Saturday, October 21, 2023

It’s possible to commit the worst crimes and never pay’

Filmmaker Agnieszka Holland: ‘It’s possible to commit the worst crimes and never pay’ 

The director on being drawn into Poland’s bitter election campaign  is— and how a failure to confront history has come back to haunt Europe

Agnieszka Holland’s special jury prize at the Venice film festival last month was in many ways business as usual for a Polish director who has been garlanded with awards over the course of her 50-year career. Less welcome or expected was what happened next: she found herself thrust into the heart of her country’s bitter election campaign. Holland’s new film, Green Border, was seized on by Poland’s ruling rightwing Law and Justice (PiS) party. 
It tackles the humanitarian crisis brought about in 2021 after the Belarusian leader Alexander Lukashenko, angered by sanctions imposed after his regime’s suppression of pro-democracy protests, encouraged migrants to travel from the Middle East and Africa on chartered flights to Belarus, offering his country as a gateway to Poland and the rest of the EU. Two years later, Holland’s scenes of Polish and Belarusian guards brutally mistreating the new arrivals were taken as both insult and fuel for PiS’s nationalist narrative in the run-up to the vote on October 15. 

Even before the film opened in Poland on September 22, it sparked a ferocious PiS-led backlash. Justice minister Zbigniew Ziobro compared Holland’s work to Nazi propaganda. “Only pigs sit in the cinema,” said the country’s president Andrzej Duda, quoting a Polish resistance warning to those who watched Nazi films during Germany’s occupation. Holland, who has mostly lived outside Poland since 1981, returned to her home country to promote her film and had planned to volunteer as a polling station observer on the day of the election. 
But fearing for her safety after receiving death threats, she is leaving Warsaw early; we agree to share the last lunch of her significantly shortened stay.  
The 74-year-old director has filmed under communist censorship in Poland and spent time in a Czech prison in the aftermath of the Prague Spring of 1968, yet she insists that until now, she has not faced such vicious attacks from ruling politicians, nor has she ever felt unsafe in Warsaw. “I was never the target of such a hate campaign,” she says. “Certainly you have a lot of deranged and fanatical people who are susceptible to this kind of propaganda.” 
Papu, a restaurant that serves traditional Polish cuisine, has given us a corner table far from other patrons. Holland says she often comes to Papu, but has chosen our lunch venue because it’s close to her Warsaw apartment and has been cleared by her security team, newly hired since the death threats.

The wood panelling feels perfect for a Polish winter, but less so when we are enjoying Poland’s warmest September on record. I notice an awning that blocks the sunlight, which explains why all the lights are on, including those of the crystal chandeliers hanging from the beamed ceiling.  
When Holland walks in, dressed all in black, she looks diminutive next to her escorts, two men who clearly spend time in the gym. Cesary, one of her two bodyguards, looks me up and down and warns: “Please take care of our lady.” 
 Holland is happy to share my bottle of water and also orders an orange juice. I tell the waitress that I eat everything, so she recommends beef ribs, preceded by a starter of beef tartare served with pickles and shallots. Holland opts for duck consommé with homemade dumplings followed by potato pancakes with marinated salmon.

  This generation was totally damaged . . . they had to cope by themselves and the most sensitive among them never recovered 

She tells me that she avoids red meat. “I don’t eat my brothers and sisters,” she jokes, and then questions my all-beef selection: “You’re eating my friends, but I understand that you didn’t grow up to have a recognition of the consequences, so I hope that you will one day — or not . . . I’m quite tolerant, you still have time.” 

Holland has directed episodes of big American series such as The Wire and House of Cards, but she is best known for movies that focus on the tragedies of central and eastern Europe, including the Holocaust, in which part of her family perished.  
I ask her how this family history has shaped her filmmaking. Holland’s father was a Jewish journalist and her Catholic mother fought in the 1944 Warsaw Uprising against the Germans. She was later honoured by Israel’s Yad Vashem remembrance centre with the title of Righteous Among the Nations, which is given to non-Jewish people who helped Jews during the Holocaust. 
Her father was also a fervent communist who fled Germany’s invasion in 1939 and enlisted in the Red Army. He returned to Warsaw to find his entire family had been murdered, except for a sister who survived “in a miraculous way”: she hid in the coffin of her dead sister, managing to escape after it was taken outside the ghetto for burial. When she was 13, Holland’s father leapt to his death from his apartment window after being accused of espionage by the Polish secret service. 

