Agnieszka Holland, 74, has spent the last decade directing movies that equal or outstrip her classic Europa Europa (1990), the real-life story of a Jewish Candide who survives the Holocaust when he lands in an elite school for Hitler Youth. Burning Bush (2013), an HBO Europe production about the repercussions of a student’s setting himself on fire to protest the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia, may be the best mini-series this century. Her one-of-a-kind biopic, Mr. Jones (2019), filters the Stalin-created famine that blighted Ukraine in the 1930s through the hyper-sensitive eyes of Gareth Jones, the journalist who broke the story to a disbelieving world.
Now comes the bristling, emotionally engulfing Green Border, Holland’s epic dramatization of the refugee crisis bloodily unfolding where Russian satellite Belarus meets the E.U.’s Poland. The film received raves at the Venice Film Festival, a slot at the New York Film Festival (it plays October 4 and 5), and condemnation from the current, right-wing Polish government.
Poland’s justice minister compared Holland to Nazi propagandists for her portrayal of Polish border guards brutally forcing out asylum seekers and sealing off trouble spots from journalists and aid workers. The chief of Poland’s border guards commented, “Only pigs sit in the cinema.” According to Variety foreign correspondent Christopher Vourlias, the Polish Resistance coined this put-down when Third Reich agitprop filled Polish movie theaters. The savage irony is that Holland’s mentor, Andrzej Wajda, was a Resistance veteran as well as an auteur.
Western news organizations have reported one part of this Sisyphean saga. Belarus dictator Alexander Lukashenko promises refugees from failed states such as Syria easy access to E.U. countries like Poland if they come to his capital, Minsk. But after Belarus hustles the refugees across the closed border at gunpoint, Poland turns them back. This Putin-sanctioned plot to foment chaos in anti-Putin countries resembles Republican governors’ sending Latin-American refugees to Democratic strongholds such as Chicago and New York.
But Poland contains no sanctuary cities for these refugees. Holland makes the term “political football” horrifyingly literal as border guards on both sides toss humans over, under, or through a multi-looped razor-wire fence. In Green Border, migrants wind up starved, sick, gashed, and, sometimes, dead in the primeval forest of the Poland-Belarus borderlands.
Poland’s justice minister compared Holland to Nazi propagandists for her portrayal of Polish border guards brutally forcing out asylum seekers.
Holland’s film is less a miserabilist spectacle than it is an electrifying J’accuse. She peoples it with characters who grow in our imaginations. Central to Holland’s story is a Syrian family of six—a grandfather and the parents of three children—who believe that the husband’s brother has paid for and paved their way from Minsk to Poland to his home in Sweden.
They link up with a relatively cosmopolitan Afghan woman who contributes 300 euros when their supposed saviors shake them down. Holland creates unexpected relationships on the run, like the budding friendship between this solitary Afghani traveler and the family’s mischievous young boy. During the flight to Minsk, he manipulates his way into her window seat; on the ground, she teaches him to say, in English, “I want to stay in Europe.”
They boomerang between Polish and Belarusian forces as they battle a nightmare landscape. On the floor of the old-growth forest, beneath the gorgeous canopy, wooden debris trips them up and muck and mire pull them down. Everyone from the family’s old patriarch to its little girl gets scarred, infected—and worse. They huddle with a broadening cast of equally abused men, women, and children for sanity and warmth. The dank environment fosters crippling “trench foot.” Guards kick, throw, and beat pregnant women into miscarriage.
We rarely see the dips and turns coming in the roller-coaster narrative, because Holland gives free play to her wit and intelligence. Unlike au courant American directors, she doesn’t seem to fear being accused of the “white savior” paradigm. She knows that refugees in jeopardy simply cannot save themselves by themselves.
The movie ultimately charts the valor of a radicalized upper-class psychologist. Her intellectual detachment dissolves when she finds the Afghan woman and the Syrian boy up to their necks in mud in a nearby bog. The psychologist turns activist, joining a group of liberal caregivers, who provide migrants with everything they need—food, clothing, shoes, phones—except an exit from their no-win situation. Out of anger and frustration, she soon puts together her own rebel underground.
In a parallel storyline, Holland introduces a conscience-stricken Polish border guard, who finally confirms his own humanity by doing one good thing. In the epilogue, we see him assisting Ukrainians in flight from Russia’s onslaught. A humanitarian worker recognizes him from the Belarus border and calls him out for his changed demeanor. He denies that he ever served there.
Green Border begins with a wave of green as the camera glides over untamed woodlands: as always in Holland, a greenhouse for conflict and mystery. But she quickly shifts into a textured monochrome perfect for a film that juggles moral blacks and whites and every shade of gray.
Green Border is showing at the New York Film Festival on October 4 and 5
Michael Sragow has been a film critic for Rolling Stone, Salon, and Film Comment, among other publications, and is the author of Victor Fleming: An American Movie Master