Focusing on Bittere Ernte (Angry Harvest, 1984), Gordana P Crnković looks at how Holland uses actors associated with other directors—Fassbinder in the case of Bittere Ernte—to extend the meaning of a cinematic style that is both Polish and international.
But I'm a Polish director!
...I don't feel at home in Poland either; in a sense I'm homeless, and that is the most natural condition in the world today.
The cinema of Agnieszka Holland is profoundly marked by a dynamics based on being both a Polish director and a director who is and is not at home anywhere, as she herself puts it, as well as on Holland's working in radically different cinematic environments and various countries. She is one of the younger members of that distinguished club of central and east European directors who have made significant films both in their home countries and in a number of western ones, thus joining names such as Miloš Forman (Czech), István Szabó (Hungarian), Dušan Makavejev (Serbian), Emir Kusturica (Bosnian) and Roman Polanski (Polish). Holland embodies a new type of director who repeatedly crosses borders and works in different countries, work cultures and financial systems, within different cinematic traditions while tackling a number of divergent themes.
The body of her films constitutes a cosmopolitan opus and points at the possibilities of an emerging global cinema, one whose identity "is conjunctural, not essential," as James Clifford put it in his influential Predicament of Culture. Holland's model of global and cosmopolitan cinema escapes the trap of "global" being a synonym for the execution of pre-given American mass culture models in local terms, avoids the homogenizing push of Hollywood and is instead based on active interaction with existent local and national cinema cultures and film-makers.
Born in Warsaw in 1948, a child of one Catholic and one Jewish parent, Holland found the best Polish cinema institute, in Łódż, out of reach on account of a wave of anti-Semitism in the late 1960s. She instead applied to film school in Prague at FAMU and was one of seven applicants accepted from a total of 220. She studied there with Czech greats such as Miloš Forman, who had already made classics such as Černý Petr (Black Peter, 1963), Lásky jedné plavovlásky (A Blonde in Love, 1965) and Hoří, má panenko! (Firemen's Ball, 1967).
Holland's first film was made in Prague, the 25-minute-long and bitterly funny Hřích boha (The Sin of God,1970), about a prostitute getting what she wished for from God and finding out that a wish-come-true can turn sour. Holland witnessed the 1968 Prague Spring and its suppression and spent six weeks in prison on account of her support for the reforms. Years later, she would say that the Prague Spring "was not like a political movement; it was like an artistic happening in its joyousness. It was my most optimistic, and afterward my most pessimistic, moment."
After her return to Poland in 1971, Holland worked with Andrzej Wajda. Her screenplays for feature films were consistently rejected, but eventually her "contributions to a scenario for Wajda's 1977 epic, Człowiek z żelaza (Man of Marble), were accepted, although her name was kept off the credits." She ended up making three features in Poland at the turn of the decade, Aktorzy prowincjonalni (Provincial Actors, 1979), Gorączka (Fever, 1980) and Kobieta samotna (Woman Alone, 1981). Holland stayed abroad after Martial Law was imposed in December 1981, and has since worked in Germany, France, Great Britain and the US, with big Hollywood studios and independent multinational productions. Her films include the German Bittere Ernte (Angry Harvest, 1984) and Europa, Europa (1991), the French Le Complot (To Kill a Priest, 1988) and Olivier, Olivier (1992), the international coproduction Total Eclipse (1995) and the American Washington Square (1997) and The Third Miracle (1999).
Her relations with the cinema industry and main opinion-makers in these countries are ambiguous. She is a French citizen but was viciously attacked in France by some of the influential French intellectuals on account of what they saw (in my opinion on the basis of a complete misinterpretation of her work) as anti-Semitism in her screenplay for Wajda's Korczak (1990) and in her own Europa, Europa. Germany refused to submit her Europa, Europa for consideration for the Academy Award for best foreign-language film even though it was one of that year's favorites, but then the film itself became the second highest-grossing German film of all time in the US, after Wolfgang Petersen's Das Boot (1981).
