A version of this story about “Charlatan” first appeared in the International Film Issue of TheWrap’s awards magazine.
Agnieszka Holland is one of Europe’s busiest directors, and a constant presence in the Oscar race. Her film “Angry Harvest” was nominated as West Germany’s entry in the Best Foreign Language Film category in 1985; her 1990 drama “Europa Europa” landed her a screenwriting nomination; and her films “In Darkness” and “Spoor” represented Poland at the Oscars, with the former receiving a nomination in 2011.
In 2020, Holland released two features, both of them dealing with real-life figures in Eastern Europe in the first half of the 20th century. “Mr. Jones” tells the story of Welsh journalist Gareth Jones, who broke the news of a Soviet-engineered famine in the 1930s, and “Charlatan” deals with Czech healer Jan Mikolásek, who used plant-based remedies successfully for years but was accused of being a fraud and eventually jailed.
“Charlatan” marks the first time the Polish-born filmmaker has represented the Czech Republic in the Oscar race.
How did you come to this story?
The script was sent to me five years ago or more. I thought it was complex and mysterious and it had many layers and subjects that are interesting for me. But I told them they had to wait, because I had another two movies and one or two TV series in line. During those four years I was working practically all the time, but when I finished “Mr. Jones,” I became available for “Charlatan.” And I remember the moment I read it after doing those other movies, and suddenly I thought, “Why did I want to make it?” It was a week of panic until I reconnected with the material again.
What were the biggest challenges of the film for you?
To show the complex sides of this character who is able to do the higher good and at the same time the worst things. He is doing great things with nature, and at the same time he is unable to accept his own nature. And also, to show again the destiny of the citizens of Central Europe in the first part of the 20th century, which I have done in other movies, including “Europa Europa.” And how those citizens become toys in the hands of the regimes. There are a lot of themes inside this, including a love story that explodes in the middle of the movie.
As you’ve said, there’s definitely a political element in this film and in almost all your films. Is it important to you to always have that element?
In the last years, the world is changing so much and we have so many challenges and dangers with the new kind of authoritarian and totalitarian regimes, and the internet revolution which is changing relations between human beings, and the climate crisis, and gender revolutions — all of that means that filmmakers cannot pretend that it is not going on. It’s very difficult to catch contemporary reality, because it changes so quickly, so sometimes going into the past helps us understand the present.