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Action Is a Most Dangerous Thing:
Interview with Agnieszka Holland

by Megan Ratner

Film Quarterly

Spring 2014 (cover story)

On January 19, 1969, anguished by what he termed the
‘‘demoralization’’ of his fellow Czechoslovaks following
the Soviet invasion of August 1968, university student Jan
Palach fatally set himself on fire in Prague’s Wenceslaus
Square. Though his desperate act opens Agnieszka
Holland’s Burning Bush, it is the aftermath that the miniseries
chronicles, when Czech officials, under the guise
of preventing more self-immolations, vilified Palach.
The case was used to set the tone for President Gustáv
Husák’s ‘‘normalization,’’ which straitened Czech society
from the openness of predecessor Alexander Dubček’s
‘‘socialism with a human face’’ to a carefully controlled
state of mistrust and stagnation.

This material has more than cinematic relevance for
Holland. Barred from study in her native Poland, Holland
attended Prague’s FAMU (Film and Television School
of the Academy of Performing Arts) in the late 1960s.
Holland did not know Palach, but they moved in the same
circles. Exhilarated by the student movement, Holland
shed her apoliticism, participating in demonstrations and
eventually serving several weeks of jail time for ‘‘attempting
to forcibly destroy the international system of socialist
countries.’’ As she told the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung
in 2012, the 1968 invasion was a ‘‘great anti-Communist
lesson’’ after which ‘‘I had no more illusions.’’1

Burning Bush follows Dagmar Burešova´(Tatiana
Pauhofová), the Palach family’s attorney who defends
Jan posthumously against party-instigated defamation.
Holland deftly uses procedural conventions to reveal a devastating
system, one that lasted twenty years. Burešová’s
obstructed attempts to build the case provide an unusually
accurate glimpse into the divisive, petty bullying that sowed
confusion, doubt, and anxiety at every level of Czech society.
(A teenager in the early 1970s, I lived in Prague with my
family, where I attended the local public school. Holland
perfectly captures the country’s isolation from the rest of the
world and the vague yet genuine dread, inescapable as the
soot-specked air.) In Burning Bush, the new normal stifles
information, access, and expression, illustrating the pressure
to which all but the most dedicated dissenters eventually
succumbed. The series was a hit in the Czech Republic,
breaking the society’s general silence about the decades preceding
the Velvet Revolution.

In the 1980s Holland was a leader in the Polish Cinema
of Moral Anxiety, where her colleagues included Andrzej
Wajda and Krzysztof Kieślowski. Her many films include
Washington Square (1997), Olivier, Olivier (1992) along with
three Academy Award nominees: Angry Harvest (1985)
and In Darkness (2011), both for best foreign film; and
Europa, Europa (1990), for best adapted screenplay. Holland’s
work directing episodes of Treme, The Killing, and
The Wire is evident in Burning Bush’s excellent pacing, the
episodic format ideally suited to this complex history.

Though its faded black-and-white title sequence
(which contrasts lithe young people dancing the Twist
with the colossal, invading Soviet tanks) visually evokes
the Czech New Wave, Burning Bush resembles those films
more in spirit than in images. A melancholy absurdity
informs the trial scenes and, especially, an extended
sequence in a sleepy out-of-town tavern where Burešová
reconstructs the crucial Communist party meeting at
which Palach was denounced. Over the course of the story,
Holland’s muted colors echo the society’s diminishing
vitality, sharpening the effect of occasional intermixed
black-and-white archival footage, particularly of a rally
shortly after Palach’s death. The subdued palette emphasizes
the insidiousness of the changes: normalization was
less about being interrogated in the middle of the night
than turning colleague against colleague, friend on friend.
In his 1984 essay Politics and Conscience, Václav Havel
described totalitarian systems as ‘‘a convex mirror of all
modern civilization and a harsh, perhaps final call for
a global recasting of how that civilization understands
itself.’’2 Given the current revelations about the use of mass
data in government and, arguably more chillingly, under
marketers’ control, nothing about Burning Bush should
feel unfamiliar—only necessary and cautionary.

Holland was in the United States for the Burning Bush
screening at the New York Film Festival, where this interview
was conducted.

Megan Ratner: Burning Bush is set at the same time
seminal films of the Czech New Wave were made.
Did a particular filmmaker especially influence you?

Agnieszka Holland: Yes and no. While at FAMU,
I watched many movies from the great Czech New Wave.
I especially admired Return of the Prodigal Son (1967) and
Courage for Every Day (1964) by Evald Schorm, who is
a little forgotten these days. But I didn’t want to mimic
them. I didn’t want the stylization of those ’60s movies.
Burning Bush is shot and cut differently from those films,
without the handheld camera and with a different kind of
editing that accelerates the rhythm after slowing down.
We are more disruptive and elliptic now. Burning Bush
is inspired by these Czech spaces and by this somewhat
different way of observing reality.

