The Movie Waffler Interview - CHARLATAN Director Agnieszka Holland | The Movie Waffler

Interview - CHARLATAN Director Agnieszka Holland

agnieszka holland
The acclaimed Polish director discusses her new historical drama.

Interview by Benjamin Poole

Charlatanwhich made the shortlist for Best International Feature at this year's Oscars, is based on the true story of infamous Czech healer Jan Mikolášek.

Few true stories tread the thin line between good and evil as precariously as that of Mikolášek, whose great success masked the grimmest of secrets. He won fame and fortune treating celebrities of the interwar, Nazi, and Communist eras with his uncanny knack for “urinary diagnosis” but his passion for healing stemmed from the same source as a lust for cruelty, sadism, and an incapacity for love that only one person could ever quell – his assistant, František. As a show trial threatens to pry open these secrets and undo him, Jan’s conflicts are put to a final test,with the fate of his life’s only love in the balance.

We spoke to Charlatan's director, the acclaimed Agnieszka Holland.

Witaj Agnieszka! Congratulations on Charlatan, your biopic of unconventional physician Jan Mikolášek. It was very intriguing watching the film at this point in time, as, with Covid vaccines, the credibility of medicine is an urgent talking point! I wonder if you wouldn’t mind talking about what attracted you to this story?

Mikolasek was well known, when alive, or rather when he was practicing, after he was forgotten. I did study in Czechoslovakia and know pretty well Czech culture and history, but I never heard about him before reading Marek Epstein’s script. Mikolasek wrote before dying, after being released from prison, a very self praising autobiography, but interestingly it only described his practice and achievements in healing and his discoveries as a herbalist. We read several newspapers about him: those from communist times called him the charlatan and the thief who sucks the blood of the working class.

A little while ago I reviewed a film about the spy Noor Inayat Khan. When the review was published, online trolls took issue with my review because they felt the film was inaccurate, despite the movie celebrating the work and sacrifices of this incredible person! The whole trolling episode was a bit daft really (I am here to review films, not fact check), but I suppose that there is some sort of responsibility to history. Or is there? After all,  Emerson asserted that ‘there is properly no history; only biography’. How did you approach the telling of Mikolášek’s story? How far did you adapt and make concessions to the narrative format of cinema?

The trial was less dramatic than in our film; here we made the most of the liberty to dramatise. As about his private life and character, we found only some isolated dots, so we connected them with the red line of our imagination. Anyway, I don’t believe in the accuracy of biopics; the inner truth about the soul of man is mostly well hidden. So I rather believe in artistic intuition and imagination than in official facts.

As I said earlier, your career has been multifaceted and your skill set is versatile: in 1982 you translated The Unbearable Lightness of Being, you’ve worked on prestige television such as The Wire and your films have been awarded within and without the industry (Academy Award nominations along with civil decorations such as the Orders of Princess Olga). I wonder what is next? Do you have any passion projects which you would like to complete?

As about my plans… the pandemic taught me a lesson: we don’t know about the future. I have some projects but nothing certain, after an unexpected year's break, which I haven’t have for ages, I started to enjoy slowing down. And I try to put together some story which can express deeper the strange times we are living through. So far I have only the sketches of the story, so it is too early to speak about it.

If you could programme Charlatan as part of a triple showing, what would the other two films on the bill be and why?

Maybe two movies - a bit connected by the subject or the questions they’re asking: Total Eclipse, about the relationship between Arthur Rimbaud and Paul Verlaine (Christopher Hampton script, starring a young Leonardo DiCaprio and David Thewlis). I was showing it to the crew and actors when prepping Charlatan and it has aged well. Also The Spoor, based on Olga Tokarczuk's book 'Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead'. It shows the force and importance of nature; something which made also Mikolasek strong; even if he didn’t accept his own nature.

Charlatan is on UK/ROI VOD now.