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Copying No One: Agnieszka Holland Challenges the Maestro
By Steven Jenkins
November 10, 2006 - 1:15 AM PST

"I'm not a commercial director and not everyone wants to give me a million dollars."

Agnieszka Holland is one of the few contemporary directors whose next project is impossible to predict, so diverse is her filmography and so far-ranging her interests both cinematic and personal. Preferring to work independently, and often not far from her native Poland, Holland follows an idiosyncratic path from historical epic to spiritual inquiry to children's fantasy, intuitively making films that reveal as much about her own worldview as about their emotionally charged subjects and characters.

Following two decades of steady work in European television, Holland enjoyed her first international art-house breakthrough with Europa Europa, an alternately harrowing and darkly comic World War II true story in which our resourceful Jewish hero evades Nazi capture by concealing the fact that he is circumcised. Mysteries of identity, faith and fate drive many of Holland's subsequent films, from the tense family drama Olivier, Olivier and her sly adaptation of Henry James's Washington Square to the stigmata-marked The Third Miracle (her first collaboration with Ed Harris) and Total Eclipse, her imaginative rhapsody on the turbulent lives and loves of 19th century French poets Rimbaud and Verlaine. Holland still specializes in TV dramas, directing episodes of The Wire and Cold Case, putting a much-needed fresh spin on the Gary Gilmore biopic Shot in the Heart, and bringing characteristic insight to A Girl Like Me: The Gwen Araujo Story, which humanized the murdered transgender teen for a mass audience.

With Copying Beethoven, Holland returns to the 19th century and finds the great composer (Harris, giving it his all) in his last days, drinking to excess and losing the last of his hearing while completing the Ninth Symphony and the final string quartets. Anna, a young, pluckish music student, comes to his aid as a copyist, improving his messy notations and challenging his authority in an amusing battle of creative ambition. Purists may scoff at Holland's depiction of Beethoven as a lusty lout, nicknamed "the beast," who arm-wrestles opponents at the local tavern, frightens nuns and moons his assistant, yet the director's masterful mis-en-scene and particularly stunning use of candlelight make the film an ode to joy. The soundtrack is quite good, too. I spoke with Holland days before the film's US release.

Why Beethoven? Why not Copying Mozart or Conducting Schoenberg?

Beethoven was the composer who first opened my ears to classical music. I heard the late string quartets when I was 18, and was shocked by this very complicated, passionate music. This was a great experience for me, and I began listening to all of his works. Years later, when I read the script for Copying Beethoven, which covers the late period of his life when he wrote those string quartets and also the great Ninth Symphony, I took it as a sign that the project was waiting for me. I read biographies and fictional treatments, discovering much more about the man. What was most enriching was spending more than a year with the glorious music.

Music is such a crucial component of the film. What was your approach to incorporating it within the story?

It's very challenging and exciting to direct a sequence in which the music itself is emotionally powerful. The performance of the Ninth Symphony comes midway through the film and I see it as the turning point, when Anna and Beethoven work together in harmony. I wanted the entire sequence to convey the impression of listening to that well-known piece of music as if for the first time. Toward the end of the film, the late string quartets are performed and the mood is different. Anna doesn't understand the quartets, she doesn't hear them as Beethoven does, even in his deafness, and in a way I think she speaks for contemporary audiences who still find the late works difficult. This is complex music composed by a very complex man with many strengths and weaknesses. He lives in turmoil, criticizes other composers, has a difficult relationship with his nephew, but gives the world the gift of his music.

You worked with Ed Harris on The Third Miracle. Was he always your ideal Ludwig?

When I read the script I thought of him right away. Few actors of his age have the power and depth, the soulfulness, to express the inner life of a great artist. I saw Pollock, so of course I knew Ed had it in him. The producers said he didn't look like Beethoven, but Ed gained thirty pounds and really got into the character's essence. He prepared for nine months and became quite advanced in conducting, able to lead the entire symphony orchestra. It's a real achievement, not only technical but spiritual, and he excited everyone on the set. Ed and I went on a journey of mutual trust, and I'm really happy with his performance.

You've worked with both American and European actors, often employing both for the same film. What differences have you noticed in their respective approaches to craft?

The best American actors work very hard, and give more time and enthusiasm and belief. They find the courage to perform, and don't want to be seen as faking but rather as real people in a fictional world. I like this approach; it gives weight to the performances and makes the drama much more interesting. European actors often are more technical and superficial in their approach to character. But remember that American actors are much better paid, so they can afford to work longer on one particular project, while European actors generally work more and move quickly from film to film. But really there are more similarities than differences among all actors. They are a special class of people with a strong sense of ethics.

From Copying Beethoven to Total Eclipse, Europa Europa and several others, you've often made films based on true stories. What draws you to these factual accounts?

