"We created a monster"

Polish film director Agnieszka Holland about her work at “House of Cards” and parallels between Frank Underwood and Donald Trump.

Interview published in profil, Austria

There are not many like Agnieszka Holland. The 67 year old Polish filmmaker has pushed through the glass ceiling: A feature film director from Europe playing in the first league of American TV series. And a woman. Holland directed some episodes of the Netflix-Hit “House of Cards”, which follows the power hungry couple Claire and Frank Underwood alias Robin Wright and Kevin Spacey on their way into the White House. “House of Cards” has been called “Shakespeare for the TV age”. Holland also directed the rough police series “The Wire” and the New Orleans saga “Treme”, both for pay TV HBO.

Agnieszka Holland comes form a Jewish Polish family. She left Poland before martial law was introduced in 1981 and moved to France. Her films have been decorated many times. “Europa, Europa” brought a Golden Globe in 1990. “In the darkness”, a film about the Warsaw Ghetto was nominated as best foreign film 2012 for an Oscar. Holland is president of the European Film Academy Board. She currently works on a new film in Warsaw. Profil interviewed her before her visit to Vienna this week.

Agnieszka Holland will be debating with Miklos Haraszti and Claire Fox on "Freedom of Expression in Europe" in Burgtheater on May 31, 21:00. Part of the Wiener Festwochen „Thinking Aloud/ Allowed” program (curated by Dessy Gavrilova), the debate is a collaboration between the European Network of Houses for Debate “Time to Talk“, The Institut für die Wissenschaften vom Menschen, and Sheldon Chumir Foundation for Ethics in Leadership. On June 7, 21:00, again in Burgtheater, Gilles Kepel will be debating with Chantal Mouffe and Philipp Blom on "Is Europe Taking a Right Turn?

Profil: Why did “House of Cards” producer David Fincher turn to you?

Holland: He wanted a good group of film directors and specifically avoided TV directors. I liked the fact that it was a cult series and I liked to watch the series and I was interested in working with the actors – Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright. It is easier for me than other European directors. I am quite efficient in my story telling. The critics, especially the French critics, they don’t like it so much. But it is just my natural way of communicating the story. The Americans and Anglo-Saxons accept me better than the French in general. Last year they wanted me to come back to direct episodes but I was busy and now they want me for some for the end of the series. I am not sure if I can make it.

Profil: Are TV series nowadays more interesting for a film director than movie making?

Holland: The best of the TV series are better than some Hollywood movies, also to some extent better than European cinema. It is not a shame to do it and it is quite innovative. Story, style and filmmaking is often good. On the other hand TV series have some very strict roles. In terms of the dramatic line it is slightly conventional. You cannot beat this. You absolutely want the audience to come back after the episode. You always need to have a cliffhanger. You cannot play in more risky ways with the pace or the story telling.

Profil: If you only direct an episode, everything is already planned out, does it make a difference who directs then?

Holland: In TV series the writer is God. Television is the medium of the writers. Feature film is the medium of directors. Script writers have fought this fact a long time. Now they take their revenge on us directors. So directing only an episode is not easy but I am grateful for the opportunity. You meet actors and learn about new stories. I would never know so much about contemporary America and big cities and the tragedy of that if I would not have directed TV series like The Wire.

Profil: Are you saying the TV series are more real than real life?

Holland: The TV series show the reality often much deeper in some ways. It is not only through the writers, it is also through the people around it. The local people are being researched. It is like making a huge documentary. But at the same time it is more then a documentary in terms that it tries to go over the description of the reality. It tries to cut into the bone of the real reason why the reality is what it is. It is quite instructive. I did also some mini-series, which I like a lot. Rosemary’s Baby for example was a stylistic exercise. Before that I did Burning Bush, for Czech HBO. It tells the story of Czechoslovakia after 68. It is one of my favourite works recently.

Profil: You are one of the female directors, who made it in the International Film business. Do you find it frustrating that there are still so few women on the top?

Holland: I am working for the last 40 years and it is not getting any better. In the Seventies the business was more open for women. Some kind of encouragement is probably necessary because the glass ceiling is very powerful and difficult to break. I am not sure about quotas for film funding. In politics it might be helpful. In any case, quotas could only work in countries with public funding like in Europe. Hollywood is all about private funding.

Profil: Do you prefer to work in Europe?

Holland: I am of course European. But I am interested in the American culture. There are a lot of similarities in the best and in the worst sense. Especially in the worst actually.

Profil: For example?

Holland: If I compare Poland and the United States I find in both countries the mix of ignorance, conspiracy theories and very primitive religious beliefs. There is a lack of trust in the establishment and in the political leadership, social solidarity does not count anymore. There are differences also. You find deep trust in democratic institutions in America, which we don’t have in Poland. But still: I am watching the rise of Donald Trump and I have a déjà vu. A year ago we elected some kind of joke as president and now it is America that might do the same.

Profil: Donald Trump and the Polish leadership certainly have one thing in common: they would not want to take in a single Syrian refugee. Why are the Poles so unhelpful here?

Holland: It is the fear of change. There is not rational reason. Post-communist countries are different from Western European countries but not so different. If you look what goes on in Germany or Holland…

Profil: …or Austria…

Holland: Well, Austria was always more receptive for this kind of right extreme movement. You already had Haider. We see the brown wave is going over Europe and the refugee crisis enhances the crisis of democracy now. The European Union seems to be too strong to give the member states the feeling that they are totally independent and too weak to deal with the problems. Crisis of democracy is also the crisis of the political class. Personalities like Trump or the new rising star in Poland, Pawel Kukiz, are fighting political correctness. They hate it so much that they call it censorship. But in reality they just want permission to say the most terrible, insulting, cruel and hateful things. The voters of Trump love it. And the voters here in Poland love it as well.

Profil: You are coming to Vienna to discuss "Freedom of Expression in Europe". Do you feel it’s threatened?

Holland: It is the big battle between political correctness versus freedom of speech. America has been balancing it to some extent. In some ways it has balanced it more successfully than Europe. Now it ended, in the US the people don’t want this anymore. It is not freedom versus security. It is something much more deeper. Some kind of primitive distortion of the society which sets the evil free – if you speak in religious terms. We are in very tricky times.

Profil: In House of Cards the evil sits actually on the president’s chair.

Holland: When “The West Wing” started it was showing the political scene from inside in all its dramatic ways. But the politicians were men and women of good will. They wanted to do the best they could. They can become corrupted and face impossible choices and they can be wrong, but they are not cynical murderous scum. Now, after House of Cards, a vision like West Wing seems very naïve. Suddenly the only vision of politics that is successful commercially speaking is the vision like House of Cards. It has an incredible impact on the society. People start to think that Washington and the politicians are cynical scum and that they don’t need to respect them and trust them.

Profil: In a way Frank Underwood prepared the ground for Donald Trump?

Holland: In some ways maybe. I always thought that Barack Obama would never have been elected as president of the United States if it was not for the black presidents in TV series – like the one in the hit series “24”. People saw a black president and they suddenly thought they could elect one. And I am not even speaking about the change towards homosexuals. People were educated by TV series. 24 or other series don’t necessarily have educational ambition, but the mixture of reality and fiction reaches out from fiction into reality. After I directed House of Cards I started to realize that we might be doing something quite dangerous. We created a monster. Now it is too late. Even if Frank Underwood will be terribly punished, it will not change anything anymore.

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© 2018 Tessa Szyszkowitz