Holland herself is quite critical of big Hollywood studios and repeatedly comments on how the creators of films are subservient to decision-making teams debating every step of the film in the light of audience research. And although she has said that "having no home... is the most true human situation," Holland often stresses her Polish roots and actively participates in Polish-centered events: she sits on the juries of Polish film festivals and gives speeches at Polish speaker series.
Inscribed bodies: Holland and Fassbinder
Although being to some extent homeless in day-to-day terms, Holland is very much at home in the cosmopolitan and active interaction with and appropriation of various aspects of different national cinemas and cultures. Not at all impressed or bounded by the precepts of identity politics, Holland simply points out that, for instance, she may be a better interpreter of Henry James' classic novel Washington Square (1880) than some American directors would be, because she is an avid reader and as such has a deeper appreciation and understanding of James than some American directors who may not be such readers.
By making national denomination less relevant in comparison to other elements, Holland creates a more fluid and open space of shared commonality. She mentions a wide range of directors whose films she appreciates, such as Wajda, Forman, Jean-Luc Godard, Francis Ford Coppola, Jim Jarmusch, the Coen brothers and so on; she bases her films on literary texts coming from various backgrounds (the Englishwoman Frances Hodgson Burnett's Secret Garden or the American Henry James's Washington Square), and she works with different languages and uses actors coming from different national cinemas in her films.
Using the example of Holland's Bittere Ernte (Angry Harvest, 1984), this essay outlines how Holland's use of specific actors functions as a reference to the roles and films that made them famous and how these references and subsequent inter-textuality between Holland's films and those of other directors enlarge and make more complex the realm of Holland's own films.
Holland employs in Bittere Ernte actors such as Elisabeth Trissenaar and Kurt Rabb (and to a lesser extent Armin Mueller-Stahl), who would at the time be best known to the international audience for their work with director Rainer Werner Fassbinder, a prolific and charismatic German film-maker who consistently used "his own" set of actors and died in 1982, only two years prior to the release of Bittere Ernte. So, Holland in employing Trissenaar, Rabb and Mueller-Stahl makes reference, either intentionally or unintentionally, both to Fassbinder's films in which these actors appeared and to Fassbinder's impressive opus as a whole. In other words, Holland's Bittere Ernte selects Fassbinder's work from Germany's cinematic context, and thus Germany's Fassbinder—and Fassbinder's Germany—are included in Holland's own multi-national project.
By the time of his death in 1982, Rainer Werner Fassbinder had established an international reputation as a result of his prolific production (44 films in all), focus on the lives of people on the margins of society, criticism of Germany's economic prosperity at all cost, bleak portrayal of his country's past and present, and idiosyncratic "aesthetic of pessimism." Fassbinder was the prominent figure of the New German Cinema and an integral part of German cultural life during the 1960s and 1970s.
This period was marked by the influence of a group of visionary, progressive and excellent writers and film-makers such as Heinrich Böll, Gunther Grass, Volker Schlöndorff and Margarethe von Trotta, artists who saw themselves as voices of the ethical and political conscience of Germany's past, present and future. These artists often worked in teams—Margarethe von Trotta directed her movies but also acted in Fassbinder's, Volker Schlöndorff made films based on Böll's novel Die verlohrene Ehe der K. Blum (The Lost Honor of Katharina Blum) and Grass's Die Blechtrommel (Tin Drum)—thus emphasizing this sense of a collective effort in elucidating and amending their country. Fassbinder's death, as Gerd Gemünden points out, "has brought with it the demise of the New German Cinema."
By 1982, Fassbinder's name and his films had become widely known. Carried by his films, a group of actors who kept appearing in them has also traversed national borders and become internationally recognised. The faces and bodies of Hanna Schygulla, Kurt Raab, Irm Hermann or Elisabeth Trissenaar had by the early 1980s become arguably more familiar to an international art house audience (in its prime in terms of numbers and importance at that period) than names and features of most other German actors before or after.
