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Agnieszka Holland on New Film “Green Border” About Europe’s Refugees & Her Movies About the Holocaust

Web ExclusiveJune 25, 2024
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In Part 2 of our interview with acclaimed Polish filmmaker and screenwriter Agnieszka Holland, she discusses her new film, Green Border, and how she began her long career making movies that are based on true stories during the Holocaust, including Europa Europa and In Darkness. Green Border takes as its subject the present-day treatment of millions of migrants seeking refuge in Europe and opens nationwide in theaters this week. Holland addresses the film’s title and depiction of violence.

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!,, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Nermeen Shaikh.

Agnieszka Holland, highly acclaimed, award-winning Polish filmmaker and screenwriter, in a career spanning half a century, she’s directed more than 20 films and a number of television productions in countries and languages across Europe, as well as the United States and Canada. She’s won numerous accolades for her work, including being nominated for an Academy Award three times.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Several of her films have centered around events that constitute crimes against humanity. Mr. Jones portrays the man-made 1930s Ukrainian famine. Europa Europa and In Darkness are based on true stories during the Holocaust. Her HBO miniseries Burning Bush focuses on the self-immolation of a 20-year-old protester following the Prague Spring. Agnieszka Holland herself was arrested and briefly imprisoned in Prague for her involvement in protests at the time.

Her most recent film, Green Border, takes as its subject the present-day treatment of millions of migrants seeking refuge in Europe. Green Border was awarded the Special Jury Prize at the 2023 Venice Film Festival. The film was widely criticized by the then-far-right government in Poland.

Agnieszka Holland, welcome to Democracy Now! As we continue Part 2 of our conversation with you, if you could begin by talking about the title, why is the film called Green Border, and then your decision to shoot the film entirely in black and white?

AGNIESZKA HOLLAND: Actually, it starts with green. It starts with a shot of the —

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Oh, you’re right. Of the forest.

AGNIESZKA HOLLAND: — camera, yeah, flying over the forest, and the forest is green. And it changes to black and white.

“Green border” has a double meaning in Polish. Green border is illegal border, is illegal way of passing the border. That is one. And second, it is that that border passes through the oldest and the wildest forest in Europe, Białowieża Forest.

So, the migrants who are arriving at the border, hoping — especially at the beginning, it was a lot of hopes that it’s such an easy way to pass to the paradise. They didn’t expect the conditions. They didn’t know anything. They found themselves suddenly trapped in that wild forest, not equipped for that, not knowing how to move there, with the telephone which discharged very quickly. And that situation existentially becomes some kind of the symbol, you know, to me, and, you know, the cinematic scene to show the meaning of that situation, to show not only the emotion, but somehow to build up the metaphor.

AMY GOODMAN: And talk about the significance of that border between Belarus and Poland. For people in Poland and European Union, it’s obvious. But for the rest of the world, why people are going that way, how they’re getting to Belarus and then going — why going into Poland?

AGNIESZKA HOLLAND: Well, at the border of European Union is good border to go through for the people who want to escape the misery or persecution of wars. And we know that migration is huge. We know that in Middle East, it’s totally destabilized, that many countries are fallen countries, that we have a constant domestic war in Syria, that we have Iraq, which never, like, became the regular state. We have Lebanon and Libya, which also have been fragilized by the interventions. We have Afghanistan, which was deserted by first the war — we started the war — we, the West — and then we practically deserted it, unable to build up the kind of the democracy there and the people. And we have Africa, where in several countries they become some kind of the playfield for the interests of different players, including Putin, who takes — Russia takes more and more of the place, in manipulating the African situation. And we have the — last but not least, we have the climate catastrophe, which makes many places in the South practically impossible to live in. So, the people are escaping and will be escaping the places they cannot live, they cannot have the security, they are prosecuted, or they are hungry. And they are trying to find the ways.

The more used way is the sea, Mediterranean, but that is also the most dangerous one, especially that the rescue and the boats of the activists are having more and more obstacles to help the people, that the smugglers are cheating on the people, giving the boats which are practically impossible to reach the target. And also, border guards from European countries, from the countries of European Union, Greek border guards, for example, are practically killing the people on the sea. So, about 40,000 of dead have been counted in the people who drown in Mediterranean, which makes it like one of the greatest cemetery. And it is dangerous. People are still trying, hoping that they will be lucky ones. But it is more and more dangerous.