It's largely coincidental that these scripts have come to me. I think they are easier to finance than fictional stories because they come with a stamp of credibility. For example, it would have been much more difficult to convince producers to make a film about a transsexual girl if the story wasn't already quite well known through journalistic coverage. Same with Shot in the Heart. When I first read the script, I thought it was fiction - I hadn't known about Gary Gillmore or read Norman Mailer's The Executioner's Song - and I thought it was a beautifully written story, inventive and unconventional, about this complex relationship between two brothers. I would have done the film even if it hadn't been based on a true story.

You also seem drawn to period pieces, which often blend historical veracity with imaginative visual flourishes. Do you have a process for developing the look of each film?

I do quite extensive visual research, look at paintings and photographs and try to capture an original, sensual, visual truth that works for each story. I've made several films that are set in the 19th century, and the first time I touched this period I felt as if I knew it, like I lived then. It's quite natural for me to put characters in this setting. I never want to make the time period seem one-dimensional; it has to be layered with complexity, with costumes and objects that might resonate with the present time. Behavior hasn't changed that much. People have the same fears and ambitions now as then, so there's no need to simplify a period piece or the characters in it.

The Secret Garden came as a surprise, even within the context of your diverse filmography.

It was my favorite book as a child, so when I was asked to make my first film for an American studio I decided to go back to this story I loved, and it gave me strength to impose my vision while working in this whole new way, in America. I also needed a vacation after the pressures of the Holocaust in Europa Europa and the missing child in Olivier, Olivier, something to mark a change, so I escaped to Victorian England and this very rich story of childhood.

Did you enjoy the studio experience?

After shooting The Secret Garden, I suddenly became allergic to all fish and seafood, but I think it really was an allergic reaction to the working methods of the American studio. I'm somewhat less shocked now by the system, and I would consider another studio project if the right thing comes along. But to this day I cannot eat seafood!

Unlike most contemporary directors, you haven't shied away from exploring spiritual matters in your films. Do the films with religious themes resonate very deeply?

I wrote the script for The Healer, which originally was titled Julie Walking Home, after a close friend went through some personal experiences that influenced my way of seeing the world. This was a mystical period of my life and I had questions about duality and spirituality. During that same period, I got the script for The Third Miracle, which deals with very unusual, dangerous subject matter. I'm interested in extreme psychological situations, so here you have a priest who has to make extreme choices in his quest for truth. With these two films I raised many questions about religion, but I'm not saying that I have all the answers.

Do you make films as a means of posing questions that you hope to answer?

All of the films are personal statements; they all come from a deep personal need. Even the films that seem to have little to do with my own life or experiences are autobiographical. I usually find a character, such as Anna in Copying Beethoven, whom I can project myself onto. Like her, I had a maestro. Andrzej Wajda was my Beethoven at film school. I challenged him creatively for a couple of years, with a combination of admiration and pretension, and I feel myself in Anna's boots when she challenges Beethoven.

Related Primer

Andrew James Horton, editor of Kinoeye, whose most recent (and hopefully, not last) issue happens to focus on "Polish Cinema: Old Masters," also wrote our primer on Polish Cinema.

It must have been wonderful to study with Wajda, and you also worked with Krzysztof Kieslowski. Was he a mentor as well?

We were close friends for years, and although he was older than me, we began making films around the same time. We shared ourselves and our films, starting with the early documentaries, consulting on screenplays and rushes. With the Three Colors trilogy he decided to make our informal collaborations more official, so he invited me to sit down with him after each stage of his writing work. We discussed treatments, drafts and specific shots. It was a wonderful working relationship in which we could be critical of each other's work but never judgmental. We trusted each other. It's hard to find that kind of working relationship. I wish I had it now.

What's next?

For the past three years, I've been trying to put together a film about Peter the Great. It will be very crazy and original and funny and tragic, and will focus on Peter's wife, Catherine, who is often mistaken for Catherine the Great. She was born a Polish peasant, was a military whore, then met Peter, who married and crowned her. They had a stormy, intense relationship. This will not be a traditional period drama; it will have a magical touch. I am hoping that ChloŽ Sevigny will play Catherine. But we still don't have enough money to make the film. Investors want a big name.

You're not a big enough name at this point in what everyone recognizes as a stellar career?

Unless you're Spielberg, directors do not bring money to the table. Most of us are not automatically bankable. Each time it's a struggle. I'm not a commercial director and not everyone wants to give me a million dollars. I've never made a film that I didn't want to make, but I also haven't gotten to do everything I've wanted to. But I can't complain. I get to do most of what I want. It can be scary to go to the dark places that I often visit in my films, so it's been nice to spend time with Beethoven for a change.

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"I'm not a commercial director and not everyone wants to give me a million dollars."

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Steven Jenkins
Steven Jenkins writes about film, music, art and literature, and serves as a juror, writer and consultant for film festivals and alternative exhibition venues. As the former executive director of San Francisco Cinematheque, he published City Slivers and Fresh Kills: The Films of Gordon Matta-Clark, and curated its related screening series. He frequently can be spotted at the movies sitting way up front next to a dashing Argentine.

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