Veteran Polish filmmaker Agnieszka Holland has frequently returned to the past in her cinema. Her 1990 film Europa Europa is based on the autobiography of Solomon Perel, a German Jewish boy who deceives the Nazis, convincing them he’s of Aryan descent. In Darkness (2011), tells the true story of Leopold Socha (Robert Wieckiewicz), who finds escaped Jews from the Lwów Ghetto in the city’s sewers, and agrees to protect them.
In 2013 she directed the three-part mini-series Burning Bush, about Czech student Jan Palach, who sacrificed himself as a human torch in protest against the Soviet Occupation of his homeland. It follows the legal battle led by the young idealistic female lawyer Dagmar Burešová, to hold the Communist regime to account for dishonouring his sacrifice.
She once again returns to the past with Charlatan (2020), based on the true story of infamous Czech healer Jan Mikolášek (Ivan Trojan), who with his uncanny knack for urinary diagnosis, won favour and fortune treating prominent Nazi and Communist figures. Falling out of favour with the current Communist regime, a show trial threatens to pry open his secrets, including the illicit love affair between him and his assistant František Palko (Juraj Loj), whose fate hangs in the balance.
In conversation with PopMatters, Holland discusses cinema’s struggle to defend itself from the “cancel culture”, and social media’s role in the distortion of truth through simplicity and judgement.
What drew you to Jan Mikolášek as an interesting subject for a film?
The complexity of the story and the complexity of the main character. The ambiguous qualities of the questions the story is asking, and that it asks more questions than it has the answers to. It has different layers, and you can enter this movie through different doors.
I’m proud of the movie I did before this, Mr. Jones (2019), but it’s straight forward with a very clear message, and Charlatan doesn’t have a message, other than people are complicated. It also touches on subjects that are very dear to me and are of interest: the question of identity and the connection to our nature. How you can be extremely successful and not accept your own nature?
The situation for the citizens of middle Europe that have to survive through different regimes, and have to compromise and somehow become conformists, and the price paid for that special gift. There are several different subjects here, but in general, it asks questions about human nature.
I’m playing with the complex fabric of the human soul, where you can see melted together with the best and the worst impulsions, instincts, and desires.
I had a lot of freedom to make the film the way I wanted, and I was able to end the film in the way that you rarely can in cinema today – open, without leaving in some unnecessary information for closure.
If there’s the idea that some storytellers are retelling the same story, I’d argue that it’s not replication, but that you’re drawn to themes and ideas. How attentive are you to these recurring beats, and is it deliberate or an unconscious inclination?
I have a point of view that’s mine, which I don’t try be too forward with when I’m making the film. I do it in a transparent way, and I try to be stylistically invisible.
… I’m angry with the human attitude today in which everything is polarised and literary, and simplified. It’s supported by social media that believes you have to judge everybody, and even if cinema tries to defend itself against the “cancel culture” attitude, it has entered cinema.
This means the character of Mikolášek is somehow provocative, because the audience I was talking to wanted to know what I think of him, and whether I believe he’s a bad man? It’s necessary to judge him, but I don’t want to judge him. I don’t want to judge any of the characters I’m putting on the screen, I try to leave it open.
I’ve made many films, and they’re all different stylistically, and in terms of subject and period. They’re like dots, and if you try to connect them, you’ll see that there’s a line running through them. When I’m making a film, I’m not thinking about what I’ve already done, I’m thinking about the future.
If we think about men such as Thomas Jefferson for example, recent condemnation is ironic because we’ve been free to condemn him. It feeds into the moral friction between the past and the present. We cannot judge history by today’s morals, but that doesn’t mean that we cannot disapprove and learn from history.
The “cancel culture” leans towards vengeance, an expression of anger that may be dangerous in and of itself. It’s at risk of becoming yet another form of aggressive oppression, adversarial and not open to conversation. Governments and social institutions, such as this Conservative government in the UK, must learn to listen to the people, otherwise the anger and frustration of not being heard will fuel this culture.
