Agnieszka Holland • Director of Charlatan
“Love can be stronger than any of our weaknesses”
by Marta Bałaga
- BERLINALE 2020: We met up with FAMU-educated Polish director Agnieszka Holland to discuss Charlatan, her film about a 1930s Czech healer
In Charlatan [+see also:
interview: Agnieszka Holland
film profile], a fictionalised take on the life of Jan Mikolášek, Agnieszka Holland portrays a man who, despite his incredible healing powers, struggles to cure his own inner darkness, even after he falls in love with another, much younger man. The film screened at the 70th Berlin Film Festival, in the Berlinale Special section.
Cineuropa: Despite the film’s title, Charlatan, you don’t seem to doubt that Mikolášek was the “real deal”.
Agnieszka Holland: He was called a “charlatan” by the official communist propaganda – they even claimed that he assassinated two party members. It certainly has a double meaning sometimes. Mikolášek had this special skill: he was able to diagnose patients just by looking at their urine, and he passed tests that proved it. If we take a look at contemporary medicine, doctors already know that urine can be viewed as a “mirror” for the body. He was one of the world’s experts on medicinal plants, too, and came up with some very efficient combinations. He was just more gifted than others, and extremely focused. It became his passion, his mission, and he built up his identity around it.
Was it interesting to talk about someone who is not political? He doesn’t care, treating anyone and everyone who walks through his doors. It doesn’t strike me as a natural choice for you, as you are very outspoken politically and always have been.
It just shows that even someone who believes he is beyond politics will eventually find out that politics is interested in him – that it’s using him and it can destroy him. When you are a doctor or a healer, you have to treat everybody. He was using it as an excuse, also to protect himself, but in the 20th century – and I am afraid it will be the same in the 21st century as well – it’s difficult to lead a completely independent life, regardless of who is in charge. You can only ignore it if it’s a regular kind of civilised democracy, which has its ups and downs, too, but you can live your life without thinking about who will be elected. Unfortunately, it’s impossible in more complicated times.
I can imagine this story being told in a more sentimental, Spielbergian way. But you are showing a man who is just so imperfect! He doesn’t even seem to like people – he just has this need to heal them.
And when he stops, he goes crazy. It’s probably his escape, as I think that one of the subjects of the film is this very deep, existential fear of death. When he can’t heal, he gets angry and desperate. But this fear also has something to do with his own death. When he realises in prison that he might actually die, he turns to betrayal.
I’ve always felt that you are good at creating chemistry between people when needed, and Charlatan becomes a story about love at one point. How did you see these two men together?
This love story is special because the way it presents itself to the audience is irregular. We start in the present of the film, in the mid-1950s, and we see them working together and living in the same house. We don’t know about their sexual relationship, but we can feel some closeness, the kind you find in a long-standing marriage. It’s only in the middle that we go back to the beginning, seeing how they met. There is this fascination, this attraction coming from Mikolášek’s side. With František, it’s hard to say if he is seducing him because he wants a job, but then it grows into something powerful. Mikolášek hides his sexuality not just because it’s dangerous – it’s also not compatible with his vision of himself as a powerful, untouchable man. Even though it’s the only closeness he has, and other people are just extras in the theatre of his actions.
They’re annoying extras, too, as he can’t stand competition. We often hear that love saves you, but in his case, it also drives him to do some terrible things.
But at the same time, there is some redemption, isn’t there? So maybe love can be stronger than any of our weaknesses. Or maybe you can be weak, or bad, but if you are loved, you are loved. It’s that simple.
With period dramas, you tend to expect a certain soundtrack – usually very polished and nothing like the one you have here, courtesy of Antoni Komasa-Łazarkiewicz.
It’s a bit like modern Czech music from the 20th century, like Leoš Janáček, although he was more playful. We thought that the music should be very minimalistic. It should be Mikolášek’s music, as this tension is with him constantly. There are very few moments, like when he is lying in the grass with František, when you actually see him smile, even when he is younger. There is this darkness inside him.
He can’t really control it, can he?
No, and that’s why it turns to anger and violence. “Powerlessness is unbearable” – that line is the key. He can’t accept the fact that he can’t stop death. It reminded me of [Polish writer] Witold Gombrowicz, writing about seeing hundreds of beetles lying upside down on the beach. He kept turning them over, only to realise it was an impossible task – there were just too many of them. Mikolášek just couldn’t stop, working over the weekends because outside of this calling, there was just emptiness. When we show him kill his comrade as a very young man, he does it in some kind of crazed frenzy. That’s when he realises that he can heal, but he also loves killing.
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