Agnieszka Holland • Director of Mr. Jones
“Many people wouldn’t have learned about the Holocaust if it hadn’t been for cinema”
by Ola Salwa
- BERLIN 2019: We met up with Polish auteur Agnieszka Holland to talk about untold stories, journalism and the power of cinema in the context of her competition entry Mr. Jones
We talked to Polish auteur Agnieszka Holland to discuss Mr. Jones [+see also:
interview: Agnieszka Holland
film profile], her competition entry at the 69th Berlinale, as well as untold stories, journalism and the power of cinema.
Cineuropa: You’ve already made a few films exploring the darker chapters in Europe’s recent history, and you probably receive many scripts on subjects such as WW2 and the Holocaust. I’m guessing there was a special reason why you chose Andrea Chalupa’s screenplay…
Agnieszka Holland: I’d never been asked to direct a film about Holodomor. For a long time, I’d been thinking and telling people that many of the crimes condoned by the communist regime are still not talked about. There is no global awareness surrounding them, whereas the Holocaust, for example, is a known part of human history. Even Russians [and people living in former Soviet republics] don’t talk about the crimes committed in the name of Communism, and Stalin killed over 20 million of his own citizens! In a poll taken last year, I believe, people voted Stalin the greatest Russian leader in history. To understand how monstrous that is, and the influence it must have on politics in Russia, we have to imagine what would happen if the Germans picked Hitler!
I think the fact that these atrocities are shrouded in silence is one of the reasons for the moral chaos we can feel in Europe today. I read somewhere that the consequences of extreme hunger – both physiological and psychological - can reach as far into the future as five generations. Naturally, the psychological aftermath is difficult to assess. One of the filming locations for Mr. Jones was an abandoned village in the Ukraine, which was only inhabited by five old women. They remembered Holodomor, but they also told us that no one talked about it when they were kids either, even though most of their families had died in the famine. So, in a way, the subject of hunger-genocide had been calling my name for a while, alongside themes relating to journalism, courage and media corruption.
That makes the film very topical…
The main subject of the film is Holodomor and the theme is Gareth Jones’ crusade to tell the real story of what happened. He wants to uncover the truth because it’s in his nature: it’s in line with his honesty, his education and his instincts. The other important topic in the film is the world’s treatment of Jones’ discoveries – we see how the facts are discredited and distorted, and how “fake news”, which is more comfortable for everyone, wins the day. And when the truth finally does come out, it means nothing. Nobody cares.
Gareth Jones is fair, honest and noble. He’s the type of protagonist that we rarely see in recent films or TV series, with writers often preferring dark, twisted characters. Were you tempted to make Mr. Jones a bit less of a “knight in shining armour”, so to speak?
To do that just to “sell” the character wouldn’t be fair to the real Gareth Jones. However, I did work with James Norton [who plays Jones] on making his character more realistic and relatable. We made him a bit awkward, nerdy and pushy. He seduces people with the same old ridiculous poem about The Battle of the Trees… So his character does have some colour, other than pure white. He changes when he enters into the nightmarish world of starved villages; he becomes frozen in a way.
The frozen landscapes of Ukrainian villages make a remarkable impression on the viewer, as do the film’s many moods and locations. What can you say about the style of this work?
It evolved as we worked. I don’t like to have a strict concept because it makes me “closed off” to developments that might take place during the film shoot. I like to be inspired by what’s going on on the set. But that doesn’t mean we didn’t have anything in place. Early on, we talked about incorporating segments from avant-garde, Russian films, for example. We also decided pretty early on that Gareth’s character would be expressed through the visual style of the film rather than relying purely on psychology, and we did this in a very simple way. We don’t know a lot about him, and we can’t learn much about him either; Gareth is a vehicle for telling a story. He’s in constant motion, and the audience must follow him. When we meet him, we see him in London, in old school, elegant interiors; then he goes to Moscow, where he moves from a beautiful office in Duranty to a Kafkaesque hotel; after that, he attends a party with a distinct Alice Through the Looking-Glass feel; finally, he travels to the Ukraine, and everything slows down. There’s little to no dialogue, we only hear a song sung by kids. The lyrics are actually real; the melody was lost but a new one was composed by Antoni Komasa-Łazarkiewicz.
Cinema, in the case of Mr. Jones, can play an important role in preserving memory. Do you think that cinema can still make a difference?
What cinema can definitely do is introduce certain facts and events into the global narrative and make them a part of wider, human awareness. Film played a crucial role in Holocaust discourse, especially in the USA, and it also changed the attitudes of the Germans. After WW2, hardly anyone spoke about the Holocaust, except maybe to tell a few random stories about hiding Jews. Only decades later did people actually start to talk about it. The first production that opened the subject up for discussion was, I believe, the 1978 television mini-series, Holocaust. It was kitsch but it made a big impression on people. When I made Europa Europa in 1990, there still weren’t many films on the subject. Then came Schindler’s List and many more. The impact of these films revealed the true power of cinema in terms of its ability to educate and foster empathy. And while some say that we shouldn’t make films about the Holocaust, and that it’s an unspeakable, inexpressible experience, the truth is that many people wouldn’t have learned about it if it hadn’t been for cinema.
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