BEV Interviews Director Agnieszka Holland
In Darkness - latest release from Oscar nominated director Agnieszka Holland – is out today, 16th March.
BEV’s Sonia Zadurian delves deeper with Agieszka about a human side to the Holocaust, covering the same material more than once and the difficulties in fictionalising controversial subject matter…
BEV: First of all, congratulations on your Academy Award nomination. What has this meant so far for you and the film?
AH: It always helps the movie and it’s nice recognition. For me professionally, it wakes up a desire to send me some material, which I received a lot of recently.
BEV: What attracted you to this project? What interested you initially and kept your interest throughout production?
AH: This period and those events are an important part of my heritage, my biography and my abilities, so I was always interested in this story on a personal level. Not so much as a political/historical situation of the Holocaust, but of the human experience which I find easy to connect with. Anything which is good, truthful and authentic in some way speaks to me, but this script was not only very well written and very rich in the description of the characters without the stereotypes, but also had an authentic and symbolic dimension in the lightness and darkness… it was something very concrete, very matter of fact but at the same time it had a very powerful cinematic challenge and the possibility of expressing something through cinematic means. The setting of the story and the possibilities the setting gave us were very challenging. There were a lot of reasons to be interested in the script. Of course I was also afraid to go back to this subject again, I’ve done it twice and the other times it was painful, but then in some way you cannot do it without it being painful to your body and soul. Also I believed when reading the script that this movie could work as it felt very authentic. However, the language was important to me. I didn’t want to make it in English and this made me pass twice on this project, because of the language.
BEV: The subject matter as well as the film as a whole feels extremely claustrophobic. As an audience member, you very quickly develop a tangible empathy with the hidden Jewish characters. What was your process in terms of creating and sustaining this sense of claustrophobia in the audience?
AH: I was very meticulous in the creation of the settings and locations, and the way we would be shooting them, the cinematic style; the lighting and the camera work. So it’s difficult to describe in sentences because it was a very collective process of me, my production designers, my DOP and my camera operators. We would be talking a lot and trying to find a way which would express this experience in the most expressive and personal way.
BEV: Birds Eye View celebrates female filmmakers. Although the central character of In Darkness is male, the film features female characters and their various roles. As a female director, how important was it for you to devote time to the female stories and involve issues around what it means to be a mother or sister, etc?
AH: When I’m telling a story I don’t think so much about whether it’s a man or a woman, I try to portray them with the maximum empathy and identification. Most of my collaborators on this movie were women. My second unit director, who is my daughter, shot a lot of scenes, my DOP is a women, my costume designers are women, as well as one of my production designers. So most of the crew were female and of course some of the actors. But with the actors, it’s very interesting because I think in some way the gender issues don’t play with actors, a lot of male actors have a very female sensibility. I think that my point of view comes with who I am. It comes from my gender, it comes from my nationality and from my experiences.
BEV: You mention the cast there, and the film is brilliantly cast and superbly acted, but how did you go about casting for a film when such a diverse cast was required?
AH: I knew immediately that I wanted Robert Wieckiewicz to play Socha and that I wanted Kinga Preis to play his wife. They were actors that I had never worked with, but I had been following them for a while and I thought that they were wonderful, very rich and real and that they were the best possible actors for the film. The rest were cast using regular casting, trying them in the scenes, selecting them from a bigger bunch of actors, etc. Most of them I knew before, but I still went through this casting process to try to create a group of people with diversity and at the same time with the credibility of this group.
BEV: Working through the film, what was your process in relation to the original source material and how closely were you attempting to adhere to it?
AH: Well, most of the work was done by the screenwriter. The first script was slightly different from the final script we did but most of the important decisions had already been made. It is very close to the source material. Most of the events, which might seem incredible, happened in reality, like Mundek’s journey to the concentration camp to look for Klara’s sister… that’s true. The biggest change we made was to reduce the amount of characters and to also combine some of the characters in one, so three characters became one character to make it more emotionally accessible.
BEV: You also mentioned you’ve worked with this period several times before. Did you have any reservations before agreeing to go back again? Were you at all hesitant to revisit this particularly painful time?
AH: It’s also one of the reasons I passed the first time. I know that if you want to do it with honesty, you have to go very deeply in terms of the research and in terms of the identification and those experiences, and spend two years of your life in this reality. It is very difficult. So I know that it’s not an easy or nice task, but in some way it called me. But now I’ve done a trilogy and I think a trilogy is enough.
BEV: This film is incredibly important, but some theorists would argue that the horror of this period should only really be portrayed in documentary film and shouldn’t be fictionalized. How important do you think it is to keep telling these stories in narrative form?
AH: Some people do think so and I do understand this approach. But you know, it’s very difficult to make an adequate image when you’re using the fictional. It always seems to make it more conventional in some way and more bearable. It’s why I always try to be so close to the reality and uncompromising in terms of the sentimentality, I try for a more realistic approach. But on the other hand, if you want to educate and pass the experience on to the next generations around the world… it comes to documentaries and historical books. It is a very difficult challenge for a filmmaker but you cannot just exclude one dimension of human history from the desire to portray it. It would be absurd. But knowing how difficult a task it is, I think it is rewarding. The movie was extremely successful in Poland, which I didn’t actually believe would happen, but it was huge and the reaction of the people afterwards, and all the letters I received and all the things that people were talking about, it is so important and so rewarding. It shows how much you can change people’s vision of another people. I think it’s worth it. So I think it’s a little selfish to think that you shouldn’t touch it… it’s not right.
BEV: Thank you very much for speaking to Birds Eye View and we wish you the very best of luck with the UK release of the film.
In Darkness is out in UK Cinemas from Friday 16th March.