The Balkanian corridor have been shut down. And Turkey was taking the part of the refugees paid by European Union. And very quickly, the exterior dictators — Tunisia, Russia — they realized that that is not only the great opportunity to blackmail Europe, but also it is a great opportunity to play with the destabilization and blackmail, blackmail exactly the European Union and its governments to receive something or to shut down some possibilities. Anyway, Putin and Lukashenko, who are the allies, they figured out that it will be —

AMY GOODMAN: Lukashenko of Belarus.

AGNIESZKA HOLLAND: Belarus and Russia. They realized that it will be very useful for many means to open the new corridor. And it wasn’t possible without their activity and with their organization. And they also are making some money for that, because they are selling visas to the people who are waiting, you know, to find the way to come to Europe. Belarus was organizing plane trips to Minsk, and after, you know, the people have been directed to the border, and sometimes helped, sometimes not helped to pass the border. But when they passed the border, the response of the Polish-uniformed guys was to push them back. With time, it became more and more cruel procedure. And because it was with the permission and the encouragement from the Polish government, that sadistic way of dealing with the refugees became like the everyday bread.

But worse was even other side. It means Belarusians have been beating and torturing the refugees which was pushed back to them, raping women, stealing from them and pushing them back to Poland. And I met the man who was pushed like that back and forth 26 times. And it was not only physically, but psychologically, he was so humiliated. And so he lost so much the faith in the humanity altogether that I was crying whilst talking to him.

And the savers of the little brim of the humanity are exactly the activists, the local activists, the activists organized in the NGOs, now for three years, because the situation didn’t change. The wall has been built in the meantime, but not walls can really stop the people if they are in despair. And those activists are doing their job. And in the meantime, we don’t have a right-wing, populist, nationalist government, and we’ve been hoping that the new government will civilize the proceedings, but not. They are using it in the same way.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: So, let’s go to another clip from your film, Green Border. Again, Democracy Now! has voiced it over for our radio audience.

MARTA: [played by Monika Frajczyk] [translated] Wait.

JULIA: [played by Maja Ostaszewska] [translated] You’re right. That’s how it is. I’m sorry. Look, I want to help, too. I’m sure I’ll be useful. I can do anything. I’m in pretty good shape.

ZUKU: [played by Jasmina Polak] [translated] Go on. You’re doing fine.

JULIA: [translated] I’m a psychologist.

ZUKU: [translated] Not a shrink?

JULIA: [translated] Anyway, I have the tools to help people in crisis, and I know first aid.

MARTA: [translated] Do you have a driver’s license?

JULIA: [translated] Yes, and a car. And look, quite a lot of free space. It’s much closer to the border here than your base in the town. You wouldn’t be so conspicuous. There are two rooms upstairs, with three beds. The whole house is at your disposal, except for my bedroom. If you have to smoke, please do it outside.

ZUKU: [translated] Look, it works just like Messenger. This is Honza, our homie in Czechia. He helped us once, and his number has been circulating online ever since. Now lots of people crossing the border know him. If they need help, they send a pin to Honza with their location and what they need, and Honza sends it to us. Got it?

MARTA: [translated] All right. Now the most important thing. If you want to work with us, you have to accept the rules. We give food, water, medicines, clothes, powerbanks, phones. We don’t give lifts or guide anyone. And we don’t enter to the exclusion zones, OK?

JULIA: Mm-hmm.

MARTA: [translated] We can’t give pigs any excuse, or they’ll hit the whole organization, and those people won’t get help anymore. You understand? Get the boxes.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: So, Agnieszka, that’s another clip from your remarkable film, Green Border. So, if you could speak of some of these activists, who are doing really extraordinary work, and how — how do they get access to this zone of exclusion, where no one, as you said earlier, no one is actually allowed in?