 “My father really believed at some point that [communism] would be great for humanity, perhaps also because he was facing all the glass ceilings for being a Jewish boy,” she says. “You know, this generation was totally damaged because they went through such terrible experiences and nobody was thinking about therapy and psychologists, so they had to cope by themselves and the most sensitive among them never recovered.” 

There are more family stories, as visceral and violent as some of her films. Her grandfather was shot dead on the street by a German officer, while other relatives died in the Treblinka concentration camp. Listening, it’s hard not to feel overwhelmed. 
We move on to Holland’s own life, from her childhood in postwar Warsaw and early passion for painting to her “formative time” at film school in Czechoslovakia during the Prague Spring, and then the influence of her mentor, Andrzej Wajda, winner of an honorary Oscar for his contribution to world cinema. Their collaboration — including on Wajda’s acclaimed 1977 Man of Marble — was not acknowledged in Wajda’s Polish film credits, she says, because she was the daughter of an alleged traitor.  
Holland believes that communism, though it scarred all the countries under Soviet control, had some beneficial effects on filmmaking: its censorship created “intelligent directors who were using all the language of metaphors and symbols and stylistic figures that the audience could perfectly read”.   

Menu       Papu 
Aleja Niepodległości 132/136, 
Beef tartare with pickles, shallots 49 
Duck consommé with dumplings 31 
Potato pancakes with salmon 39  
Beef ribs 109 
Cheesecake 31 
San Pellegrino 24 
Orange juice 18 
Double espresso 18 
Americano 12 
Shot of tequila 27 
Americano x 2 (for Holland’s bodyguards) 24 
Total inc service 420 zlotys (£80) 

