Agnieszka Holland: At the Thought of Poland Leaving the EU I Get Shivers down My Spine

Recently there was a march of the National Movement in Warsaw. When I looked at the reports, I had an impression that history had come full circle. I’m terrified by the total lack of reflection on the part of the authorities and people identifying with the ideas which had led to terrible crimes—says Polish film director Agnieszka Holland in conversation with Łukasz Grzesiczak.

ŁUKASZ GRZESICZAK: In what circumstances did you decide to film Olga Tokarczuk’s book? Spoor appeared on cinema screens already under the Law and Justice rule, where the Minister of the Environment is an avid hunter and despite warnings of the European Commission he is cutting down trees in the Białowieża Forest. Many viewers perceived your latest production as an anti-government manifesto.

AGNIESZKA HOLLAND: Actually, Minister Jan Szyszko is very much like a character from Spoor, but when we started making the film, we obviously couldn’t know it. Tokarczuk’s book Spoor was published eight years ago. Four years later, Berlin producer Dorota Paciarelli inspired me to think about filming it. She had read the book, which made a very strong impression on her, and she was convinced that it was a good material for me. I had also read Tokarczuk’s book and it did occur to me that I could film it, but I have a lot of ideas which come to nothing. I needed a stronger impulse to start seriously thinking about the text and reasons for taking it up. A number of things came together here: I was seeking a subject for a Polish film which would say something about the condition of our society, concerning some phenomena which were perhaps invisible at the first sight. It was also important for me to refresh my cinematic language, to take up a new challenge. I struggled for a long time with translating the book into the language of film. It turned out to be more difficult than Tokarczuk and I had first thought. The novel resisted being transformed. I was afraid that this story would break into incoherent pieces.

Did it already occur to you when making the film that it was critical of the regime?

I did not put it this way. My criticism of the Law and Justice (PiS) regime is obvious, I often speak out publicly against it. I don’t need cinema for that. At a certain stage I realized that my film could be a metaphor of a certain profound conflict between brutal power and helplessness of the weaker. The map of the weaker is of course changing. In Spoor they are represented by Janina Duszejko, a lonely old woman. Old women in Poland are treated contemptuously and rudely as second-category citizens. Their existence is often accepted only when they play specific social roles, like that of a grandmother. Duszejko has strong views, she is self-confident and aware of her own rights. Animals are also weaker, of course. In Poland things are only starting to change in this area, animal protection gradually stops to be perceived as an obsession of a few weirdos. It has not yet entered the mainstream, but it is already present in public discourse. But there are other people who are weaker – they represent various social or personality fringes. These are simply people who do not fit the triumphant mainstream. They can be Law and Justice voters in the previous era or listeners of Radio Maryja. At some point they felt marginalized in Poland. When years later I watched my film A Lonely Woman, I wondered who my protagonist would be today and I decided that now she would be more happy, for she would find some community, for example that around Radio Maryja. For people like her, who due to cultural or social exclusion, to the inability to come to grips with modernity, felt lonely and marginalized, today don’t have to feel like that.

Old women in Poland are treated contemptuously and rudely as second-category citizens. Their existence is often accepted only when they play specific social roles, like that of a grandmother.

A separate question is how this community executes its rights and wants to deprive others of these rights. What I want to say is that it is not always the liberal-progressive side which is marginalized and deprived of its rights and feels helpless and disempowered. And helplessness generates an awful anger, a sense of hurt, a drive for revenge and retaliation. And this is what my film is about.

It appeared in extraordinary times…

When authoritarian populism wins in a growing number of countries, it will eventually become mainstream. There is a danger that it dominates our planet, and then it will be the people for whom a sense of freedom and respect for truth is essential who will find themselves in a situation of hurt and helplessness. They will be the group to start rebelling. Even now we observe it in the public space.

When authoritarian populism wins in a growing number of countries, it will eventually become mainstream. There is a danger that it dominates our planet.

Recently there was a march of the National Movement in Warsaw. When I looked at the reports, I had an impression that history had come full circle. I’m terrified by the total lack of reflection on the part of the authorities and people identifying with the ideas which had led to terrible crimes. A group of citizens sat down in the street with white roses to stop the fascists and police removed them – which, of course, the law allowed them to do. I saw total helplessness – these white roses and passive resistance against a triumphant force.