Ratner: The police procedural overtones in Burning
Bush make it feel a bit less political than a way of
looking at criminals. Was that what you were
thinking about?

Holland: No, that is pretty natural to my storytelling.
These days it would be difficult for me to match the pace
of, say, Theodoros Angelopoulos movies. I’m thinking a different
way. Faster. My aim was to keep a steady tension for
an all-at-once, four-hour screening. We wanted to grab the
audience and to keep to the story.

Ratner: First-time scriptwriter Štěpán Hulík knew
the material but was too young to have lived it.
Did you mix in any of your own experience?

Holland: A bit. But it didn’t substantially change the
structure or meaning of the script. I added some details
and we worked with the characters to make them more
complex, or ambiguous. Štěpán and I were very much in
synch. He has incredible intuition, actually. Reading his
script, before I knew how old he was, I thought he was one
of my contemporaries who perhaps I’d forgotten, or never
known. I was shocked that at twenty-six he had such deep
feeling for what went on then.

Ratner: Hulík’s fascination with Jan Palach in some
ways parallels Palach’s own fascination with
fifteenth-century reformer Jan Hus. Both Hulík and
Palach seem to have a direct connection to history.

Holland: I think  is a reincarnation from the 1960s.
Not only because he wrote this script but also because his
university studies centered on Czech and Slovak cinema
during normalization. Štěpán’s published thesis, Kinematografie
zapomneˇni, is the best book on the subject. He
wrote the Burning Bush script in the screenwriting course
in school. It was a hit in the Czech Republic, so the guy is
incredibly lucky, also. He’s working on new material and
is in something of a depression because he doesn’t know if,
as a writer, the best has already happened. I hope not. He’s
really good.

Ratner: The women are particularly prominent,
not only Burešová, but also Palach’s mother and
Vladimir’s university student daughter. It’s an
indication of how it played out differently for the
generations.

Holland: Women were very prominent in the Czech and
Polish opposition movements, in Solidarity. Women in this
society are quite often the driving force, especially on moral
issues, but at the same time they are servants to the men and
family.When the government ended,when the victory came,
the men took all the places. The women went into the shadows
again. Burešová became the Minister of Justice (under
Václav Havel), but the men pretty quickly put her to the side.

Ratner: Did you have to do a lot of work to re-create
the feeling of the city at the time?

Holland: Prague is easy to shoot in. It is very filmmaking
friendly and it’s still possible to find spots that haven’t
changed too much, some not at all. There are incredible
interiors, with plenty of fantastic locations. Usually, when
you’re making a film you look for something that is similar
to what you want and you have to settle. But in Prague we
had a very wide range of choices. Everybody was
extremely motivated, which was a big help.

Ratner: Has post-Communist television improved
over what was offered by the state?

Holland: It’s lower than it was under Communism, actually.
Television became a mix of bad American television
and bad South American television, a mix of telenovela and
stupid entertainment. The entire crew wanted to make
Burning Bush, to work on this story and to work with
me. Everybody was so devoted, so they gave their best.
I think most of them had never done anything this good,
actors included.

Ratner: Did you choreograph the actors’
movements?

Holland: I let them do what they felt. I don’t choreograph,
other than a particular shot or scene. I believe at
some moment the actor becomes the character and they
know better.

Ratner: Burešová’s sex scene with her husband is
a crucial release from the struggle and fear as she
builds her case. It’s also a form of reassurance. He’s
one of the few people she can trust.

Holland: Erotic life under ‘‘normalization’’ must have
been pretty intense, I think. But in Burning Bush I was
just showing a husband and wife. I wanted to show the
despair and the need for closeness, how this explodes in
some kind of urgent sex.

Ratner: Sex was one of the few means of personal
expression.

Holland: You could make a completely separate movie
about sex life under Communism. I came to Prague in
1966, before normalization. I came months before school
started to learn a bit of Czech and to acclimate to Prague.
I wasn’t yet eighteen in this time. I was living in the mixed
student dormitory. Anywhere I opened a door, people
were fucking. It was the first time in my life that I saw
people making love like that, in the showers and so on.
And after that I don’t know how many lovers I had the
first year. Maybe ten? It was the time of ‘‘make love not
war,’’ right? And under Communism that was even more
powerful because there were very few possibilities for
expressing personal freedom. Sex was one way.

Ratner: For audiences who may be unaware of how
lively Prague was in those days, the title sequence,
which juxtaposes the Twist with the crush of Russian
troops in the city streets, is a pithy history lesson.