Now, she says, directors have less intense life experiences and their audiences want simple storylines: “Everything has to be told straight and, on top of that, you have to put that it’s [based on] a true story.” In 2019 Ukraine gave Holland a special award for Mr Jones, her movie about a Welshman, Gareth Jones, who travelled to the Soviet Union in 1933 and witnessed the Holodomor — the famine orchestrated by Stalin that killed millions of Ukrainians.  
Holland was moved by her visit to Kyiv shortly after Ukraine’s Maidan revolution in 2014, but she says that she mostly wanted to reduce the imbalance between cinema’s attention to the crimes of Hitler compared with those of Stalin.   Many Europeans, she tells me, retained “a special attraction to Russia” after the second world war, and even nations that then suffered under Soviet control later mostly failed to confront their communist past and punish people for crimes committed during this period, including in Poland. “I’m not speaking about blind vengeance but justice for the victims, which didn’t happen. And part of the moral chaos we’re living now in Poland and other parts of Europe and the world is that we realise it’s possible to commit the worst crimes and never pay for that.” 
The Holodomor’s monstrous architect was Stalin, but the villain in Mr Jones is Walter Duranty, the New York Times correspondent in Moscow who also served as an apologist for Stalin. Duranty’s misguided crusade, Holland argues, helps us understand the modern danger of “identity media” that seeks to defend only one side of politics. “I was showing in Mr Jones how it is if journalists believe they have to save the world and have to take stances,” she says. “It’s very dangerous for democracy because it destroys the trust, we see it now in Poland or in America.”  
Holland is now eating her pancakes, which she calls “quite a Jewish meal”. My beef ribs are tasty but would have been better had I not waited for Holland to instruct me to stop scribbling in my notebook: “Eat, Raphael, before this gets cold, I can tell you things now that are totally unimportant because I want you to finish your meal.”  But triviality does not seem to be Holland’s forte and we quickly return to discussing her film and migration.  
Which insult hurts most? ‘None of them because I don’t have an ounce of respect for those people. I’m totally immune to that kind of hate’ In Green Border, Holland pulls no punches. A child drowns in front of another helpless refugee. A pregnant woman is thrown off a truck by a Polish guard. An activist is unjustifiably strip-searched in a Polish police station after being arrested in the forest that she and other volunteers criss-cross looking to rescue migrants, while also avoiding the guards and helicopters that hover above the foliage.
 The government is now asking cinemas to screen Holland’s film after a video clip that offers an alternative narrative, presenting its guards as defenders of Poland. Holland is also under attack for not shooting her movie on the Belarus border, although the area was out of bounds when she was filming. She tells me that this criticism is absurd. 
“I didn’t go to Ukraine during the famine and I didn’t go to the Holocaust ghetto, but I was able to make important and honest movies,” she says, while wiping her glasses with an orange cloth. “You don’t need to put the finger in the fire to know that it burns.”  Holland is preparing a defamation lawsuit against Ziobro, the justice minister, for his Nazi comparison, and also for “dirtying the memory of my father” by claiming her alleged anti-Polish feelings come from being the daughter of a communist. 
Which insult hurts most? “None of them because I don’t have an ounce of respect for those people,” she says. “I’m totally immune to that kind of hate. Of course when it’s against my father, I feel this sadness because he cannot defend himself and if I start to defend him, I will provoke [more] hate. My only commentary can be this lawsuit.” The early scenes of Green Border are set in October 2021, just before European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen accused Lukashenko of launching a “hybrid attack, not a migration crisis” against the EU. 
Holland shows Belarusian guards using batons and dogs to force migrants to cross into Poland, from where similarly brutal Polish guards push them back while ignoring their pleas to be treated as asylum seekers. “We’re just footballs,” one African migrant says. In July last year I travelled to that forest on the Poland-Belarus border, shortly after Warsaw reopened access to visitors having added a 5m-high steel fence that runs for 186km. Desperate people were still hiding in the woods, in what felt like a humanitarian crisis that had been forgotten as Poland won plaudits for welcoming millions of Ukrainian refugees.
  I ask Holland about this divergent response. “Racism is one [reason for the difference], Putin as a common enemy is another, but another thing is that our government quite quickly supported the wave of solidarity” towards Ukrainians, she says.  Holland says she believes that societies have “a similar potential for good and evil,” which swings “depending on the circumstances and also what is supported and cultivated by the authorities”. After the crisis at the Belarus border, Polish society wanted “to look in the mirror and see beautiful Poles — and they loved this image.” 
 Their job is to win an election, my job is to tell the truth in an artistic way But politicians can easily engineer U-turns, Holland warns, exemplified by the “idiot” president Duda, who had staunchly supported Kyiv until he recently compared war-torn Ukraine to a drowning person clinging to their rescuer and endangering their life. “Immediately the authorities start to feed this growing hate of Ukrainians again, so you see how they manipulate,” she says.  Her film also touches upon the EU’s mishandling of migration, from its failure to stop illegal pushbacks of migrants to its inability to prevent drownings in the Mediterranean.  
Holland calls the EU “a very beautiful and absolutely necessary concept”, whose efficacy has however “evaporated”; she likens it to an expired vaccine that once offered protection against resurgent nationalism and other negative emotions similar to those that triggered the second world war and the Holocaust. “We have a new virus that needs a booster,” she says.  I ask Holland whether she wanted to draw parallels between the plight of Middle Eastern and African refugees in Europe today and Jews during the Holocaust. “Absolutely,” she replies, before listing several comparisons. 
One of them, she argues, is the resemblance between Germans deceiving Jews about the destination of the trains that transported them to death camps and her film’s guards, “who are lying to the people when pushing them on to the truck and saying they will be taken to Germany”, before driving them instead back into the hands of Belarusian guards. Holland insists Green Border was not timed to coincide with Poland’s election, but she also confirms to me that some opposition politicians asked her why it was not released after the vote, to avoid PiS misrepresenting her work in order to fuel Polish nationalism. She then surprises me with a stinging critique of Poland’s opposition led by former premier Donald Tusk. 
 “My feeling is, listen guys, you lost six elections in the last eight years, you’re unable to unite, you’re unable to come up with your own efficient narrative, you’re lazy, narcissistic, and of course you blame one movie because you [could be] losing another election. 
No, you have to work! Their job is to win an election, my job is to tell the truth in an artistic way.”  While I pause to take in her rebuke, she adds: “I’m supporting them, of course, but I see their weaknesses.” The waitress returns, recommending cheesecake to accompany my coffee. Holland orders a double espresso and a shot of tequila. “It’s the only drink that helps if I’m tired,” she explains. “It’s been a lot of tension.”  After her tequila, Holland apologises for having to bring our lunch to a close. 
She is leaving Poland at 5am the following morning.  We say our goodbyes and I stay to settle up, puzzling over the extra coffees on the bill. The waitress tells me they were ordered by the bodyguards who sat near the entrance. It was such an intense conversation, I had forgotten all about them.  
Raphael Minder is the FT’s central Europe correspondent  
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