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Polish Compassion

Agata Kubis

Talia Ajjan as Ghalia in Agnieszka Holland’s Green Border, 2023

Europe, in Agnieszka Holland’s rough-and-tumble Green Border, is a beacon of hope and a cauldron of hate. The dual perspective is implicit in the movie’s title, which refers both to the European Union’s “open” internal borders and those forested international boundaries associated with smuggled contraband and illegal crossings.

Holland’s film dramatizes an incident precipitated in the autumn of 2021 by Alexander Lukashenko, the dictator of Belarus. After luring several thousand asylum seekers—mostly Syrian, Kurdish, and Afghan—there with the promise of free transit to the EU, Lukashenko dumped them on his country’s borders with Poland, Lithuania, and Latvia. Poland, then led by the right-wing, nationalist Law and Justice party (PiS), responded by creating a militarized security zone between the barbed-wire borders and barring aid workers and doctors from helping the stranded refugees. The so-called tourists were forced back and forth along the 250-mile frontier. The situation continues today—part of a larger, fifteen-year-long humanitarian disaster exemplified by the more than two million Middle Eastern and African refugees who have crossed or attempted to cross the Mediterranean.

Holland, who was born in and at one point exiled from Poland, treats the crisis as a moral catastrophe. Essentially Green Border is a flashback to World War II, a subject that Holland, now seventy-five, has explored in several films about the fate of East European Jews over the course of a remarkable career that includes work in France, Germany, and Hollywood. She is an indomitable politically minded filmmaker, and likely the first woman to stage and shoot battlefield combat. (Lina Wertmüller incorporated World War II newsreel footage into her 1975 feature Seven Beauties; Holland’s Europa, Europa, from 1990, predates Kathryn Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker by nearly two decades.) Her résumé includes three episodes of The Wire; her 1997 adaptation of Washington Square transformed Henry James’s genteel antiromance into an emotional slugfest; and her anarcho-feminist Spoor (2017) is a robust defense of ecoterrorism. Writing on that movie—adapted from Drive Your Plough Over the Bones of the Dead, a 2009 novel by the Nobel laureate Olga Tokarczuk—in Film Comment, Amy Taubin called it “the most resonant and inspiring political film of the century.”   

Agata Kubis

Talia Ajjan as Ghalia and Jalal Altawil as Bashir in Agnieszka Holland’s Green Border, 2023

Similarly devoid of nuance, its moral reckoning accentuated by brilliant black-and-white cinematography, Green Border is a visceral ordeal and virtuoso tumult. The gratuitously cruel Polish and Belarusian border guards, the starved refugees huddled in barbed-wire encampments or frozen in the forest, the savage roundups, indiscriminate beatings, and snarling dogs—not to mention the official euphemisms, racial slurs, and self-righteous indifference to human suffering—evoke a Holocaust in which the victims are not Jews. To one of the film’s Polish commanders, they are “human bullets” in a hybrid war—terrorists, pedophiles, and crisis actors sent by Putin “to play on our Polish compassion.”

Naturally the elderly, the underage, and the pregnant come in for the most abuse. Neither is the audience spared. “We’re in Poland! We’re in Europe! We made it!” cries a middle-aged, bespectacled Afghan woman who has managed to crawl under the fence. As nearsighted as she is, we know she will never make it.

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Holland’s films—the subject of a recent retrospective at the Museum of the Moving Image in New York—bear the full weight of twentieth-century European history. Both set in the 1930s, her two previous features, Mr. Jones (2019) and Charlatan (2021), concern, respectively, the Stalin-made Ukrainian famine and a charismatic Czech faith healer employed by Nazi and Communist leaders alike; her current project is devoted to Franz Kafka. She was born in postwar Poland, the child of two resistance fighters, her mother a Righteous Gentile (as designated by Yad Vashem), her father a Jewish dissident Communist who died in police custody when she was thirteen. In Prague, where she attended film school, she was arrested for protesting the 1968 Soviet invasion.

Wytwórnia Filmów Dokumentalnych i Fabularnych

Tadeusz Huk as Krzysztof and Kazimiera Nogajówna as Hanka in Agnieszka Holland’s Provincial Actors, 1979

Entering the Polish film industry with some difficulty, Holland was mentored by the great Andrzej Wajda, who credited her with inspiring his initially suppressed anti-Stalinist masterpiece Man of Marble (1977). With Wajda she wrote Rough Treatment (1978), based in part on her father’s fate, and cowrote Danton (1983), a movie about Poland that (as a rondo of betrayals, putsches, show trials, and judicial murder) many French viewers, including the socialist government that helped fund it, took as a slander on their revolution.