Holland: It was the idea of a young filmmaker whom we
asked to do the title sequence. We loved it. He put things
in a historical context and at the same time expressed the
contrast between the politics and life as it was lived.

Ratner: You use snatches of archival film seamlessly
throughout the series. Do you think of yourself as
a historian?

Holland: Not really. My philosophical relation to the past
is that it doesn’t exist. It’s part of our present. The past
happens now, even if it’s reconstructed. Something that
was, historically speaking, a hundred or fifty or sixty years
ago, is still present to me.

Ratner: Whether or not people are alive who were
part of it?

Holland: Right.

Ratner: Does that feeling play any part in how you
pick projects?

Holland: What I mean is that in some way it doesn’t
matter to me. When I was doing my Holocaust movies,
I sometimes thought that I lived at that time, that I am
some kind of reincarnation.3 I do a historical movie as
a contemporary movie. I look for language that is not very
stylized or dated.

Ratner: Burning Bush seemed very much of its
time but, because of the updated look and pace,
fresh, too.

Holland: We wanted it to be evocative. Watching it, we
wanted you to feel you were there. I think we did that.
People reacted in a very emotional way. Suddenly they had
the impression that they were reliving their life.

Ratner: Even now, Czechs are only slowly talking
about this period.

Holland: They put it to the side or hid it and didn’t want
to talk about it. For most people it’s pretty logical. It was
an important chunk of their life and it wasn’t pleasant.
And they are not very proud of what they did during
normalization. Even if they didn’t do very bad things,
they had to compromise all the time. They accepted the
situation but they don’t like to talk about it. Poles are very
quick to mythologize the past. They make themselves
into heroes. Suddenly there are 10 million heroes, which
is of course totally fake. But Czechs don’t have this talent
or fault. They’d rather forget, or keep silent, or turn it
into a joke. All three approaches are understandable but
they are negative: they don’t allow you to grow up, to
learn a lesson or take advantage of the richness of the
experience.

Ratner: The script’s focus on the petty ways life
was made miserable allowed viewers to see how
pervasive normalization’s effects were.

Holland: This fairly soft oppression was specific to the
last period of Communism. It targeted people’s everyday
lives. The corruption was pretty mild. After a few years it
just contaminated the entire system.

Ratner: As you know, it’s not limited to that time or
that system.

Holland: I experienced this in Iran. A few years ago I was
on the jury of an Iranian film festival. I wanted to see
Tehran for myself, to visit with several good colleagues,
Iranian filmmakers, who are fantastic, very intelligent and
talented people. During the festival, a few young Iranian
filmmakers confided a bit in me about the situation but
they pointed out someone they said was an informer for
the regime. And when I met another filmmaker, he said:
the guy you just talked to can’t be trusted. That’s how this
poison starts and it’s very, very difficult to avoid this contamination.
A side effect is that those who stand apart
become outcasts, with other people in some ways hating
that they are so noble. You run the risk of other people
feeling you’re better than they are.

Ratner: Burning Bush shows that such
contamination can’t help affecting friendships.

Holland: Under Communism people were very close,
which is why the betrayal became so terrible. When
Vladimir accuses Dagmar’s young assistant she knows for
sure that he’s lying. And he knows that she knows. The
look between them is so heartbreaking to me. When
Dagmar comes back home, she cries and then she makes
love to her husband. It’s a kind of desperation.

Ratner: Desperation runs through the miniseries:
things seem placid on the surface but are chaotic
in reality. Andrei Ujică describes cinema as having
a ‘‘therapeutic function over the collective trauma.’’4
Does that seem accurate?

Holland: Yes, but the main function of cinema is just
to make movies for entertainment, to dream and to evoke
experiences. But if cinema helps in some way to digest the
trauma, it’s good.

Ratner: At the least cinema presents events in
a different perspective.

Holland: That is very important in those (former Eastern
Bloc) countries. In all post-totalitarian countries it’s easy
for people to become narcissistic. They think that their
suffering is the most important; that only they are just;
that they are victims; and that no one understands them.
All this bullshit makes it impossible to see the opposite
point of view. It’s why they can very easily hate strangers.
They cannot accept that the stranger has the same rights to
live in this world that they do.

Ratner: That kind of thinking is not limited to the
former Eastern Bloc.

Holland: The problem is that we are all living in a system
like that—it’s not only the people who lived under totalitarian
systems. When you see the modern society in the
American or Western style of life, you see people who
spend their lives in the shopping malls, who are sold to
the corporations through credit and fear, and who are all
the time here [looks down at cell phone] and cannot communicate.
It allows for terrible things to happen on your
doorstep, like Lampedusa [at the time of the interview, the
immigrant boat had just capsized] and nobody reacts.5

Ratner: Conformity promises a false security.