Elisabeth Trissenaar—the female lead of Bittere Ernte—appeared in, among other Fassbinder films, Bolwieser (The Stationmaster's Wife, 1977) and In Einem Jahr Mit 13 Monden (In a Year of 13 Moons, 1978). Both of these features deal with Germany's fascist legacy, showing its beginnings in Bolwieser, and the consequences and traces of it in In Einem Jahr Mit 13 Monden.
It is worth familiarizing ourselves to some degree with the first of these works, Bolwieser, because of the connections that will be revealed with Holland's Bittere Ernte. Bolwieser is based on the novel by Oskar Maria Graf, first published in 1931 and characterized as "the first of several closely observed, unsentimental depictions by Graf of the period in which Hitler rose to power." The story takes place in a small Bavarian town in pre-war Germany and revolves around the marital infidelities of Hanna (Elisabeth Trissenaar), the beautiful wife of a local stationmaster, Bolwieser (Kurt Raab).
The film shows both husband and wife as captives of their social roles, as well as of the provincial town's collective gaze which enforces these roles. Stationmaster Bolwieser is imprisoned within his office walls, constricted by his uniform, excessively proud of being a "civil servant," disciplinarian and constrained at work and unquenchable in his sexual demands when off work and with his new wife. His identity and sense of self-respect are fully predicated on his "civil service," and he subjugates himself to that service with passion, loving his captivity and enslavement yet venting his imprisoned energies through inarticulate animal-like behaviour, through dehumanized sex or erratic loss of control.
One of the most poignant scenes of the film shows Bolwieser kneeling on the table, shaking the bars of his office window and shouting uncontrollably. The camera is placed outside of the office, so our spectator's position emphasizes even more the statement of Bolwieser's captivity, reduced to the status of an animal in the zoo, displayed for our viewing. Bolwieser's wife Hanna is also imprisoned in her (their) own apartment by the set of conventional expectations as to how a bourgeois wife should spend her life, and her sexual adventures are an attempt to escape that imprisonment. Hanna is commonly shown between walls which are shown within the film frame and are literally closing in on her. There are often shelves, plants or windows between her and the camera, emphasizing her confinement within the spaces of her prescribed life.
The major social force in the provincial town is that of the collective gaze directed towards every individual member, a gaze that gathers information which is then disseminated through gossip. Though such a gaze, as Kaja Silverman writes, "might be said to be 'the presence of others as such,' it is by no means coterminous with any individual viewer, or group of viewers. It issues 'from all sides...'". And indeed, when Hanna goes to one of her lovers, we see her from a high angle, through someone's second floor window; the film frame contains the window frame and the hand of a person moving the curtain to get a better view.
Even when this collective gaze is not so directly thematized, the camera's relation to its object is that of a hidden voyeur and informant on Hanna's affairs. We see her from above, through stair rails, or through the rows of cuts of cured meat hanging in the butcher's store. Windows themselves acquire an ominous dimension, as they cease being the means through which Hanna looks out, and become exclusively the openings through which she herself is watched in her own private sphere. The collective gaze is joined by a collective mouth: in one shot we see the house cleaner who tells the station official about Hanna's rendezvous with her lover, and in the next shot two men in the bar are discussing the same affair.
In Bittere Ernte, which is set in Silesia during World War II, Holland employs actress Elisabeth Trissenaar to play Rosa, a Jewish woman who escapes from a "transport" destined for a concentration camp. A local German-speaking Pole, Leon Wolny (Mueller-Stahl, a lead in Fassbinder's 1981 Lola), finds her and hides her in the cellar of his home. Unmarried and sexually repressed, he eventually forces sexual contact with her and treats her alternately with contempt and adoration. A fragile relationship develops between them, not devoid of love on both sides, but always with Leon keeping an upper hand and sometimes treating Rosa abominably on account of her femininity, her Jewishness and his desire to keep her with him. At one point, he decides to take another woman into his home and put Rosa in a different hiding place and does not respond to her pleas not do so. Exasperated and at the end of her strength, she commits suicide. The third main character in the film, local entrepreneur Maslenko, with whom Wolny often does business, is played by Kurt Rabb.