Can you still stop this force?

Someone would have to want to do it, not just a group of determined people with roses in their teeth. Some political force has to unambiguously declare itself and mobilize our society. In absence of that will have a repeat of history.

What do you mean?

It’s down to what the hunters represent in my film: you can lawfully kill.

Is the reception of Spoor different in Czechia, Poland, and Slovakia?

I have had meetings with Polish, Czech, and Slovak journalists and viewers, and I think that the film is understood in pretty much the same way everywhere. In its poetics, Spoor is more Czech than Polish. I mean here a certain kind of humor, a mixture of drama and comedy – this is not typically Polish poetics. For Czechs it is not a difficult film to decipher. Likewise in Slovakia, where society is divided in two tendencies which slowly start to emerge everywhere, that is the hunters and the rest. Slovakia is a country where a fascist party has made it into the Parliament and is going up in the polls.

Is Czechia free from this bite?

No, but Czechia has a different kind of populism. I do not notice any fascist movements there, we should rather speak about populist and xenophobic movements. Their message is simple: “Leave us alone, we are coping very well on our own, we don’t need anyone else.” This is firmly rooted in the Czech national character. The Czechs adapt poorly – they do not like to leave the country, among economic  emigrants there were many Poles, Slovaks, or Romanians, but relatively few Czechs. They love their Prague and their hospodas. And I don’t hold it against them, for Prague is really lovable… The Czechs are not welcoming towards aliens and aliens do not assimilate very well there.

Have you personally felt it?

As a student in Prague I did not personally feel it, for I was younger and joined the artistic community, and also university is a different kettle of fish. I was open to this culture and I loved it with all its weaknesses and charm. Miloš Zeman is an unpleasant person and he also dangerously flirts with Putin, but at the same time he is not an ideologist but a populist cynic. He has no ideology. Just like Andrej Babiš, who—as the polls show—will probably become the future Czech prime minister. The danger for the Czechs is a spiritual and cultural marginalization – they will place themselves outside the mainstream debate. This, of course, is quite unproductive. When Václav Havel was president, a very strong message came from Czechia, and Czech literature, film, and culture were strongly present in the world. The otherness of the Czechs was inspiring. Now I do not see anything like that. Very few things coming from Czechia could inspire anyone today.

Talking about your studies in Prague, you mentioned weaknesses of Czech culture. What exactly did you have in mind?

I meant its provincialism, lack of ambition to go beyond your limitations, ostentatious acceptance of your weaknesses and lack of courage. These features can consequently lead to sterility and isolation. In this sense, due to these qualities, “normalization” found fertile ground in Czechoslovakia and were it not for external pressures, it would last longer than these 20 years with minimal resistance of the Czechoslovak society. Numerically, Charter 77 was an initiative bordering on statistical error, perceived by the Czechs themselves as an unpleasant mirror which it would be best to cover. But this Czech weakness turned out to be the strength of many artists: filmmakers and writers. The Czech dislike of pathos opened the way for intimate humanism, painfully absent in most Polish works.

Czechia has a different kind of populism. I do not notice any fascist movements there, we should rather speak about populist and xenophobic movements.

Do you believe there is such a thing as a cinematic soul of the nation?

I think that there is something which could be defined in this way. At the same time, the best films, while preserving certain cultural uniqueness, are universal. It would be difficult to find a more Polish filmmaker than Andrzej Wajda, with all his romanticism, his almost obsessive references to Polish history, literature, symbols, signs, and experiences. And yet his films are universal, he managed to translate Polish experience into a universal language. This was also an achievement of Czechs and Slovaks in the era of the Czechoslovak New Wave. It turned out that films made by Věra Chytilová, Miloš Forman, or Jan Němec were universal, as were the novels of Milan Kundera, Bohumil Hrabal, or Josef Škvorecký.

The danger for the Czechs is a spiritual and cultural marginalization—they will place themselves outside the mainstream debate. This, of course, is quite unproductive.

