The discreet charmlessness of the bourgeoisie

Aga Woszczyńska’s debut film observes the moral emptiness of a holidaying Polish couple

Since Aga Woszczyńska’s debut feature premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival last year, she has been variously hailed as the new Antonioni or the next Yorgos Lanthimos. It’s impossible, too, not to think of Michael Haneke while watching Silent Land.

The young film-maker is flattered, of course, with one important caveat.

“From the very beginning Antonioni and Haneke are my masters,” she says. “Of course, I learn by watching them. I learn from watching many Hollywood films also. But my biggest reference and influence is reality. I want to make a comment on reality, not just watch other films and images and try to put them in my own work.”

Woszczyńska’s chilly new thriller concerns a picture-perfect, bourgeois Polish couple renting a holiday home on a sun-drenched Italian island.


They have their vacation routines. They jog. They have sex. They breakfast.

As holiday films go, it makes one yearn for the comparatively tranquil ski slopes of Ruben Ostlund’s imploding couple dramedy, Force Majeure

Oblivious to a seasonal water shortage and unappeased by the short steps to the shoreline, Anna and Adam (played by Agnieszka Żulewska and Dobromir Dymecki) insist that the pool at their property is fixed and filled. The owner duly obliges, by sending Rahim (Ibrahim Keshk), a young migrant. to do the work. Anna and Adam are already put out by the presence of the stranger when a horrible accident requires a police investigation, putting a dent in the glamorous couple’s fitness regime and relationship. The Big Blue’s Jean-Marc Barr, playing a dodgy diving instructor, is present for an especially hellish dinner.

As holiday films go, it makes one yearn for the comparatively tranquil ski slopes of Ruben Ostlund’s imploding couple dramedy, Force Majeure.

“It’s about a couple and what I like to call their emotional bankruptcy,” says Woszczyńska. “Their relationship is one of moral confusion and social disintegration. I remember once after a screening in Krakow, a girl came to me after the screening and she was crying really heavily, saying that the relationship on screen made her realise that she couldn’t stay in her own relationship. And if you have just this one comment, it makes you happy. Because the film is for her. Even if she’s the only one in the world.”

Silent Land expands on Woszczyńska’s graduation film, Fragments, which premiered in the Directors’ Fortnight section at the Cannes Film Festival in 2014. Anna and Adam are played by the same actors and the feature was shot by the same cinematographer, Bartosz Swiniarski, who also filmed the recent Greek Weird Wave hit, Apples.

“It’s the same characters who are a couple of years older but still stuck in the same relationship,” says Woszczyńsk. “Some critics wrote that, instead of taking my characters to therapy, I take them to Italy. That’s true. I take the very intimate word of these two characters and make them face difficult situations and other people and especially, a big tragedy. Fragments were more about Anna and her struggle and her thoughts, how she feels in this relationship. But it is only about the relationship. The film is something more, something different, it’s about how not only my characters, but Europe closes their eyes to immigrants.”

The location of Silent Land echoes another Italian island, namely Lampedusa, the Mediterranean epicentre of Europe’s largely hidden refugee crisis. Lampedusa, which is a campaigning ground for Matteo Salvini’s far-right League party, was already stretched to capacity as a refugee centre when Woszczyńska began working on her script.

“I wanted to show Europe and its relationship with migrants,” says the director, who co-wrote the taut script with Piotr Jaksa Litwin. “I didn’t want to discuss European strategy in a very literal way. I wanted to make a comment that isn’t just about Europe. It extends to the whole world actually because we also have a fence between the United States and Mexico. And we all close our eyes and ears to the tragedy of people who have different skin? And as we’ve toured with the film, it’s always relevant. When it premiered in Toronto, there was a situation on the Polish and Belarussian border that was barbaric. When we played at a festival in Luxembourg recently, the conversation was about Ukraine. So five years after writing it, my film is still a talking point. Of course, I’m not happy about that.”

It is, as Woszczyńska notes, an exciting time for female Polish directors

Woszczyńska, a former anthropologist, was born in Łódź but raised in the Polish capital. In 2008, she graduated in Applied Social Sciences from the University of Warsaw, before relocating to the city of her birth and the Polish National Film School, the alma mater of three Oscar-winners — Roman Polanski, Andrzej Wajda, and Zbigniew Rybczyński — and Krzysztof Kieślowski.

“Since I was a little, I remember I was directing theatre at my family’s house,” recalls Woszczyńska. “And I directed a small play at my primary school. And then later, I fall in love with cinema. And my first cinema love was Krzysztof Kieślowski when I was 15. So I go to Łódź for film school and it was a great experience. The most important part was meeting students from around the world. I was living in an apartment with a guy from India [and] a Korean girl. I was in class with Mexican and Swedish people. That teaches you to be tolerant of other points of views. And to be humble. And how to deal with people and love them.”

It is, as Woszczyńska notes, an exciting time for female Polish directors. Her classmate, Ola Jankowska, premiered her film, Anatomia, at the Venice Film Festival last year. Other People, a film by another friend, Aleksandra Terpinska, was distributed by Warner.

“We’ve always had Agnieszka Holland,” she notes. “But there are so many upcoming directors. Agnieszka Smoczyńska’s The Silent Twins [starring Letitia Wright] is coming soon. Olga Chajdas has a new film. I feel bad because I can’t remember all the people I should mention. Of course, I’m a feminist. I love working with both men and women. I’m lucky. I’ve never been turned down for a job because I didn’t have a penis. People compare my film to Ostlund’s Force Majeure. He’s a great director. But in Ostlund’s film, a man doesn’t react like he should. In my film, both Adam and Eve are in the wrong.”

  • Silent Land opens September 23rd
Tara Brady

Tara Brady

Tara Brady, a contributor to The Irish Times, is a writer and film critic