Despite the shared actors and the obvious reference to Fassbinder's overall oeuvre, a direct connection between Fassbinder's Bolwieser and Holland's Bittere Ernte may look implausible on the thematic level. While Fassbinder's film deals with the small German town mentality in the peace period and its connection to the nascent fascism, Holland deals with the consequences of fascism and the war-time situation in a Polish community (albeit that of German-speaking Poles), and elements of the patriotic Polish resistance to the Germans and the collaborators are clearly present in her film. While Bolwieser imprisons both himself and his wife Hanna of his own free will, albeit a heavily ideologized will shaped by internalized social norms, Wolny is risking his life in hiding Rosa and is saving her from a certain death. And yet, as Bittere Ernte progresses, Wolny undergoes a subtle transformation and becomes less of a saviour and more of a captor.
He does not disclose to Rosa a crucial piece of information—that her husband is alive and hiding in the woods—and thus makes her more bound to him and her relationship with him, with a dying hope that her husband and child may still be alive. He saves her life at the beginning but then clearly causes her death at the end. And the underlying connections between Holland's film and that of Fassbinder, pointing at the social, individual and psychological elements which may abet fascism and be conducive to it, even when the community itself is victimized and opposed to fascism, are quite evident.
Social captivity and psychological and sexual repression, as well as the presence of the collective gaze which pushes individuals into upholding prescribed roles which are both detested (because they imprison human potential and freedom) and passionately embraced (because they ensure social prestige and acceptance), are emphasized in Fassbinder's Bolwieser and its view of pre-war Germany and are conditions that proved a fertile ground for the rise of fascism. In Bittere Ernte, Agnieszka Holland shows how individual repression and the collective gaze present in pre-Nazi Germany participate in the victimization of people inflicted by the fascist regimes during World War II. The social imprisonment of a woman from Fassbinder's Bolwieser turns into a physical, psychological, and sexual detention of the "same" woman—actress Elizabeth Trissenaar—during the war.
Holland's scene where the otherwise sexually repressed and now drunken Wolny insults and rapes the wooden Rosa, and then approaches her apologetically, may appear as a direct quote, through the use of the same actress, of Fassbinder's scene where the drunken stationmaster rapes his own wife Hanna, telling her "You are my property ... I can do what I want with you," and then tries to exculpate himself in the next shot. The levels and nature of a woman's detention in these two films are very different, but the atmosphere of captivity and repression is surprisingly close in the two films, producing the similar way in which Bolwieser and Wolny relate to this one woman (Trissenaar). They both treat her with a blend of adoration and disdain and with religious mores and guilt (compare the cross in Fassbinder's court-room and Wolny the would-be priest).
As with Fassbinder's Bolwieser, Holland's Bittere Ernte also shows the collective gaze and gossip, the collective eye and mouth, as a means of social self-policing, a Foucaultian panopticum embedded in almost every member of a social collective, a dangerous and potent social force. Village people watch Wolny and spread information about changes in his household, simultaneously warning him that "people talk" and he "better watch out." In both Fassbinder's and Holland's films, the collective gaze and gossip feed on the lack of a fulfilled and fulfilling life of those who practice them, themselves imprisoned within their various social roles during peace or war, and also on material motives, such as the jealousy of those who are better off financially. The result of such group surveillance is individual conformity based on the fear of ostracism or even graver reprisals.
When we consider Fassbinder's Bolwieser and Holland's Bittere Ernte together, their connection lets us see something which is impossible to grasp from either of these two films alone. Individual repression and self-repression, social confinement and the collective gaze present in Bittere Ernte do not appear as results of war-time situations. Rather, these extreme situations feed on the pathology of "normal" life which is itself characterized by captivity, repression and the regulatory collective gaze, as seen in Bolwieser.