AGNIESZKA HOLLAND: Actually, they didn’t. They didn’t. And most of them accepted the rules, because they’ve been afraid that if they would break the rules, they will be shut down and will be unable to help in any way. Then they’ve been helping those who passed the zone, who somehow, you know, succeeded to escape from the zone. But the local people who are living inside of the zone, some of them became the activists also by necessity or by some kind of the urge, by some humanistic need. And they’ve been helping all the time, without restriction. And some others, who have been more anarchist, they decided that if the rules of the state are inhuman, we don’t have to accept the rules. And they took the risk to be arrested and to have the troubles.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: So, if you could also speak about — you know, in this film, what’s very striking is the scale of the violence that’s represented. I mean, first of all, it’s a kind of violence and brutality that you associate with the Second World War. You can’t imagine that that kind of brutality is occurring now. If you could talk about your decision — it’s very rare to see in cinema such a raw representation of violence, brutality, and such totally gratuitous acts of cruelty.

AGNIESZKA HOLLAND: Well, you see in the popular cinema much more of violence and blood. But it’s —

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Oh, you’re right about that. It’s true.

AGNIESZKA HOLLAND: Here, it’s mild. You know, they are bitten. They are, you know, pushed. They are threatened. What makes, I think, the film so powerful somehow, it is a psychological violence. It is that descends to the hell for the people who decided to come to paradise. I think that is more painful than to see somebody being beaten.

But I think that the big change in our mentality is, in the civilized world or in the democratic world, that we more and more accept the violence in the response to the challenges. And we see the violence every place now, on the borders. We see the violence in Ukraine. We see the violence in Gaza. We’ve seen before the violence in Israel when Hamas attacked the people on October 7th. And we see among the populations which are concerned more and more of the acceptance of the violence and absolutely the necessary tool to fight the enemy, or to fight the enemy that I can eventually understand — war is war — but to fight the problem, to fight the people who are causing the problem. And instead of dealing with the problem, we are beating or killing the people. That is a big change.

And yes, it reminds the Second World War. It means it reminds the beginning of the fascism or Nazism. And it’s why, for me, the migration problem in Europe or on the U.S. borders, as well, is so crucial, because in the moment when we accept that we have to deprive of the human rights and the regular rights one group of the people and beat them or kill them, we are on another side of the humanity.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: You’ve said that the response that you received to this film, to Green Border, from audiences is kind of unprecedented. So, on the one hand, you have that, and I’d like you to talk about how audiences in different parts where this film has already shown in Europe, what the response was that you received. And on the other hand, the response from the then-far-right Polish government, with the hard-right Justice Minister Zbigniew Ziobro, who wrote, “In the Third Reich, the Germans produced propaganda films showing Poles as bandits and murderers. Today they have Agnieszka Holland for that.” You also received many death threats. You had to get a bodyguard. So, on the one hand, you have the audience reaction. And on the other hand, you have the reaction of the Polish government.

AGNIESZKA HOLLAND: It was complicated situation, because it was just before the general elections. And the government then thought that they will gain some points when attacking me and our film and feeding the flame of the nationalistic, you know, outrage. But they’ve been so overdoing it, but because not only Mr. Ziobro, but also the prime minister, president of the country and several other politicians have been treating me the names and also telling to the people that they don’t have to go to the theaters, because only pigs are going to the cinema. That is the slogan from the Second World War, when the underground wanted to tell people don’t go to the cinema, because before the movie, they are showing Nazi propaganda.

Anyway, it was — it mobilized people on the good side somehow, and it mobilized my potential audience, and we had a great box office result. Somehow now they’ve been making the PR for me, and I will never have money to — will never have the money to pay such a promotion. But another side, the democratic side was afraid that it can, like, make smaller their chances to win the election. So, I’ve been in between two things.

But what was the most important to me is that those close to million viewers who have seen the film in Poland responded in extremely emotional and powerful way. Yeah, I never had such meetings with the audience after the screening like with that film in Poland, but after, in some other countries, in Italy, in France, in Belgium, in Holland, in Germany, where the discussions after movie was sometimes two hours long. And people have been crying, and the people wanted to like, that — they started to ask me, “What is the solution, you know, if I believe that the film can change the world?” And I say, “No, I don’t believe it. I don’t believe. I think that’s my duty. I’m a filmmaker. I make the statement, and I also describe the world the way I see it, trying not to be simplistic trying, not to be — to spread the hate or despise. But, no, I am not changing the world.” And then, I will never forget that one young woman in Bordeaux, in France, she said, “OK, you are not changing the world, but you did change my world.” And that is somehow, you know, to me, the philosophy
why it’s worth it to make the movies like that.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Could you talk about this decision, I mean, this cinema of moral anxiety, the compulsion you feel to represent the crises of the world, even as, of course, you see that or you believe that films don’t change the world? But it’s still very important. It serves a purpose, to represent what’s going on.

