Agnieszka Holland is a curious director. She works on both sides of the Atlantic, in both cinema and television. Although her style has remained consistently accessible, often genre-inflected, her career demonstrates a commitment to the difficult moments of European history. Holland’s last film, In Darkness, crafted from the sewers of 1943 Lvov a metaphor (contained in the title) for Europe’s years under Nazi rule. Her most recent film, Burning Bush, a four-hour long miniseries produced by HBO, revisits another bleak—if not as bleak—historical moment. The film is set in a recently subdued Prague, shortly after the 1968 invasion. And as with her prior work, the title has a double meaning. It refers both to the act of self-immolation by Jan Palach, a student who publicly burned himself in protest against "normalization," but also to the slow burn his act set off in the conscience of a people. By following the cat and mouse game of apparatchiks, student organizers, and the team of lawyers representing Palach’s family, Burning Bush works partly as legal procedural (set in a hopelessly rigged system) and as espionage thriller, comparable at times to The Lives of Others in its analysis of the effects of soft captivity. But as with many other of Holland’s films, Burning Bush excels primarily in its mix of historical reconstruction and moral allegory. It’s as if Holland, throughout her work, tries to answer the question: How can an individual conscience, against a climate of moral darkness, swing toward the good?
Joshua Sperling (Rail): Burning Bush is set just after the Prague Spring—during the incipience of so-called normalization. I was curious about your decision to begin the film after the moment of social tumult.
Agnieszka Holland: One always has to find the place to begin and to end. In the case of Burning Bush, I found it to be more interesting to look at the aftermath of the invasion that ended the Prague Spring and Palach’s act of self-immolation. I wanted to examine the consequences these events had on society, on people’s private lives, on the nation. And the 20-year period of normalization has always been fascinating to me: how soft oppression created such deep moral corruption and resignation. In a sense the film is an anatomy of “normalization”—which was a perverse term invented by the Communist regime. Things were totally un-normal, but if they said they were normal then they were normal.
Rail: You were in Prague around the time the film takes place.
Holland: I spent five years in Prague. I started in the film school there.
Rail: At the FAMU (Film and TV School of the Academy of Performing Arts, Prague)?
Holland: Yes. It was from ’66 to ’71.
Rail: Was your own experience of the time period a big factor in your making the film?
Holland: Certainly. I think that is why they contacted me. The young people who developed the project—the writer and the young producers—had been thinking that I was the only person who could do it because I experienced it. And at the same time I was an outsider and so I could look at the history without a sort of Czech complex. And by Czech complex they meant the aversion to talking seriously about the country’s problems. You know, “Let’s make it funny.” And the young people behind this film had grown tired of a culture that was turning everything into some kind of joke. They saw that in some ways their parents and themselves were the victims of this silence. So they wanted to reconstruct or express their roots more seriously—and re-discover their roots for themselves.
Rail: When you speak of the tendency toward the joke, are you referring to the humor of, say, Milan Kundera?
Holland: To me Kundera is not so jokey. Kundera is actually quite serious. I think this is why he was practically never adopted in the Czech Republic. No, I am thinking more of the films that treat the period of normalization with comedy and nostalgia, as a period when everything wasn’t perfect but it was okay because we were surviving. A bit like Goodbye Lenin, you know?
Rail: Your filmography suggests a fascination with Central and Eastern European history—especially 20th-century history. What draws you to explore the dark periods of that part of the world?
Holland: It just comes to me. Those are the stories that find me. I don’t want to talk about “duty,” because what duty do I have? But I do feel some kind of urge to talk about this. And by this I mean the viruses of Communism and Nazism, the totalitarian viruses within the system of Europe and the world. Because I think they are still present. They are not out of the blood system. So with the current crisis they can reappear—especially in a right wing, nationalistic guise. And I also think that Communism was never deeply analyzed. This is a big mistake. It takes self-knowledge to be a grown-up: a grown-up person, a grown-up nation.
Rail: How would you describe your own politics? Are you a proponent of liberal capitalism? An anti-totalitarian leftist?
Holland: I’m anti-totalitarian leftist. This means: liberalism, yes but not a liberalism that makes out of the liberal society some kind of god. I prefer, for example, the Scandinavian systems or American systems of social solidarity.
Rail: As a young person who has grown up during a time of rather extreme capitalism in America, the failure of communism in the East can be very confusing. It seems like that failure is often used to suggest that there is no other viable alternative to the kind of corporate capitalism we have here.
Holland: You guys have to invent something. You cannot recycle the same ideas over and over again, especially if they have been compromised. New generations have to come up with something new. Of course people debate whether or not communism necessarily became totalitarian. Whether it had to become an oppressive, brutal, anti-humanist society, or if it happened because it started in a non-democratic country like Russia.
Rail: Many people thought it would happen first in Germany.
Holland: Yeah but in Germany, you know what happened in Germany? The Nazis. It wasn’t anything better. And it was national socialism in some way, using some of Marx’s ideas. I think that we are right now under the volcano. We don’t know exactly when the next eruption will be. But certainly I think two solutions are wrong. One solution is to think because all utopias ended in blood we have to forget any idealistic approach to reality. The other is to think that whatever happened in Russia was only because it happened there and we can be different. We have to look at the deeper reason why in every country where Marxist/Leninist principles were established there was a disaster—at least a humanitarian or human rights disaster.
