Agnieszka Holland’s journey from the big screen to TV

The Academy Award-winning Polish director talks about television’s new golden age including her latest three-part mini series created for HBO.

Agnieszka Holland’s HBO docudrama ‘Burning Bush.’ ( (photo credit: courtesy HBO)
Agnieszka Holland’s HBO docudrama ‘Burning Bush.’ (
(photo credit: courtesy HBO)
‘They offered me the chance to direct an episode of The Walking Dead, but I said no,” said Agnieszka Holland, the Polish/ Czech director who received a lifetime achievement award at the Jerusalem Jewish Film Festival earlier this month.
Not many directors who have twice been nominated for Oscars for fact-based Holocaust dramas could make this boast – in fact, Holland is certainly the only one.
It might sound bizarre that Holland, who appeared at the Jerusalem Cinematheque at a screening of one of her first films, the drama Angry Harvest (1985), would be given a shot at helming AMC’s wildly popular zombie series. But among Holland’s many distinctions is the fact that she has been dividing her time between art-house films such as In Darkness (2011) and Europa Europa (1990), and American television series, including The Wire, The Killing and Treme, for years.
While some might consider the Hollywood work slumming, Holland, who was born in Poland, studied film in then-Czechoslovakia and is now based in Los Angeles, said she very much enjoys her television work.
“Switching [between film and television] is good. You know, with a movie, from the time you develop the script, and get financing, and film and edit it, it’s usually three years. You put an enormous amount into it and if there’s a bad distributor” – she makes a thumbs-down sign. “I’m a bit impatient so I like working fast, thinking fast, which you can do with TV. With film, sometimes, it’s like pushing a stone uphill.”
So just why did she turn down the fast-paced series The Walking Dead? “My daughter said I should do it,” she said, and laughed. “But it’s Georgia in the summer and there’s a lot of makeup to worry about.”
Her latest project is the perfect culmination of what her career has been about until now, a miniseries called Burning Bush, which was produced for HBO Europe.
“It was HBO Europe’s first production on this scale,” she said. The drama follows the true story of Jan Palach, a student in Prague who set himself on fire (and died) in 1969 to protest the Soviet occupation. The film is both the story of his family and their response to tragic sacrifice, and a legal battle over an attempt by the Communist government to misrepresent the facts of the case to make him seem less than heroic.
“I wanted to create a thoughtful and political story for television,” Holland said. “I was a student in Prague at this time. I remember the Prague Spring... I was the same age exactly. I also protested, and was arrested, but was not kept for so long. I thought I was kept for six weeks but it turns out it was actually for one month.”
Many young people today, she discovered, are not familiar with Palach’s story. “The Communist period is an important part of Czech identity, but most of their parents and grandparents never speak about it. Most of the population was corrupted in some way, about 95 percent just went along with [the Communist regime]. Czech cinema treated it as funny, turned it into a joke. It’s something you don’t talk about, you don’t tell your children, you feel you’ve been so weak and humiliated.”
When the series, which has been shown throughout much of Europe, came out in the Czech Republic, “It was interesting. It was a big catharsis for some people,” and inspired those who lived through the period to talk about it with their children.
How did Holland get through this period? She worked mainly in Poland, starting out as an assistant director for the acclaimed directors Andrzej Wajda and Krzytof Zanussi, and later collaborated on the screenplays of Three Colors trilogy of Krzysztof Kieslowski.
“In Poland, in the Seventies it was a little more easy,” she said. “It was a kind of golden age.” The Polish government allowed a certain freedom of expression in cinema then, which made those serious films on which she worked very popular with audiences.
“The capitalist market is not easy, not that censorship is better,” she said, noting that the film industries in Eastern Europe have, ironically perhaps, struggled to find an audience since the end of the Cold War.
But the transition has been easier for Holland than for many of her colleagues, because she began making films in the US and Western Europe in the Nineties following the fall of Communism and the success of her own film, Europa Europa. Her US and European films include Olivier Olivier, a French psychological thriller; adaptation of the children’s classic, The Secret Garden; and Total Eclipse, a biopic about poet Arthur Rimbaud starring Leonardo DiCaprio.
She is currently working on two movie projects set in Poland and America, but “it’s too early to talk about them.”
And there will certainly be more television projects, if not The Walking Dead, in her future. “In television today, there’s often more innovation and more originality than in mainstream films. But of course there are still people making good films.”