AGNIESZKA HOLLAND: Yeah, it’s important, too, also, you know, to wake up the identification with the other, the empathy or some solidarity sometimes. So, yes. The other films have been more warnings. I’m speaking about Holocaust movies or whole other more film. And yes, it was the cinema of moral anxiety. The Green Border is the cinema of the moral anger. It was more of urge and more of, like, determination when doing that film.

AMY GOODMAN: Before we go all the way back in time to look at your span of 50 years, your incredible work, as you mentioned the Holocaust, you recently directed and were nominated for an Academy Award for In Darkness, which is based on the book In the Sewers of Lvov, which is a Holocaust film, the story of — what was it? — 14 Jews hiding in the sewers of Lvov for an astounding 14 months before they could come out, when the Nazis were driven out. Can you talk about the making of that film?

AGNIESZKA HOLLAND: I didn’t want to do that film, frankly, because I did two movies about Holocaust before, and I knew how much it costs, how much you have to spend your life for several years in that situation, and that you pay for that as a human being. But after, you know, it became some kind of the necessity to tell that story. And I was pushed by the writer so hard that I was unable to refuse, to refuse to make it.

And I put a lot of conditions. One of the conditions was that the film will be not in English, but in real languages of the story. And it was many languages in Lvov, in Lvov which is Ukraine today, Lviv, but it was Poland before the Second World War. And you have Poles. You have Ukrainians. You have Jews. You have Germans. You have Russians. You have also the special Polish, Polish Lviv slang, which is quite different from military Polish. So, I’ve been recreating the linguistic fabric of that reality. And it helps, I think, the credibility of the story, even if you don’t see the differences, if you are, you know, from someplace.

And what was for me — it was important to me to show also the Jews who are hiding as not as only group of victims and martyrs, but as a regular people, the people, with the good people, bad people, the people who are selfish, the people who are generous, the people who are sentimental, the others who are very — you know, like, show all the variety of the humanity, because I think that in most of the Holocaust movies, that group becomes somehow also dehumanized in the positive way.

And to show also the savior, who is like regular Polish folk, a little petty thief also and somebody not so good and generous and right, and who somehow becomes slowly the full human being, and he’s not — he’s even ashamed of his generosity. He thinks that it shows that he’s just stupid. But he cannot do in different ways. So, that line he’s walking on between good and evil is so thin that in any moment he can fall on both sides. And that is what interests me in the human choices and in the human situations. Somehow, Green Border has a similar kind of the approach.

AMY GOODMAN: You know, it was just interesting also for me. My grandmother was born in Rivne, about an hour away — it was Poland at the time, in 1897 —


AMY GOODMAN: — became Ukraine, about an hour away from Lvov — and fled before the Holocaust, fled the pogroms. But to see what took place then and how people survived, and who the so-called Righteous — and I don’t want to put quotes around it, but the Righteous were, as you describe, this Polish plumber, who saved all of these people and their whole universes.

AGNIESZKA HOLLAND: My mother is a Righteous Among the Nations, and she planted her tree in Jerusalem next to Yad Vashem. And so, somehow, you know, I feel and understand that kind of people. And Rivne is also the place where several friends of my mother have been born. And also, the greatest Jewish Polish poet woman, Zuzanna Ginczanka, was from Rivne, and she perished in the Holocaust. It’s a very interesting character. It’s wonderful and unknown out of Poland, unfortunately, poet.

AMY GOODMAN: And Leonard Bernstein, also his mother was from Rivne.

AGNIESZKA HOLLAND: Right, right. Rivne was a very, you know, fertile, fertile place.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking to Agnieszka Holland, the highly acclaimed, award-winning Polish filmmaker and screenwriter, who is here in New York for the premiere of her film right now, Green Border. But she has been making films now for 50 years, directed more than 20 films, a number of television productions in countries and languages across Europe, as well as here in the U.S. and Canada, directed some of the films, The Wire — some of the episodes, as well as Treme. She makes films about the Holocaust, about crimes against humanity. Mr. Jones portrays the man-made 1930s Ukrainian famine, Europa Europa and In Darkness based on stories during the Holocaust. Her HBO miniseries Burning Bush focuses on the self-immolation of a 20-year-old protester following the Prague Spring. Agnieszka herself was arrested and briefly imprisoned in Prague for involvement in protests at the time. So, I want to go back in time, to your parents. You mentioned your mother. But if you can talk about both of your parents, what happened to them, how they influenced you, and how at the age of — what? — 15 you decided to be a filmmaker?

