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(photo credit: (Courtesy))
A common theme runs through the movies of most filmmakers, but director Agnieszka Holland, who was at the 22nd Haifa International Film Festival last week to attend a screening of her latest project, has such an eclectic body of work she's difficult to pin down. The Warsaw-born filmmaker, whose first name is pronounced Ag-ni-esh-ka, has made movies in Polish, Czech, German, French and English. There've been works about Jews hiding in Europe during the Holocaust, 1986's Angry Harvest and 1990's Oscar-nominated Europa, Europa, probably her best-known film; adaptations of famous literary works such as The Secret Garden and Washington Square; a contemporary look at a family coping with the return of a boy who may be its long-lost son (Olivier, Olivier); and movies about artists, such as Total Eclipse, the story of the love affair between poets Arthur Rimbaud and Paul Verlaine.
She concedes that her work is difficult to characterize, but says, "The one thing that pulls [it] all together is the focus on identity, borders and extreme choices."
A case in point is her most recent effort, Copying Beethoven, which will open throughout Israel on October 19. Like Total Eclipse, Copying Beethoven is a look not only at the personal life of an artist, but, most important, she says, at his work. "It's not a biography," she explains. "It's about his music."
The film, which stars Ed Harris as Beethoven, focuses on the period when the composer was in the final stages of writing his Ninth Symphony, and on his relationship with a gifted music student, Anna (Diane Kruger), who finds her contact with the crude, often brutal composer shaking up the way she thinks about music.
"He was a real modern artist," Holland says. "He shows [Anna] that making music is not about creating beautiful sounds ... it is a way to express himself."
The centerpiece of the movie is the first performance of the Ninth Symphony, with Anna - an amalgam of several real figures from Beethoven's life - helping the aging, deaf composer conduct his music.
"Now this piece of music is so well-known it has become banal. People think they know it well," she says. "But my goal in the movie was to show what it was like for the audience who heard it the first time. It was revolutionary, in its length, in its use of a chorus, its expression of emotion."
Audiences responded to the piece with great enthusiasm at the time, and movie audiences have embraced the long concert scene as well.
"My biggest victory with the movie is to introduce audiences to the depth of his music," Holland says. Beethoven's triumph with the Ninth is followed by a performance of one of his late string quartets which inspired audience walkouts. It's the rare movie on music, she says, in which just a few pieces are used to focus on an artist's creative development and the contrasts in his career. "I didn't want to put in so much a goulash of music, just to make a good soundtrack," Holland says. She is proud that the film won the Film Journalists Award at the San Sebastian Film Festival and says it was enthusiastically received at last month's Toronto International Film Festival as well.
Holland, who has visited Israel several times, says she is perfectly relaxed about being in Haifa right now and has been traveling a great deal recently. She divides her time between France (where she has a house in Brittany and an apartment in Paris) and Los Angeles. Born in Poland to a Jewish father who was killed while being interrogated by police when she was just 13 and a mother who worked as a journalist and also faced government persecution (Holland describes her as "an anti-anti-Semite"), Holland left Poland to study film in Czechoslovakia in the late Sixties. She then returned and worked on the crew of several movies with Krzysztof Zanussi (also a frequent visitor to Israel in recent years), wrote several screenplays with Andrzej Wadja and collaborated with Krzysztof Kieslowski on the scripts for the Blue and White episodes of his "Tri-Color" trilogy. "Parodoxically," she says, "it is harder to get movies made" under the current Polish government than Communist ones, but she is nevertheless developing a Polish television series in collaboration with her sister and daughter - a "real drama" that will focus on the hard choices and freedoms offered by life in a democracy.
The series will not be her first foray into television. Just as she moves effortlessly between countries and cultures when she directs films, she has also, in recent years, worked in American television, directing episodes of Veronica Mars, Cold Case Files and The Wire. She speaks very highly of the work being done on US television now, saying, "There are some really talented writers in America ... American television is more interesting than American cinema these days. . . In its complexity, it has become the equivalent of the 19th century novels that were told in installments."
In spite of all her cinema-inspired globe-trotting, she doesn't see herself making films in Israel. "Don't worry, I'm not coming here to steal money from Israeli filmmakers," she says with a laugh.