When at the age of 15 I decided that I would one day become a film director, film seemed to be living up to Lenin’s famous definition as “the most important of the arts”. It was the mid-1960s and arthouse cinema was at its peak, with such incredible personalities as Ingmar Bergman, Alain Resnais, Federico Fellini, Carol Reed, Andrzej Wajda and Akira Kurosawa. They were all bound by a single shared experience: each, as grown, mature people, had lived through the atrocities of the second world war, even if for some of them it had not been that immediate. The experience of war provided them with a feeling of responsibility for what kind of stories they told and what formal choices they made, and an awareness that the world was infinitely complicated, that people were capable of absolutely anything.
The next generation introduced a kind of anarchic boldness, which in various countries led to the uprisings of 1968, student movements, hippy culture, the whiff of freedom behind the iron curtain. Cinema started to use artistic styles that earlier had been present in poetry or other visual arts. In Poland, my homeland, a new group of film-makers coalesced around two of our older colleagues, Wajda and Krzysztof Zanussi, in the 1970s.
Life under communism was threatening, but we were able to circumvent the system. We learned to trick the censors, because we knew that we were in a beautiful synergy with our audience, who could decipher metaphors, allegories, symbols. We wanted to tell stories about the contemporary world and voice our collective anger. In the summer of 1980 this joined with the anger of workers from the Gdańsk shipyard, whose strike led to the creation of the Solidarity movement. It was then that we Polish film-makers felt an incredible sense of agency.
In the 1990s the world started to become more even. The iron curtain was gone. The Soviet Union collapsed, burying – as we then thought, once and for all – the temptations of totalitarian ideas and the illusion of a bright future for global communism. A return of fascist-like ideology seemed even more absurd. There was a vaccine of sorts against that: the memory of the Holocaust. The creation of the European Union was meant to guarantee a permanent immunity against this awful temptation. There seemed to be no other option than capitalism, liberal democracy and the free market.
Meanwhile, new challenges and fears were rising. The Soviet Union was terrible to its citizens and to those of its satellite states, but its very existence added a counterbalance of humanity to western capitalism. When it fell, the ghost that tempered the merciless egoism of capitalism disappeared with it: the rich started to get richer faster, the poor got poorer. Consumption and new technologies became our favourite form of entertainment, a doorway to escape from the real world. Cinema became as boring as life in the vacuum of neoliberalism.
I started to feel more and more that the role of audiovisual narratives was to provide an escape from reality. Art and entertainment – much like politics – started to become an escape from freedom. Being free meant being responsible, and what kind of duties would this mean for film-makers? I felt somehow different from my peers in the west, but even more different from younger generations of film-makers. I was born shortly after the second world war, I grew up in the ruins of Warsaw, and I wore the stigma of the trauma experienced by my Jewish father, a communist who at the beginning of the war escaped to Soviet Russia and fought there, unaware of the fact that he had lost his whole family in the Shoah (he never spoke about it).
He believed in communism, in a future beaming with universal happiness for humanity. Instead, what he got was injustice, false accusations, corruption of the initial ideology, suffering and death for those who tried to fight for freedom. He came to realise that he was in part responsible for this terrible lie. At the age of 41 he was arrested by the security services, and after being harassed during the hearing, he took his own life. I was 13 at that time, and from that point on, my father’s surname (which in his honour I kept, even after getting married) became a sign of shame in communist Poland.
I saw the Soviet tanks on the streets of Prague in August 1968, the resistance of the society, which ended in the self-immolation of Jan Palach, followed by the spread of a collective conformism and resignation. Afterwards I was put in prison and accused in a political trial. Then came the Solidarity movement in Poland, and martial law. All the layers of 20th-century history – the wars, the totalitarian regimes, the suffering, the hopes – all those elements organised themselves in my mind as a single, very long process. An inevitable element of this process was always humanity, rising after every setback with a new energy and with a hope that carried in it the anticipation of the next blow …
In my opinion, the war never actually ended – it lay dormant, it hid below the surface and could awaken at any time in a new, but equally absurd and violent form. This is why I considered it my duty to evoke the war in my films. The present not only has its roots in the past, it coexists with it every day. Here. Now. Always. All it takes is for people to get overwhelmed with fear, which generates hatred.
Our times have started to be penetrated by fear. This puts challenges in the way of film-makers. A troubled contemporary world forces us to step out of our comfort zone and look at reality and at ourselves from a fresh perspective. The recent triumph of grotesque populists has shown us that reality is stranger than fiction, and that dystopias are starting to look like reality shows. It’s as if people were waiting for someone who would allow them to close themselves up in egoistic bubbles.
Populists promise just that, but their remedy is far worse than the disease. It destroys solidarity, equality and fraternity. In the end, it destroys freedom. So we film-makers are faced with the question of whether we can have a real impact on our world and how we go about doing that. If reality looks like bad fiction and if real characters are like caricatures, then our movies have to reinvent reality. In short: we should leave politicians by the wayside and let artists invent the future. Responsibility today means putting our imaginations to work.
Agnieszka Holland is a Polish film director. Her latest movie is Mr Jones.