Before her Jewish father died in Polish police custody in 1961, director Agnieszka Holland saw the legendary 1937 Yiddish film, "The Dybbuk," based on S. Ansky's play. Decades later, she remembered the movie as she prepared to direct her first Polish film since she was exiled from that country in 1981.
"I wanted to help reestablish the bridge between Poles and Jews," she said.
Holland ("Washington Square," "The Secret Garden") selected Ansky's tale of possession and exorcism partly "because the mysticism is depicted as part of everyday life," she said. "Usually when Polish directors tackle Jewish subjects, I feel a kind of irritation because it's like a fairy tale. But I wanted to show Jewish life in a very realistic way. Realism establishes a direct emotional connection between the characters and the audience, so that even if you have no Jewish background, you can relate."
Holland's story is almost as dramatic as the film, which uses Ansky's text almost verbatim. Her Jewish journalist father lost most of his family in the Holocaust, but was reticent to talk about it "because of his pain and survivor's guilt," she said. In 1961, he was arrested during an anti-Semitic purge and allegedly pushed out the window (his death was officially declared a suicide).
Although her mother was Catholic, the half-Jewish Holland, now 54, was rejected from every Polish film school. While she eventually attended the prestigious Prague Film Academy, she spent six weeks in a Czech prison for dissident activities.
Back in Poland in the 1970s, she was banned from the film business until she became a protégé of esteemed director Andrzej Wajda. When he offered to adopt her so she could drop her blackened family name, she declined.
"I wanted to be my father's witness," she said.
Holland continued to bear witness to her father -- and to her family's past -- by making several Holocaust-themed films. In 1985, she directed "Angry Harvest," about a Catholic farmer who shelters a Jewish woman during World War II. In 1991, she filmed "Europa, Europa," based on the true story of a Jewish boy who posed as a member of the Hitler Youth.
She settled on "The Dybbuk" following her 1999 drama, "The Third Miracle," starring Ed Harris as a beleaguered priest. "After touching on Catholic mysticism, I wanted to explore the Jewish side," she said.
Ansky's story of a kabbalist who possesses his beloved fit the bill; because her non-Jewish cast knew nothing about Judaism, Holland invited Poland's chief rabbi to lecture to them about Chasidism. Her biggest challenge while directing the Polish TV movie: "Getting my actors to play real human beings, not clichéd 'Jews' with quaint accents and movements," she said. "I wanted them to bring to the characters the same kinds of fears and passions experienced by contemporary people."
Will she return to Jewish themes in her work?
"It will always be a possibility, because it's always present in myself," she said.
Holland's "The Dybbuk" will screen at the Zeitgeist Festival Tuesday, Aug. 26 at 7:30 p.m.; tickets are $4-$6. Holland will also be hosting a screening of Agnes Varda's "Le Bonheur" on Friday, Aug. 22 at 7:30 p.m. as part of the "How Great Filmmakers Inspire Great Filmmakers" series; tickets are $6-$10. Both events take place at the Skirball. For tickets, call (323) 655-8587.