Czech literature is much more universal than, for example, Polish one. Although many Polish writers are translated into foreign languages, besides Stanisław Lem, Witold Gombrowicz, and Bruno Schulz, I can’t think of any other Polish writer who would be widely read abroad. But we also have the poets, Wisława Szymborska, Czesław Miłosz, or Adam Zagajewski, so it’s not that bad. Of course, they are read only by an elite with literary interests.

Do you follow Slovak cinema?

I am not an expert, I don’t know the whole cinematography, I watch only selected films. I try to know the most interesting ones. So I don’t want to play the smart guy here. In the last couple of years I have certainly seen some interesting Slovak films. For years the Slovak cinema was in decline and if Martin Šulík did not make a film, there was really nothing interesting to see. Recently a few commercial filmshave been made and of course many human interest documentaries created by young people, graduates of the Slovak film school. It is a generation which enters the world of cinema with very interesting documentaries. Slovakia is a young society living in a young country, and documentaries undoubtedly help in understanding it. The question is how much these films are watched by Slovaks themselves, I don’t know the statistics here. I recently watched an interesting film by Tereza Nvotová. The plot is set in Slovakia, showing a new feminist sensitivity. In the Polish, Czech, and Slovak cinema there is a growing number of women who tell the stories about the world from a perspective which previously, except for Věra Chytilová, was virtually absent. Here and there it appeared in documentaries. Polish cinema is the most muscular today among the three, it takes up the most difficult subjects and its language is the most developed, the most versatile. In Poland, thanks to the Act on Cinematography and the existence of the Polish Film Institute, more films are made than in Czechia and Slovakia, so the young and middle generation of Polish filmmakers has been able to make its presence felt. I hope that it does not occur to Deputy Prime Minister Piotr Gliński to introduce the PiS program of “good change” also to the Polish cinema.

What is going on with Czech cinema? Is it in crisis?

It has been in crisis for a long time. Two or three interesting Czech films appear each year, but even those are sort of timid. Jan Svěrák or Jan Hřebejk regularly show new films, but they no longer have the power of their first works. Perhaps the features of Czech culture I spoke about earlier are to blame. There are also some interesting Czech filmmakers who live abroad, like Petr Václav, who has made his home in France. His films are only shown during festivals, but, in my opinion, they are fascinating. I have seen a few interesting films by young artists, but it is difficult to tell yet if these are personalities who will manage to build their own language and message. I think that today it is too easy to make films in Europe. This generates a kind of conformism: filmmakers try to predict what sort of movie it will be easiest to get money for.

We are talking in Cieszyn. Is it your first visit to the Kino Na Hranici Festival?

No, but it is long since I last came here. Previously I still had to show my ID when I was crossing from Cieszyn to Český Těšín. They kept inviting me to Cieszyn for a long time, but something always stood in my way. This town lies slightly out of the beaten track, although now it is easier to get here by car than before. I am thrilled with this possibility of free movement between Poland and Czechia, for a person from my generation it is particularly important. We were imprisoned for years, you were often unable to get a passport, we were locked in a cage, and on top of it there was the humiliation at the border. I will never forget how in 1981 I was travelling with my little Kasia from Prague to Wrocław. This was a time when you could buy nothing in Poland. She had a new schoolbag and shoes. Customs officers were frisking us at the border and they took the schoolbag and shoes from my child. She had to take them off, for she was wearing them. She stood and cried. When I hear the ideas of taking Poland out of the European Union, I get shivers down my spine.


Agnieszka Holland is a Polish film and theater director and screenwriter. In 1971 she graduated from FAMU, a film school in Prague. She is the Polish translator of Milan Kundera’s Unbearable Lightness of Being. Her last film Spoor, based on the novel by Olga Tokarczuk, is the Polish candidate for the Award of the American Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. In February 2017, Agnieszka Holland received The Silver Bear Alfred Bauer Prize for Spoor. The award is given to the films that are perceived to open new perspectives in the art of film. Mrs. Holland accepted an offer to film a three-part drama for HBO about Jan Palach, who immolated himself in January 1969 to protest “normalization“ after the Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia in August 1968. The resulting miniseries, Burning Bush, has been shown in Poland and Germany and selected for a Special Presentation screening at the 2013 Toronto International Film Festival. | Photo: Profimedia

Łukasz Grzesiczak

Łukasz Grzesiczak is Polish journalist and writer publishing hist texts Czech and Polish journals.

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