AGNIESZKA HOLLAND: I was born and raised in communist Poland after the Second World War. And that war was omnipresent, especially in my city, Warsaw, because the Warsaw was practically in ruins after the Warsaw Uprising. The Nazis totally, like, destroyed the city. It looked like Dresden after the Allies’ —

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Allied bombing.

AGNIESZKA HOLLAND: — bombing, or Hiroshima after the atomic bomb. So, I was raised in the ruins, which actually was great, even if dangerous, because it was possible to find, you know, not the [inaudible] which didn’t explode, the bombs also. But it was a great place to play.

And my mother was the part of the Polish Home Army as a teenager, practically, and she was fighting in Warsaw Uprising, as well. And my father, at the beginning of the war, he was 19 years old, when the war started, and he went to the east. He was a young communist then. He was a student of the medicine, Jewish student of the medicine. And with the antisemitism rising in Poland with incredible speed, the communism was for him like the radiant possibility to the justice and the equality. And he went to the east, had been in Vilna or Lvov — Lvov, I think. And then, when the Nazis came, he escaped to Soviet Union and was fighting in the Red Army for a while, then after in the Polish army financed and organized by Joseph Stalin.

And he came back to Poland. He was wounded several times. And he came back to Poland to realize that his city is in rubbles and that his family is not there anymore. They didn’t know about the scale and scope of Holocaust when they’ve been in Soviet Russia. The informations didn’t went through. So he was hoping that he will find somebody. He didn’t. After one year, he found one of his sisters, who escaped to Warsaw under the fake documents in the false labels in German, and it’s how she survived.

Anyway, so he came as a believing communist and Stalinist to the Poland which was highly still antisemite, even if most of Jewish population perished — 3 millions of Polish Jews didn’t survive — and also anti-communist. In Poland, communism never was popular. It was associated with Russia, which had been always enemy. So, my father did several things, which was, judging from our knowledge now, not right. And ’til now, you know, when I am attacked by the extreme right, they are taking out my father and telling that I am the daughter of the Stalinist and I have Stalinist genes.

And my father, quite quickly — I think he was very smart, very intelligent person and very curious about the reality and [inaudible], outspoken, so he didn’t fit very well into the Communist Party. He started to have the troubles. And when he realized how the political trials in Hungary and Czechoslovakia looks like, and how he realized after Khrushchev shown what was the Stalinian crimes, he changed, and he became, remaining the member of Communist Party, to be very critical to the dogmatic part of the Communist Party. And inside of the Polish Communist Party, the antisemitism officials, antisemitists started to grow. My father was one of the first victims of that. He was arrested under the fake accusation of collaborating with some Western spies. And during the investigation, he jumped out of the window.

I was 13 then. And, of course, it shadowed my adolescence, but also shown me how — by knowing and learning more and more about the biography of my father, I understood how complex and complicated the world is, how the best intentions can change to something which is terrible, and how hate is always the best instrument to keep the people together.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: I mean, that’s one of the things in all of your films, actually, or in a large number of them that deal with precisely these crisis situations, crimes against humanity, that the — neither the victims nor the perpetrators are portrayed as just that. In other words, you just don’t expect the perpetrators to be overall evil and the survivors to be good or moral.

AGNIESZKA HOLLAND: Well, history shows us that the victims can become the perpetrators, and the perpetrators can became the righteous. So, I think that the human being mostly has the same potential of the good and the evil. And it depends very much on the circumstances and also the way the authorities, political authorities, religious authorities, are feeding our bad side or good side. And it’s much easier to cultivate the bad side. It’s much, much easier for any kind of the authorities. So they are doing that. And if they have the reasons and space, they are doing it very efficiently. And now in our time of internet, social medias and artificial intelligence, the manipulation is unprecedented. And all players are using it. So, I have impression that we are all fed by hate and fear.