The connection between Holland's Bittere Ernte and Fassbinder's Bolwieser indicates that fascism is related to and enabled by the cultural forms fostered by "normal" bourgeois life and its lack of one's self-realization, as well as collective observance and regulation of each and every member. In other words, fascism and the treatment of people that it fosters are seen as an extension of social forms of everyday life rather than a total deviation from them. A dialogue between these two films avoids "the greatest fault of most films about the Nazis [which] is that they always show that it's others who are responsible." The impact and the realm of meanings of Holland's Bittere Ernte greaten considerably through such a dialogue.
It is now not only specific people in specific places, safely far away from us, who abetted fascism. If seen more as a possible extension of normal life than as a one-time historical aberration, the roots of fascism can be detected in any possible here and now, in a hesitancy to divert from social norms for fear of being socially ostracized (even when that ostracism may be much milder than the loss of one's life in a war-time situation), in the pride that one takes from one's socially accepted roles and personas no matter how intimately imprisoning and limiting they may be, in inarticulate frustration and boredom that result from such socially enforced and individually ungratifying lives and in frustration and boredom that can lead to a thirst for any kind of excitement or condoned violence over those who cannot protect themselves.
Holland's "quoting" of Fassbinder also, as already mentioned, implies a connection with his entire oeuvre. While in Europa, Europa (a German film based on a true story of a Jewish boy who survives the Holocaust by pretending he's an Aryan and joining Hitler's elite youth forces), Holland makes sure that her film's Germany is not only the fascist one (by incorporating several German characters who know about the boy's Jewishness yet protect him), in Bittere Ernte this other Germany is brought by the implied presence and hovering shadow of Fassbinder. Fassbinder shared Holland's concern with the ethical, psychological, and sexual basis of politics. He looked at individuals making the Germany of the inter-war period (eg, in his famous 1980 TV adaptation of Alfred Döblin's 1929 novel Berlin Alexanderplatz, which also starred Trissenaar) and of World War II and its close aftermath, (eg, in Lili Marlen  and Die Ehe der Maria Braun [The Marriage of Maria Braun, 1979]).
Fascism in its many cultural, social and psychological manifestations was a theme which Fassbinder did not cease to explore. In Veronika Voss (1982), immoral doctors intentionally cause an actress previously favoured by Goebels to become addicted to drugs in order to induce her to hand over her huge fortune to feed her habit, and the same fate befalls a couple of old and rich Jews who display the numbers on their arms tattooed in Majdanek. In Satansbraten (Satan's Brew, 1976), a frenetic writer (Kurt Raab) treats the people who surround him like an army of slaves. The film shows fascism as based on sadomasochism and built on people who crave to be ordered around by a "strong man" and in the service of an idea that cancels all usual ethical or humanitarian concerns. "My supreme aspiration is to be used by a strong man," says Irm Hermann's character while making a bridge out of her body for the writer to sit on, with the amazed witness saying: "But... this is fascism!"
"Bergen-Belsen" is the code word for getting through to one of the main characters in In Einem Jahr Mit 13 Monden (1978), another film featuring Trissenaar. This main character is a man who survived Bergen-Belsen, worked as a butcher, then as a pimp, became rich and powerful, and is now living in a Kafkaesque 15-story building whose empty offices are used by people as a place to commit suicide. The film has disturbing shots of the butcher house, where slain and bloody cattle carcasses bring to mind the similar images of mutilated human bodies from the recent war.
Exploring traces of fascism in "normal times" before and after the war, Fassbinder is an interlocutor of Holland, who takes as the theme of her own German movies (Bittere Ernte and Europa, Europa) the individual destinies affected by the outburst of fascism in World War II. By using Fassbinder's trademark actors and having their bodies—heavily inscribed as those bodies were at the time on account of their previous repeated appearances in Fassbinder's films—bring Fassbinder's presence to the realm of her film , Holland makes a reference to "the other side" of the aggressive and often feared Germany shown in her German films.