Should we be concerned about the effects of “cancel culture” on cinema?
It’s already happening and it’s dangerous. Oversimplification of truth, which goes together with the judgemental attitude, is a type of lie, a distortion of the truth. I understand we’re living in very strange times, and we’ve this huge wave of authoritarian conservatism and populism, and on the other hand you have a revolutionary change of roles in society, specifically on a gender and race basis. This revolutionary situation is pushing us into the “cancel culture” and I’m afraid of it, especially if it becomes historical.
You’re speaking about Thomas Jefferson, but also Abraham Lincoln by today’s standards was racist. Suddenly one word, one sentence, or one act in someone’s life has to define them forever, and the changes that happened don’t matter. It’s dangerous, and if it goes together with censorship, and suddenly you cannot publish Lolita (Nabokov, 1955) anymore. It’s a type of cultural revolution. I’m not eager to live through these kinds of revolutionary times.
In your director’s statement included in the press materials, you spoke about wanting the film to live with the audience beyond the experience. Our discussion positions this as a challenge to the trends in cinema you’ve spoken about.
I tried to give them a sensual experience, and this film is quite difficult because what gives us space is the absence of words. There’s not too much dialogue, and the situations I’m showing, the way he’s healing, the diagnosis, especially in relation to the mystery of the urine, I find it intriguing and it doesn’t need an explanation. It’s creating this character and the experience of the fate of his journey, from different elements.
I hope it will be intriguing for the audience, as it was for me the first time I read his story. I began imagining the images I could create to support this complex and unclear truth, about the life and the personal character of the man.
If not in all of my films, it’s my ambition to give the audience enough space. I spoke about this film being like a room with different entrances, and everyone can choose a different one. Entering through a different door, you’ll see the inner reality in a different light. It’ll depend on whose point of view I’m taking, but I try to create multiple points of view to leave the audience with enough choice to make it interactive.
It’s not easy, nor is it easy to convince the financiers to give money to this type of storytelling, but if it’s successful, it’s very satisfying.
Is it becoming increasingly difficult to make these kinds of films?
The idea of pitching, promoting, and selling becomes more difficult. It forces the financiers, the producers, and the distributors to clearly put the film in a box, into genres, and to also put their messages into a box. It’s more difficult to make original or ambiguous movies in terms of the genre than it was before, or at least in the ’60s and ’70s.
Is there a loss of appetite for these types of films, or are audiences being told that they want simplified and clearly defined stories? Filmmakers and the wider industry educate the audience, showing them what cinema is and what it can be, just as critics and publications educate people as to what criticism is. It seems to me that this role is being abandoned, replaced and guided instead by presumptive ideas of who people are, and what they want.
It’s the question of education and culture capital, and the audience is used to having something laid out before them for a mass appeal. They’ve forgotten how to receive another kind of narration. The role of the critics, festivals and curators is very important, but they have less space to make an impact.
The danger is that objectively, from your first point of view, you think a platform that’s not curated except by an algorithm gives you the freedom of choice, but in reality it doesn’t. There’s so much content that you don’t know what’s valuable and what’s not. You’re following a global conformist in choosing your content, and so it becomes simplified.
The knowledge of how to read more complicated and stylistic processes, like symbols or metaphors, has disappeared. It has made storytelling flat and literal. There’s a danger because this process has been going for some time already, and the audience is forgetting that movies are something more than that.
You’ll always have a small group of cinephiles and fans of crazy and strange movies, but the mainstream is like this. I’m thinking of the Polish audience, who paradoxically have been much more sophisticated in receiving stylistically cryptic and complex films, and today they’re taking everything in the first degree.
The process of globalisation plays an important role because films are losing their cultural identity. You have to simplify in order to please everyone.
Charlatan is available on premium digital platforms courtesy of AX1 Entertainment.