AMY GOODMAN: Talk about your decision to become a filmmaker, why you saw the making of films as your niche in the world, as your way of making the world better, if that’s what you were trying to do, or exposing what it was. And then perhaps the film you’re most well known for, Europa Europa, why you chose that topic?

AGNIESZKA HOLLAND: When I was 15, I realized — I wanted to be a painter before. I was skilled in drawing and in painting. But then I realized that, first, maybe I’m not a genius painter, and second, that it doesn’t express myself fully. So, I asked myself, “What expresses myself fully?” And I say, “OK, I need the visual expression. I need to tell the stories,” because I was inventing stories, you know, and making stories from the childhood, “and I need the power. I need the power over the people. I need to tell them what they have to do.” So, I say, “OK, that is a film director.” So I started really to, you know, focus on the —

AMY GOODMAN: You ruled out politician?

AGNIESZKA HOLLAND: In communist Poland, come on. No, it was — it was the reason several people went to the cinema, because you can have that power and the influence on the reality when you’ve been creating fiction. It was much more difficult — it was impossible to do it in the real life. After, of course, the dissidence started, the opposition, but it was in the ’70s, ’80s, not before.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: And what about Europa Europa?

AGNIESZKA HOLLAND: Europa Europa was the story which came to me. Artur Brauner, Jewish German Polish producer, very rich man who produced my film Angry Harvest, which was my first nomination, told me about that story. I didn’t want to work with that producer, because he was very greedy, and the conditions have been terrible. But it’s a long story. So, without telling it now, but anyway, finally, I say “OK,” because I loved this story. I liked the duality of the story. I liked the identity questions. I liked also that it’s the different — that you have to find a different way to tell the story, not to make it methodological, you know, very tragic story, but also to show the paradoxes —

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Can you say a little bit what the story is?

AGNIESZKA HOLLAND: The story is about the young German boy born in Germany, and the family was raised in Germany, but they had Polish passports. And when he was 13, the Kristallnacht happened. It means the first great Nazi pogrom against Jews. And several Jews with Polish passports have been shipped to Poland. Some of them stand in the no-man’s land, because Poland didn’t want them, neither. It’s a bit like situation like with the green border. So, they found themselves in Łódź, in Poland.

And when the war — when the Nazis attacked Poland, the family decided that the boys here and his brother have to flee to the east. And he was saved on the river. They had been crossing the river, and he was saved by the Soviet soldiers and put to the Soviet orphanage, when he became very ardent Stalinist. He really believed that that is the best. And he was — there had been Polish kids there which had been anti-Stalinist, and he was hated by them, of course, because he was like that good, good pupil.

But then Germans attacked Soviet Union, and they flee to the east, and he was captured by Germans. And he had, like, the illumination, and he told to Germans that he is German — how to say it? — Volksdeutsche. It means a German born outside of Germany, several countries in Latvia, Lithuania, Poland also. They’ve been the groups of German born outside and living outside of the Germany. And for some mysterious reasons, they believed him.

And they first incorporated him to the Wehrmacht military team, where he was — he was very young, so he became some kind of the mascot of the regiment. But he was behaving very, you know, bravely and heroically, even in their opinion, so he was adopted by the high officer and sent to the most exclusive Hitler Youth school to Germany, where he became the little, you know, ardent Nazi, except that he was unable to forget the difference, which was his penis. And then, somehow, you know, the fact that he didn’t become the perpetrator, that he somehow couldn’t forget his identity of victim and Jew, was that little piece of skin he didn’t have. So, you cannot show it totally seriously, right? And all those adventures, which are incredibly, you know, adventurous, exactly, but they are all documented, he also has been the witness of arresting Stalin’s son, and he translated him to the German, because he spoke Russian then.

So, anyway, it is the story of that — you know, of that Zelig, somehow, of Holocaust. But in the same time, because of that absurdity of his destiny, and because of the youth of that young boy, whose only determination is to survive, but also he wants to be the part of the group. He wants to be accepted. He wants to have the similar feelings and similar ambitions, like others who are around him. How easily you can become a conformist? And what makes you different from others? You know, there’s many questions about the identity, but also about that play field of the history, which Middle Europe and the Eastern Europe started to be, and how you become the toy in defense of the history, how you are shifted from one side to other, without you can make the choice. And the only choice you can make, it’s about yourself, not about the bigger picture.

