I was able to interview the Academy Award winning director (Europa Europa) Agnieszka Holland in Toronto at the debut of her new film about the Holocaust, In Darkness. In Darkness is Poland’s entry to the Academy Award for foreign language picture.
Women and Hollywood: What made you want to take on another story about the Holocaust?
Agnieszka Holland: It called me and I thought that maybe I could tell it in a different way and a different level of human dimension to the story. This story is richer that a lot of the other stories I have seen and I had to tell it.
WaH: I read an interview you gave the Hollywood Reporter and you spoke about the “Hollywoodization” of the Holocaust. Can you explain that?
AH: It means that there is an audience which is to prepared to see something beyond the sentimental, but at the same time some Hollywood movies have been great — and I think Schindler’s List was great — but after watching similar kinds of films that star American actors or famous actors I have started to feel that there was nothing more to get out of that. That in some way it changes to a kind of cliche and even the truth about what it was and how it was in some way vanishes in the cliche.
WaH: It’s interesting that in your film tree are very few German Nazis.
AH: It’s not a film about a fight between nations or to say here is evil and here are angels. They are all human and any one of them can jump from one side to the other. It’s most crucial to me about this experience to show that the danger is not in another nation, the danger is inside of us.
WaH: I read that the writer and producers wanted to make the film in English.
AH: The script was written in English by a Toronto screenwriter and it is much easier to finance when it is in English. I don’t believe it reaches an audience really well except really big movies made by very famous filmmakers and very famous stars and having wide American distribution. But small middle budget films in English some way slip between the TV movie and the movie for no one, so I know it will not help the film to reach an audience by the fact that it would be in English, but it would be certainly easier to finance. International English speaking films are easier to finance than Polish films with Yiddish and Ukrainian and German thrown in. The producers have been very brave that they followed my concept and I think the film wouldn’t have the power that it does if it were in English. I deeply believe that.
WaH: You also worked on the script?
AH: I worked on the final draft of the script . We had several sessions and he was following my ideas and was a good collaborator, but the script is his I am not credited.
WaH: You said to your editor when you were cutting it and said this film has to last. Can you explain?
AH: When he cut the first version it was over 4 hours and we didn’t know what to do so we started to cut it down and we came to a length which is similar to the final length. It was still very long and we didn’t have an idea how to cut it and then we started to cut the scenes to squeeze them and we realized that we were cutting out the soul of the film. Being shortened made it feel longer and we realized, or I realized, that this particular story the fact that those people are sitting most of the time doing nothing in darkness that you cannot express it without some kind of length.
WaH: I was trying to some research and see how many films about the Holocaust have been directed by women and the answer is not very many and there are very few that are well known and wanted to know if you had any comment on that.
AH: I think there fewer less films directed by women all together not just Holocaust movies. Romantic comedies or family movies have more women than the other genres but the war movies — you have Kathryn Bigelow — but normally you see very few. Why? I don’t know, I’m not sure I can speak for other women if they are not interested in those stories or if it is difficult for women to get them made.
WaH: But those are the stories that attract you?
AH: The story is important to me because it is part of myself, it is my heritage. The quest for some deeper truth about humanity, who we are and where we are going.
WaH: When I was leaving the theatre someone made a comment that it was unrealistic because people had sex in the tunnel.
AH: That’s exactly what I was talking about when I said that we have the change the cliche. That it’s black and white. That all the victims are angels. Of course they had sex and not only that, I was talking with several survivors and the man I was talking a lot to — he died 2 years ago — Marek Edelman was a leader of the Jewish uprising in the Warsaw Ghetto. He was probably the most honest and most eloquent describer, a witness of how it really was. I dedicate the film to him. He never went to the sentimental or moralistic or nationalistic route, he was always talking about it as an extreme human experience which speaks so much about the humanity.
He wrote a book about life in the ghetto and talked about how much of love and sex there was in the ghetto. He said he had never seen so much sex and it was incredible. He wanted to make a movie based on his book which my cinematographer is now preparing. It will be a mix of a documentary and fiction and I am helping her a bit. Doing this film I wanted to take advantage of this experience and my historical consultant who is one of the most knowledgeable scholars of polish Jewish relationships during the war just wrote me and said that his main source told him the same things.
I think that (in the past) people who have been telling the story have been afraid of telling the real human things and now they want people to know that they were human that they were not some theoretical human beings or angels.
WaH: What was the most difficult part of the shoot?
AH: Everything was difficult. Shooting in the winter which was really harsh, and shooting in real sewers. Even when we were shooting on the stage it was terribly cold and we didn’t have enough time and we didn’t have enough money and we had many producers pulling everyone in different directions. I remember that most of my crew said it was the most difficult of their lives. My first AD after 4 days had a heart attack. The production manager the week before shooting was admitted to the mental hospital and he took all the computers with him so we were suddenly without of budget. It was really extreme.
WaH: You’ve directed a bunch of TV series in the US. Talk about your experiences on those shows.
AH: It is much easier. You have to work fast but not such an extreme experience as shooting In Darkness. I mostly workwith great producers and writers and even when you are under stress like with The Killing on AMC which was 7 days of shoot. For The Wire and Treme it was a bit longer. It is satisfying and it is immediate. You have an immediate reaction from the audience.
WaH: I love The Killing.
AH: You do? I will be directing the first episode of the second season.