeling of being trapped and being in hell. 

NOTEBOOK: Well it’s the reality. Politicians everywhere are preying on the fear of borders, specifically of people of different races crossing borders.

HOLLAND: Right. 

NOTEBOOK: So I'm wondering, now that you've made this film in Poland, and Spoor as well, where you stand now in terms of your relationship to Poland. Do you expect to be able to make more films there? And what has it been like revisiting Poland in these recent films after you had left for a long time?

HOLLAND: Yes, but I am still living there part of the time. Poland is my country. It’s a very polarized country, like the United States. And some people hate me, some people love me and respect me, and I'm open to talk to anyone. But polarization is spoiling everything and entering a toxin into everybody's system. We are victims of polarization, and somehow it’s worse than open war, because in war, you have an enemy, and of course, it's terrible, you are afraid, you know you can die, but at least you see the sides. And here, everybody is intoxicated and traumatized by the artificially built conflicts, which are not necessary. It just makes people more afraid and angry. So it’s pure manipulation, and the fact that humanity is so responsive to the manipulation is a very bad sign for the future.

NOTEBOOK: When you were just talking, I was thinking a lot about America, but I'm wondering if there's anything specific to the Polish character, or Polish history that defines the attitude of the people there?

HOLLAND: Well, they certainly know the complexity of living on the border between two worlds, between East and West, and [of] collective narcissism, which is very strong in Poland, and which created the complexes of superiority and inferiority at the same time. We want to believe that we are the best, the most special, the biggest victims, the biggest heroes. At the same time, we are afraid that, in reality, we are the pariahs, and we want to prove to others that we are not. 

But at the same time, it is a country that can do the most generous and revolutionary things, in a peaceful way, like the Solidarity movement, or the recent help to Ukrainian refugees. So the potential of good is very present for the Polish nation, but it is used in very wrong ways by the whole political class. We haven’t had great leaders for a long time. Or if the leaders are great, they have also been very narcissistic. But that’s the problem of the entire world. You don’t have great politicians anymore. You have a lot of scary narcissists. Alpha males.

  1.      Agnieszka Holland, “In Memoriam: Andrzej Wajda,” Film Comment, January–February 2017.  

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