AMY GOODMAN: Speaking of yourself, we got a little ahead of ourselves, because we went from you as a 15-year-old to one of the most accomplished filmmakers in the world. But I wanted to ask about your own experience in Prague. What happened to you there? And also, your making of the film about the young man who burned himself to death?

AGNIESZKA HOLLAND: Yeah. Jan Palach was a student at the philosophy at the university in Prague. And he was exactly my age, and I was student of the film school in Prague. For us, the Prague Spring was the first experience of freedom and hope and democracy, but it was shut down by the Soviet intervention. And it became clear that it’s not way to win with that, with those tanks and power. But if you are 20, you refuse that it’s impossible to win. And when Jan Palach felt that the people are accommodating to the situation, that they became conformist, and he was protesting against that, it wasn’t so much that he protested against Soviet invasion. He protested about the facility that people accepted, accepted that defeat. And he burned himself to death.

One month later, it — and it became the — I was in Prague there, and I was marching. And it became the — his funeral was one of the biggest manifestation of the need of freedom. It was huge. But one month later, another student did the same thing, because what Palach was asking for was not met, and no one wanted to hear about him. It means during the 12 months, the public opinion shifted from the enthusiasm of defending the opposition to the conclusion that if the freedom means death, we prefer to be alive and not have the freedom.

And that was a very interesting moment, which I think was for me the lesson for life, to see how the people are making the choice, and how, after, it was the 20 years of something which was called normalization, which was the saddest and the most depressing and the most inhuman period in the history of Czechoslovakia, but also several great people came out of that, the dissidents like Václav Havel, for example, and several others, my friends.

And then I was arrested by plotting some kind of the, you know, little opposition action with Polish and Czech and Slovak students, and I spent one month in prison after I was sentenced to one year and a half, but they suspended it. And that was like also one of the most important experiences of my life, to be in prison, especially that for, like, 10 days or 15 days even, I was in the only — 


AGNIESZKA HOLLAND: — in the solitary, yeah. And so, I could to figure out what I’m able to stand and how much I — and where is my — where can my failure come from, when I’m afraid, when I’m not, and that it was, like, really great, great experience.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: And in another way, Prague was very significant. You went there in part because of your long interest in Kafka. And your next film, which you’ve been working on, is also on Kafka.

AGNIESZKA HOLLAND: Yeah, I thought to myself, you know, Kafka was, for me, important since the time when I decided to be the filmmaker. It’s the same time when I read The Trial and The Castle and some of his novels for the first time. And it was like the revelation to me. But it was also another thing, that I felt somehow very close to that neurotic, fragile young man with a triple identity and with the incapacity to live in the world and to feel to be, like, the habitant of the world, accepted by others. So, I felt that he’s a bit like my brother. I have to take care of him, you know? And yes, I was going on his steps when coming to Prague to study.

And I never had the courage to really make the film which speaks somehow about his life or about his work. I wrote and directed, co-directed with my husband then, the adaptation of Trial for Polish television, which I think was quite successful. And that, it was a great experience also to enter his work, you know, in a very intimate way. So, I felt now is probably the last moment I can try. And I found the great partners in the Czech producer and some co-producers, but the Czech producer who I did the movie Charlatan with, she was very enthusiastic about the project. And we reunite quite a lot of money for such a production, which makes me extremely nervous now, because it is the most experimental film I did. It’s not like the linear story. It’s fragments and bribes.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Which is perfect for a film on Kafka.

AGNIESZKA HOLLAND: Exactly. But if it will come together, I don’t know.

AMY GOODMAN: And for the TikTok generation, to introduce Franz Kafka, this Bohemian Jewish writer from Prague, what would you — how would you summarize his life and why you think it’s so important for people to understand in the 21st century?

