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Agnieszka Holland at MoMI

Agnieszka Holland on the set of Spoor (2017)

Monday marked the hundredth anniversary of the death of Franz Kafka, and while the literary world has spent the week consumed with Kafka fever, Agnieszka Holland has been wrapping production on Franz, a nonlinear biopic with Idan Weiss as the author of The Trial and The Castle. Holland says that she and cowriter Marek Epstein aim to “carefully piece together fragments from Kafka’s past and creation to create a mosaic beyond not only his life toward the present, but also to create a comprehensive view of the dramatic world of Kafka’s imagination.”

The shoot took Holland back to Prague, where, in the 1960s, mentored by Miloš Forman, she attended the renowned FAMU film school. “It was my introduction to politics, violence, beauty, art, marriage, film, and other arts,” she told Allan Tong in Filmmaker in 2014. Holland’s drive to explore every facet of the human experience has informed the domestic dramas, historical epics, literary adaptations, and politically charged thrillers she’s since made in her native Poland, western Europe, and every now and then, in the U.S., where she’s worked with David Simon on episodes of The Wire and Treme.

Laying the groundwork for the June 21 release of Holland’s latest feature, Green Border, New York’s Museum of the Moving Image will present a two-week, ten-film survey of her work, beginning on Friday with Provincial Actors (1979). In a small town in Poland and under the omnipresent gaze of the communist regime, a troupe of performers prepares to stage a production of Stanisław Wyspiański’s 1903 play Liberation. At CineVue, Ben Nicholson observes that “the artistic repression of the era is palpable in the hidden pressures existing just out of frame.”

Provincial Actors won a FIPRESCI Prize in Cannes, and Fever (1981), in which three anarchists scheme to assassinate the Tsarist governor general in 1905, won a Silver Bear for Best Actress for Barbara Grabowska. A Woman Alone (1981), a portrait of a struggling single mother, is “one of the most unsparing and devastating works in the history of cinema,” wrote Amy Taubin in 2019. “Holland’s critique in it is aimed at the failed communist state that, rather than nurturing social consciousness, had created conditions in which its citizens were pillaging crumbs from those who had next to nothing.”

Holland had worked as an assistant director for Krzysztof Zanussi and Andrzej Wajda, and as she told Yonca Talu in Film Comment in 2019, Krzysztof Kieślowski “and I were close friends and helped each other out on practically every movie we made from the mid-’70s until his death [in 1996].” She happened to be in Sweden when, on December 13, 1981, with the Solidarity movement surging, Poland’s government declared martial law. Like so many of her fellow Polish filmmakers, she was compelled to restart her career in exile.

MoMI will screen two of Holland’s features that draw parallels between the Holocaust and their contemporary moments. Her father, a Jewish journalist, had lost most of his family during the Holocaust and her mother had taken part in the 1944 Warsaw Uprising. Europa Europa (1991), which scored Holland an Oscar nomination for Best Adapted Screenplay, tells the true story of Salomon Perel, whose family fled their small town in Germany not long after Kristallnacht interrupted his bar mitzvah plans.

Separated from his family, young Solly (Marco Hofschneider) conceals his Jewish identity to become first a model Soviet student and then an upstanding member of the Hitler Youth. In this “gruesomely comic movie,” wrote Peter Rainer in the Los Angeles Times, Solly’s “circumcision becomes the one defining, unalterable event in his life. No matter how hard he tries to rearrange his identity to save himself from the Nazis, the brute physical fact of that circumcision keeps tripping him up, taunting his efforts at impersonation.”

Based on another set of real-life events, In Darkness (2011) tells the story of Leopold Socha, a sewer worker and petty criminal in the Polish city of Lvov (now Lviv, in Ukraine) who helped hide Jews during the Nazi occupation. “It’s far less fun, dramatically speaking, to watch people with firm moral convictions bravely act on them than to see scoundrels, bigots, and greedheads get moved to their core and impulsively cast aside self-interest,” wrote David Edelstein in New York. “In outline, In Darkness is a standard conversion melodrama, but little within those parameters is easy. The darkness lingers into the light.”

Between Europa Europa and In Darkness, Holland spent a few years working with major Hollywood studios. The Secret Garden (1993) was a well-received adaptation of Frances Hodgson Burnett’s 1911 novel, and with Washington Square (1997), Holland and screenwriter Carol Doyle took on Henry James—under the shadow of William Wyler’s classic 1949 adaptation, The Heiress, but with a strong cast led by Jennifer Jason Leigh, Albert Finney, and Maggie Smith.

“Holland is a director interested in the secrets behind family walls, as in her wonderful The Secret Garden,” wrote Roger Ebert. “Here she takes a story that, in a modern rewrite, would be about child abuse . . . Henry James saw more humor in the story than Holland does (although Aunt Lavinia remains comic), but what they both understand is that in a family such as this, everything depends on the money—unless nothing does.”

Working with Olga Tokarczuk on an adaptation of Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead, Tokarczuk’s 2009 novel centering on a dynamic loner, a woman who claims to know who’s been killing hunters in her remote Polish village, Holland made “her most magnificent work,” wrote Amy Taubin for Film Comment. Spoor (2017) is “a genre mosaic that is at once a phantasmagorical murder mystery, a tender late-blooming love story, and a resistance and rescue thriller. Sprawling, wildly beautiful, emotionally enveloping, Spoor earns its vision of utopia. It would not be the most resonant and inspiring political film of the century if it did not give us hope.”

For Yonca Talu, Mr. Jones (2019) “stands out as one of the rare cinematic representations of the Holodomor, the Soviet regime’s deliberate starvation of millions of Ukrainians between 1932 and 1933.” James Norton plays Gareth Jones, a Welsh journalist investigating the atrocity. He was murdered in 1935, and for many, the NKVD, the Soviet secret police, remains the prime suspect.

“Agnieszka Holland is not one for heroes and villains,” wrote Carmen Gray at the top of her review for Sight and Sound of Charlatan (2020), “her loosely inspired biopic of Jan Mikolášek, an herbalist persecuted by the Czechoslovak state. Regimes come and go in a film set in the communist 1950s that flashes back frequently to the Nazi-occupied ’30s, but the pressure on citizens to bend their allegiance to corrupt systems, or at least blend in, is constant, with falling out of favor for refusing to conform potentially deadly . . . There is little levity or inventive flair in this handsomely shot portrait of totalitarian malady, but it builds to a devastating close.”

After a weeklong run at New York’s Film Forum, Green Border, the winner of a Special Jury Prize in Venice, will roll out across North America throughout the summer. In 2021, refugees from around the world were encouraged by Belarusian president Alexander Lukashenko to use his country as a gateway into Europe by crossing the forested border into Poland. Polish guards pushed them back, and Holland and her team of fellow writers and directors interweave stories of those guards, the refugees, and the underground organizations attempting to help them. “If cinema is an empathy machine, to paraphrase the late Roger Ebert,” writes Leslie Felperin in the Hollywood Reporter, “then Agnieszka Holland’s new film is one precision-tooled specimen.”

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