On her own Holland directed three quintessential works of East Bloc critical cinema, arguably the most impressive starting run of any “socialist” filmmaker since Wajda made A Generation, Kanal, and Ashes and Diamonds in the mid-1950s. Provincial Actors (1979) used a time-tested East European metaphor in the service of a sad and subtle comedy of careerism behind the Curtain. Fever (1981), set in 1905, employed a classic allegorical switch, pitting politically correct Polish revolutionaries against reactionary Russian monarchists. Both movies had their problems with local censors. But it was her early masterpiece, the supremely miserabilist A Lonely Woman (1981), a grueling dark comedy of social disorder, that crossed the line by attacking virtually every institution in communist Poland.

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“Invited” by the state to leave Poland after the declaration of martial law in December 1981, Holland introduced herself in the West with two powerful international successes, Angry Harvest (1985) and Europa, Europa—both produced by another tough cookie, the Polish-born, German-based Holocaust survivor Artur Brauner. The first was a World War II kammerspiel based on a novel coauthored in prison by Hermann Field and Stanislaw Mierzenski, who had been jailed as spies by the Polish government in the paranoid early 1950s. It turns on the relationship between a Jewish woman and the Polish farmer who shelters her. Europa, Europa, based on the true story of a Jewish boy who passed for Aryan and even joined the Hitler Youth, was so hated by the German film industry that rather than submit it for Oscar consideration they submitted nothing. Holland’s third Holocaust film, In Darkness (2011), an emotionally exhausting account of Polish Jews hiding from the Nazis in the sewers of Łódź, likewise focused on the dialectic between victim and rescuer.

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Maria Chwalibóg as Irena and Boguslaw Linda as Jacek in Agnieszka Holland’s A Lonely Woman, 1981

So it is with Green Border. While the Belarusians are vicious sadists, the Poles are divided between official, often drunken persecutors and near-saintly, dissident saviors. Indeed, the film is remarkable for its evocation of selfless solidarity. It is also characteristically blunt, incorporating a notable dig at the PiS. Its positive heroine, Julia (Maja Ostaszewska), a bourgeois psychoanalyst who becomes a risk-taking activist, holds remote sessions with a Warsaw man who rails against Poland’s “fascist” government.

Despite residual traces of socialist realist aesthetic dogma (most pronounced in Burning Bush, her 2013 HBO miniseries on the Soviet occupation of Czechoslovakia), Holland has scant patience for the pieties of any organized religion. To Kill a Priest (1988), one of the first films she made after her expulsion from Poland, dramatized the political murder of Father Jerzy Popiełuszko, an outspoken supporter of Solidarity, but Shot in the Heart (2001), a curious HBO film on the execution of Gary Gilmore, is less a statement opposing capital punishment than a free-floating critique of religious authoritarianism. A self-righteous, hypocritical Catholic priest is among the worst of the bad actors in the remarkably pantheist, if not pagan Spoor. Green Border begins with a bleak joke on religious faith—one member of a Syrian family, bumping through the clouds on a Belarusian jet, describes their Lukashenko-sanctioned path to EU sanctuary as “a gift from God.” In the same spirit (and in what might almost be a Woody Allen gag), an old man’s pious salah, offered in the middle of the Polish woods, precipitates a bone-drenching downpour. So much for divine intervention. Holland is even more caustic in her references to the hypocrisies of Catholic Poles, most explicitly when Julia—detained, strip-searched, and abused by Polish special forces for aiding the refugees—taunts the police by reciting the Lord’s Prayer.

Agata Kubis

Maja Ostaszewska as Julia in Agnieszka Holland’s Green Border, 2023

In 2017 Holland told reporters at the Berlin Film Festival that Spoor, whose protagonist seems to embody old Europe’s mythic matriarchal prehistory, had been attacked as “anti-Christian” and read as openly political: the PiS has consistently gone after women’s rights and condemned the EU’s relatively “green” position on ecology. Green Border provoked a more strident outcry. Released in Poland last fall after winning a special jury prize at the 2023 Venice Film Festival, weeks before a national election, the movie became an issue in a campaign already largely concerned with demonizing refugees. It was attacked unseen by PiS chairman Jarosław Kaczyński, Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki, and Justice Minister Zbigniew Ziobro, who called Holland a Stalinist and compared her to Joseph Goebbels. (She filed a defamation suit.) The government released a campaign ad that, among other things, deployed the wife of a border guard to characterize Holland’s film as “international propaganda” aimed at “destroying our lives.”

Green Border and Spoor are companion pieces—alike not only in their politics but in their evocation of camaraderie and their ambiguously hopeful endings. (The feel-good conclusion of Spoor exaggerates that of Tokarczuk’s marvelous novel.) If Green Border’s greatest offense was its depiction of Poland’s security force, its epilogue, by celebrating Polish generosity, brings down the hammer even harder. Dated February 26, 2022, two days after Putin invaded Ukraine, the movie shows the Poles—including some previously seen in their capacity as border guards—courteously welcoming the vanguard of the two million Ukrainian refugees.

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The Museum of the Moving Image’s retrospective of Agnieszka Holland runs through June 21, when Green Border opens at Film Forum.

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