AGNIESZKA HOLLAND: Well, he was — especially after Second World War, he was taken as an absolutely prophet and that his writing, like, prefigurated all terrible things which happened, like, you know, all the totalitarian machines and dehumanization. But, in reality, it’s something more even. It has also that playful and, you know, ironic existential approach. And also, you know, Kafka was hating to visit people, to speak to people. He liked writing, so he wrote, communicating through the letters with most of his loves and friends. And somehow he was very much like the younger generation now, who is communicating through the social media. And so, I think, I mean, we’ve been trying also to show the reception of the Kafka, to saw how he became somehow, you know, the brand, and what is modern in him, but how he’s overused by the tourist attractions. And, you know, in the movie, you have everything. And I hope it will work.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: So, I know you won’t — you probably won’t give away much of the film. But are there any — because, of course, he’s most well known for his short stories. Are there any stories of his, or even, as you said, letters to his loves, that kind of guide the film or that feature prominently in the film, more prominently than others?

AGNIESZKA HOLLAND: Well, we tried to put the pieces of some of his writing, but I’m not sure if it will remain. The longest is — how it’s called? — the punishment colony.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: In the Penal Colony.

AGNIESZKA HOLLAND: Yeah, mm-hmm, that we are showing some representation of that. But more, I wanted, like, to link his life to what is in his writing without trying to be more very explicit about what he exactly wrote.

AMY GOODMAN: So, as you reflect on your 50 years as a filmmaker, can you talk about what it’s meant to be a woman in that world, making films, the breakthroughs and the obstacles that you faced?

AGNIESZKA HOLLAND: Apparently, it’s much more difficult. And, you know, I didn’t feel it in Poland when I was starting, because I had so many problems because of my political background. And I was censored and, you know, persecuted by the communist government, so the other obstacles have been like secondary.

And I was really helped by my Polish friends, filmmakers, the older and of my generation, by Andrzej Wajda or Krzysztof Kieślowski. They’ve been — Krzysztof Zanussi. They’ve been very strong supporters. And it’s because of them I was able to even start and, after, continue to make movies in ’70s in Poland.

And after, I was somehow forced by the situation to emigrate to France, after the martial law, because I didn’t want to end again in prison, and also I knew that in the — after the '82, after the martial law, it will be impossible for me to make films in Poland. So I became the refugee. So, it's also, you know, with a 9-years-old daughter in France, without money, without the language, without anything, so I can sympathize very well with that situation so many millions of people are living through now. And when I was talking to my actors, to my Syrian actors from Green Border, we’ve been sharing exactly same experiences. Of course, their immigration have been much more dangerous and cruel than mine. And I was white woman in white France, so it was easier for me. But anyway, we’ve been sharing the same, you know, the same feelings and the same experiences.

And what was your first question?

AMY GOODMAN: Being a woman?

AGNIESZKA HOLLAND: Ah, woman, yeah. So, I realized it more when I exactly found myself in France and then in U.S. And you have to be very tenacious, and you have to be twice as good as a man in order to succeed. And now I can tell you, you have to have long life, because after — because, you know, for example, the reception of Green Border is great, mostly, and it somehow reputs me on the map in several countries. And suddenly I’m receiving, like, the dozens and dozens of, you know, awards for my films or from entire whatever.

AMY GOODMAN: Body of work?

AGNIESZKA HOLLAND: Body of work, yes. And, of course, it’s nice. But in the same time, you know, it’s not what, for me, is a reason to make the films. So, what really I feel that give me the special stance, it’s maybe the fact that I am a woman.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: And before we end, I just want to ask you about a Polish playwright and painter and poet, who you say whose words you recall quite often, Stanisław Wyspiański. He says, “Wherever we can, we must take control, given that so many relinquish control over so much that happens.”


NERMEEN SHAIKH: Your thoughts on that?

AGNIESZKA HOLLAND: Yeah, it was my motto somehow, you know, that knowing given that my activity may be pointless or hopeless, it’s still what I have to do, because it’s the only way to try to make something which depends on me, which I can be responsible for and I can be somehow proud of.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, you have so much to be proud of. Agnieszka Holland, we thank you so much for spending this time with us, the highly acclaimed, award-winning Polish filmmaker and screenwriter, whose career spans 50 years, has directed more than 20 films, a number of TV productions around the world, as well. Her latest film is called Green Border, and it’s just been released in the United States, first in New York and then in Los Angeles. And it covers the present-day treatment of millions of migrants seeking refuge in Europe. It just won the Special Jury Prize at the 2023 Venice Film Festival. We thank you so much for being with us.

To see Part 1 of our conversation, go to democracy I’m Amy Goodman, with Nermeen Shaikh. Thanks so much for joining us.

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