Agnieszka Holland parlayed her Academy Award-nominated international art-house hit “Europa, Europa” into a Hollywood career, but she never stopped making films in Poland and other places far from Tinseltown.
So when she comes to Berkeley beginning Thursday, Oct. 25, for a weekend of films, Q&As and conversations with Polish film critic Karolina Pasternak, you won’t see her 1993 adaptation of Frances Hodgson Burnett’s “The Secret Garden,” her 1997 adaptation of Henry James’ “Washington Square” starring Jennifer Jason Leigh or her extensive television work, which includes several episodes of “The Wire,” “House of Cards” and “The First,” the new Hulu series starring Sean Penn about the first astronauts to go to Mars.
“I’m really excited to come back (to the Bay Area) because I think my last visit was 10 years ago, something like that,” said Holland by phone from Warsaw. “These films are personal to me. After I immigrated to France and then the U.S., it changed slightly because I was never to be so close to the reality of the films I was making.”Instead, you will see her beginnings with two films — “Provincial Actors” (1979) and “A Woman Alone” (1981) — made when she was the only female director in Soviet-controlled Poland; and some of her current European work, including the fantastic Oscar-nominated World War II drama “In Darkness” (2011) and the Czech Republic-produced miniseries “The Burning Bush” (2013), about Prague history student Jan Palach, who set himself on fire in 1969 to protest the Soviet occupation of Czechoslovakia.
“Provincial Actors” (7 p.m. Thursday), which won the critics prize at Cannes, is a whimsical look at a Polish acting troupe in a rural province attempting to stage a production of Stanisław Wyspiański’s “Liberation.” The actors and directors fight, make love, obsess, rehearse, fail and succeed in a sometimes experimental style that is full of life. Holland applied some of the lessons she learned from the Czech New Wave, but Truffaut’s “Day for Night” also comes to mind in its ultimately joyful valentine to actors and directors.
“A Woman Alone” (7 p.m. Friday, Oct. 26) is tougher stuff. A divorced postal worker begins an affair with a much younger man in the era of Lech Walesa’s Solidarity movement. Its social critique dismayed Communist censors, who banned the film before relenting and releasing it six years later. The incident was one of the catalysts for Holland’s departure from Poland — making “Europa, Europa,” for which she was Oscar-nominated for her screenplay, in Germany. (She also co-wrote “Three Colors: Blue” for director Krzysztof Kieślowski.)
“ ‘Provincial Actors’ and ‘A Woman Alone’ were made by someone who understands the reality and is close to the reality,” Holland said. “Everyone felt a kind of mix of despair, frustration and the feeling that nothing will ever change. …
“In the air at the same time, there was a desire to break this cage. I think the films kind of express this — the mixed feelings of the desire to express yourself, and the frustration that that would not be possible at all, that you cannot win.”
“The Burning Bush” (Part I screens 4 p.m. Friday; all three parts screen on Saturday, Oct. 27 beginning at 4 p.m.), which is in Czech and produced by HBO Europe, and the Polish “In Darkness” (2 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 28) are, like her early work, very personal films. Holland was in Prague at film school during the Soviet occupation, even spending a short time in jail after being arrested as a protester. For “In Darkness,” Holland was inspired by her family’s trials and tribulations in Nazi-occupied Warsaw.
“It’s very personal to me,” Holland said of “The Burning Bush.” “I was studying in Prague in this time exactly and I was actually the age of young Palach. … It was very moving for me to reconnect with this experience, and make it universal somehow.”
Of “In Darkness,” Holland said, “The Holocaust and the Second World War was the experience of my family, so it was in me, even though I was born after the war. But I think the war never ended, actually. So it was something very close to my examination of the human choices and the human miseries.”
Holland, of course, was a pioneer female director in Poland. Now, she says, there are a lot — “maybe 20 female directors that are really interesting.”
Some of that talent will be available to American audiences on Nov. 30, when the first Polish-language miniseries debuts on Netflix. The eight-part “1983,” a fast-paced alternate-history conspiracy thriller, was entirely directed by Polish women: Holland and her daughter Kasia Adamik, as well as Olga Chajdas and Agnieszka Smoczynsk. Understandably, Holland is proud of her legacy.
“The last few years, there has been an explosion of female talents, including my daughter, and the wife of my daughter,” Holland said. “And I have been the artistic adviser on first movies of some close friends. It is better than in the U.S.”