Holland: The conformism is universal. Communism
wasn’t an exception, just an extreme. Like Nazism, it was
an extreme showcase of the danger of human nature.
But it is not over and done with. It’s not that it will
never come back. It is present in some diluted way in
our life.

Ratner: If I understand you, this is not something
imposed on people but an outgrowth of other
tendencies.

Holland: Right. People are not made for freedom. You
have to learn it and preserve it on an everyday basis—not
just political freedom, but freedom in the wider sense.

Ratner: Do you see similarities between today’s
surveillance state and that of the Eastern Bloc? Does
the fear-mongering strike the same note?

Holland: Contemporary democratic governments present
terrorists very much as anti-Communist persons were presented
under Communist rule. It’s the language of propaganda.
I think that what is most dangerous in the world
of today is that we don’t have new ideas. The old ideas,
which have already been poisoned, are recycled over and
over again. We know that things are not working but we
really don’t know what to do to make them work. The
outbursts of anger become mass murder or terrorism. This
desperation becomes universal.

Ratner: People are reluctant to admit the system
doesn’t work. Everyone knew the problems under
normalization but few wanted to put themselves on
the line.

Holland: Yes, they have one life and they don’t want to
spend it on fighting.

Ratner: Did you see similarities between certain
things in America and Poland early on?

Holland: When I came here to work for the first time,
about twenty years ago, I did some American movies and
worked with an American crew. I had a very strange
experience because I realized that on the movie set the
crew had a very hierarchical relationship. During the
shoot, I was the god. So I am a boss. And when I asked
my collaborators, such as my first AD, who was a very
intelligent man, what he thought about some of my ideas
or solutions the answer was, ‘‘It is certainly as you think,
Madam.’’ And I said: what do you mean? I asked your
opinion. And he said: but you are certainly right. After
a while I realized he was afraid to express his opinion. If it
was different from mine, I might be angry and maybe fire
him. Conforming yourself to the boss’s expectations and
the fear of being fired are so general in American
moviemaking.
In some ways people in America were more conformist
than under Communism in Poland. People there were
much more rebellious and had their own opinion, though
I realized that in Poland they didn’t have as much to lose.
In America a job means you have credit and credit means
a house, your children’s education, your entire life. People
become slaves to this chain and cannot really express themselves
freely. Most people live like that. So it’s not so very
different. In some ways the financial crisis showed that all
that will not make you safe. So now what? But it’s the
people who express the anger, not the leaders. They
express the desperation or disdain, but not new ideas. And
they don’t take responsibility. Trade union leaders or the
student movement seem to be recycling the speeches of
fifty years ago, but they are inadequate to the present
situation.

Ratner: Part of it seems to be trying to work within
the system, a resistance to razing the whole thing.

Holland: That’s a really big topic. It’s the disillusion
with Communism: the failure of a big idea. Suddenly
people feel there is only one possible reality: liberalism
and the idea of the free market economy. That system
became some kind of a god but at the same time it’s not
working.

Ratner: On a brighter note, what works well is your
ongoing collaboration with your daughter, Kasia
Adamik, on this project and several others.

Holland: Kasia is very talented and she’s very generous.
A giver. She has a very happy character, very generous
and very joyful—good presence on the set for sure. Now
her live-in girlfriend has also started making films. My
sister and her husband are also directors, as was my husband.
At first Kasia didn’t want to be a filmmaker. She
was an artist and she made comic books. She was a very
successful Hollywood storyboard artist, but she wanted to
work on her own ideas. She made a small, independent
film in America, then she did two movies, theater and
television in Poland. Kasia does her own projects, but
when I’m doing mine and she is available, I ask her to
come and to shoot something. I know she will renew
my spirits. She has shot about ten or fifteen percent of
my movies. And we collaborated on two projects, we
co-directed. She sometimes asks my advice, but I don’t
shoot her movies so I’m not giving her exactly back what
she’s giving me. I think she is ready to do something
important. I hope so.


Notes
1. Marta Kijowska, ‘‘Was hat Sie der Kommunismus gelehrt,
Frau Holland?,’’ Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, January 20,
2012.
2. Václav Havel, Open Letters (London: Faber and Faber, 1991),
259.
3. Angry Harvest; Europa, Europa; In Darkness.
4. Rob White, ‘‘Interview with Andrei Ujică ,’’ Film Quarterly 64,
no. 3 (2011): 71.
5. Jim Yardley and Elisabetta Povoledo, ‘‘Migrants Die as Burning
Boat Capsizes Off Italy,’’ New York Times, October 3, 2013.