Rail: This is the theory that when bureaucracy and leftism go together they produce problems?
Holland: Well China is an interesting case, because China is very oppressive and at the same time economically very successful. At least it looks this way from outside. And they are now trying to do what the Soviets wanted to do, which was in some way “win the world.” But they are doing it through economical means. It is very interesting, but it’s nothing pleasant I’m afraid.
Rail: I’m curious about the idea, or metaphor, of a virus because in your films there is always a strong magnetism between moral good and moral evil. Is that how you see history—as the struggle between people who are drawn to either good or bad?
Holland: I think the struggle happens inside of the people. But by observing those around me I can see that some people are, if you like, constructed for conservative totalitarian beliefs, fundamentalist beliefs. And I think it’s not only a question of education; it may also be a question of a certain kind of nature. I don’t want to become too mystical or biological because I don’t think we know exactly where this virus is. But when I talk about a virus I don’t think I’m only being metaphorical. It may have some real dimension. The difference between conservative and leftist politics may have something to do with brain chemistry.
Rail: On that note, can you tell me a little about the role of women in this film. In the beginning many characters have a roughly equal weighting, but slowly the character of the female lawyer emerges as the one we most identify with. There’s a very interesting gender-power dynamic between her, the other female judge, and the other apparatchik men. This seems to be quite deliberately a feminist critique of power and yet many of your other films couldn’t be said to be feminist.
Holland: I’ve done many different films. Some, such as my adaptation of James’s Washington Square, take a more feminist approach. Or my film Woman Alone from Poland in the ’80s shows the oppression of women as one of the deep problems of the time. But they are not ideological. My films are not taking sides in order to say, “men are bad, women are good.” Or even that the policemen are bad and the opposition good. I try not to be the judge of my characters.
Rail: But in this case, the women do seem to be a bit more humane and sympathetic. And courageous.
Holland: Yet at the same time Dagmar is not an automatic hero. We see that her first reaction is to refuse this kind of engagement, right? It’s only an accumulation of things, some small and some big, that push her to change her mind. One is that her young collaborator looks up to her with admiration when she acts with bravery. And she doesn’t want to disappoint him. Not because she loves him but she loves him loving her and respecting her. Another is when the second student immolated himself and no one wants to hear about it. So suddenly she feels she has a growing duty. And then she forces her husband to go along with her. He doesn’t want to, but when it happens, he is strong and assumes responsibility. So it’s a process. But yeah, it has always been interesting for me to ask why it is that some people have this courage to act not out of self-interest or even the interests of their family. But I didn’t mean to say that women were all better than men.
Rail: Sure. And there’s the character of the judge. Her heart seems to be in the right place, but she is clearly conflicted and ultimately becomes a victim of intimidation.
Holland: You know, most Czechs submitted themselves to normalization. The opposition was very thin and not very well respected. People had been angry with them. People asked, “Why are they doing this? They are putting a mirror to our weakness. Fuck them.” That was the attitude.
Rail: Having seen a number of your recent films, I’m starting to discern something of an Agnieszka Holland look. It’s both very resplendent, but also very drab. I don’t know if that makes sense—but the skin, for example. It’s almost sickly pale and yet also very shiny—very high contrast. And the clothes are brown, and gray. Is this something you develop with your cinematographer and art director?
Holland: What I am speaking of is a reality that is pretty monochromatic. Sometimes the colors pop out and then it has some meaning. My cinematographer is a good friend—a very talented, honest man. At first we wanted black-and-white with the idea that black-and-white gives some kind of aesthetic distance. But after a few tests we decided to go for color, but to play with the color: to have different shades that sometimes went very close to black-and-white. And then return to a warmer palette. But the key was the contrast because when you up the contrast the colors start to look like faded photographs from the ’60s. This was the effect we wanted. We wanted to be strong and contemporary in the expression. But the reality I remember from that time was pretty gray. Very few people had fabric with bright colors.
Rail: And during the opening title montage, there’s an interesting switch from black-and-white to color that parallels the turn from the swinging ’60s to political violence.
Holland: That montage was done by my young colleague, who came to me with the idea. He had taken everything from the archive footage and wanted to show something like the last night of the fête, of the celebration, before the tanks came. I think it is a very successful montage because it expresses the situation and the historical context and has both a very real and very symbolic meaning.
Rail: Could you speak about the reception of the film in the Czech Republic—especially in light of what you suggested was a Czech ambivalence toward self-analysis.
Holland: It’s been an incredibly powerful reception. We didn’t expect it—I didn’t expect it. It was like they were waiting for this film. And suddenly it came and then—catharsis. We’ve screened the films in many different places to different generations. What’s been surprising is that not only the people who lived through the time, but also the young people had very strong reactions. Many were sobbing. Some critic wrote that if Agnieszka Holland didn’t exist then the Czechs would have had to invent her. So yes, the reception has been incredibly satisfying for us.
Joshua Sperling is a Ph.D. student in Literature and Film at Yale University. His writing has appeared in Film Quarterly, Senses of Cinema, and Bullett Magazine.