This "other Germany" is the critical, anti-ideological and non-nationalist one of people like Fassbinder and the writers and film makers associated with him, who felt "a very real disgust with Germany's increasing departure from the progressive social and political developments in the sixties." This progressive Germany is the one which Holland appropriates and takes as part of her own cross-cultural and multi-national cinematic opus.
Although this article has focused on a possible dialogue between Holland and Fassbinder, a similar discussion could take place with regard to Holland's use of actors in some of her other films. For instance, Total Eclipse (1995), an independent film about the poetic and sexual relationship between French nineteenth-century poets Paul Verlaine and Arthur Rimbaud, has British actor David Thewlis playing Verlaine and French actress Romane Bohringer in the role of Verlaine's wife (Rimbaud is played by Leonardo di Caprio).
David Thewlis would at the time be a rather well-known face, recognisable primarily from his repeated appearances in the films of British director Mike Leigh, the creator of a distinctive realistic cinema focusing on the working-class Britons and their day-to-day lives and a director whose films up to then had included High Hopes (1988), Life is Sweet (1990) and Naked (1993). Thewlis had a leading role in Naked, a film whose high passions and high drama are somewhat uncharacteristic for Mike Leigh but proved unusually successful with both art festivals and wider audiences. Naked won awards for best director and best actor at the Cannes film festival in 1993 and was successfully shown in the US as well. Thewlis's character there is a brilliant, hyper-verbal but also sexually sadistic man at the margins of society.
Bohringer would be known to international audiences as the star of the French film Les Nuits fauves (Savage Nights, 1992), directed by Cyril Collard, a film that received considerable international attention not only because of its excellence but also because of its graphic and honest dealing with the homosexuality and the changes caused by the AIDS epidemic. In this film, Bohringer plays a woman fighting for the love of her bisexual boyfriend and coming to terms with his HIV infection.
The echoes of these other characters and films considerably enriched the original sphere of meaning of Holland's Total Eclipse. Functioning as quotations of their other best-known roles, Thewlis and Bohringer affected Total Eclipse so that it showed not only a 19th-century homosexual love story between the two famous individuals, poets Verlaine and Rimbaud but also indicated a possible variation in which this story is replayed in our own time. At the close of the 20th century, actor Thewlis's bohemian and wife-beating Verlaine becomes Thewlis' black-clad underground character at odds with society (in Naked), who beats women and does not write, but speaks with the power of a prophet and thus fills up the space of the poets from the bygone era.
Bohringer as Verlaine's wife becomes Bohringer as a 20th-century girlfriend, who not only fights for the affections of her bisexual lover, but also comes to terms with his being HIV positive in Les Nuits fauves. "Quoting" by their appearance and their "inscribed bodies" their other best-known films, Thewlis and Bohringer thus made connections between Holland's Total Eclipse on one hand and Naked and Les Nuits fauves on the other, and these connections bring additional layers of meaning to Holland's film.
The original contexts of films disappear with time, and the original and almost automatic associations that a film may have provoked at the time of its release disappear as well, to be replaced with other contexts, interpretations, and meanings. Without claiming that the original contexts and audience's horizons of reception (to use Hans Jauss's term) are superior to those which replace them in time, it is still informative to try and recreate some of those original contexts, to see some of the original impacts and meanings a film may have had at the time of its release. Reminding ourselves of the connotations which specific actors brought to specific films when they were first seen helps excavate some of the original impacts and helps us see better the cinematic projects and visions of individual directors.
By "quoting" prominent film directors from different countries in her own films, Holland creates her own cinematic homeland which traverses national borders. The supra-national identity of Holland's films thus indirectly includes Fassbinder's cinema and his Germany, Mike Leigh's films and his Great Britain and Cyril Collard's film and his France. Holland's allegiance to Polish national identity does not preclude her from exploring all the many strands of her creativity and a cinematic opus not enclosed within her own original national borders but nevertheless equally hers. By creating such a trans-national body of works, Holland's films show to her various audiences both a way out of often limiting national borders, on the one hand, and a way into creating interactive global projects, on the other.
Gordana P Crnković
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