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Q&A: Agnieszka Holland, director of Copying Beethoven

An online exclusive interview

Ed Harris in Copying Beethoven (Courtesy of MGM)

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Friday, November 10, 2006

By Clara Rose Thornton

A political muckraker and an astute observer of human relations, Polish filmmaker Agnieszka Holland’s work seamlessly melds inner emotional worlds with an era’s outer political climate. She was an influential contributor to the Polish New Wave of the 1960s and ’70s, a group of artists that railed against communist censorship and included such greats as her mentor Andrej Wajda and Krysztof Kieslowski, best known for his Three Colors trilogy: Blue (1993), Red (1994) and White (1994). After a stint in France, during which she made the beautifully melancholy, Academy Award-nominated film Angry Harvest (1985), she immigrated to the United States. Her fame was cemented by films like Europa Europa (1991), which chronicled a young Jewish man posing as an “Aryan” German to save his life during WWII; The Secret Garden (1993), a lush, mature rendition of the children’s fable; and Total Eclipse (1995), a tortured vision of gay 19th century French poet Arthur Rimbaud starring Leonardo DiCaprio. Her new offering, Copying Beethoven, stars a possessed Ed Harris as the deaf composer during his last year of life, wherein ailing health, family instability and a complicated interdependence with fictional assistant Anna Holtz (Diane Kruger) leads him to write perhaps the greatest symphony of all time — the Ninth. In this exclusive interview, Holland discusses the beauty of music, the tragedy of genius and the eternal relationship between a person’s era and his or her inner demons.

Stop Smiling: How did the idea for helming a project like Copying Beethoven originate? Have you been a classical music fan for the majority of your life?

Agnieszka Holland: I gained interest in classical music quite later. I was probably 18. I was a sensitive, artistic child — painting, literature and poetry really spoke to me. But music was something distant. I didn’t have mental access to it. I remember that my parents tried to teach me to appreciate it. My father, a gentleman who liked classical music very much and went every week to harmonic orchestra concerts in Warsaw, took me with him and I hated it. It was so boring to me, to sit in this place and listen to the cacophony of sounds that I didn’t recognize. Yet after my mother started playing opera records for me — she had this set of Soviet discs, a quite good recording; I remember it was Verdi’s La Traviata — I was born again. She told me what happened in the story. Traviata [taken from the novel La dame aux Camélias by Alexandre Dumas] finishes badly because Violetta is dying, so I always started to cry. My mother would have to change the record while Violetta was still alive. It happened something like that; I never played an instrument, never took an interest.

I went to Prague to study at the Prague Film School and began to listen to it a little, but very basic selections. There I met the guy who became my husband, who was very musical. He started playing me some discs, and suddenly — I don’t know if it was through the great sex or new love or something — my ears opened up. Probably the first great, great shock that I had was listening to Beethoven’s late string quartets, which is a strange introduction to classical because they’re probably some of the most difficult pieces of music. From this time on, I loved it, especially Beethoven. For a long time I listened mostly to Beethoven. His string quartets, as a form, are most touching to me. So when the screenwriters and producers [of Copying Beethoven] contacted me and I read the script, it seemed to cover this exact period in Beethoven’s life. It’s also mostly about the music; it’s not the regular biographical drama sprinkled with love stories, with music relegated to the background. His music is in the foreground, and the entire story is expressed in some way through the music and through the musical history. I was very attracted by that.

SS: The ironic tragedy of Beethoven’s deafness often seems to fascinate people the most, sometimes even more than the music. Was this a factor in your connection to the material?

AH: Yes, I thought that was interesting. He was also the first modern musician — the first modern composer in terms of not only the style, but in terms of his relationship with his art, or with his duty. The composers before him had been hired by religious figures or princes, and they had to make the commissions. Sometimes they’d compose personal pieces on the side but their main goal was to produce beautiful sounds for the benefactor and to please the audience. Beethoven refused this kind of dependence and said that his duty was to express himself. He said beautiful sounds can happen, but they’re not the most important. The most important thing is truthfulness and the honesty of self-expression. He found himself in the situation of rich people supporting him without giving him any commission. They just trusted his talent. They gave him money to allow him the freedom to compose whatever he wanted. From this point of view, he was lucky. But I think his success came more from his incredible determination. He felt it imperative to write what he believed in. At a point he started to believe it was God telling him what to write, especially when he became deaf. His deafness was the most tragic thing that happened to him. It isolated him from the world and from his own music, yet at the same time opened some channel which directly connected to something higher. His music would certainly be different if he wasn’t deaf.

This is actually quite paradoxical because, after doing this film, everybody involved — myself, the editor, Ed Harris — started to have obsessions that we’d become deaf! [Laughs] I’ve never heard very well; I’ve always had to put the volume up on the player. So I went to this famous hearing doctor in Warsaw — a highly respected specialist. He performed all the tests and I was perfectly fine. But the trip proved beneficial because he told me about Beethoven. The day I was there, the doctor had just finished an operation on a young woman who had exactly what they think Beethoven had. Today, [he’d have] one small procedure and he’d be hearing perfectly well. The history of music would be very different if the state of medicine was better.

This tension between the decline of his health and hearing and the incredible strength of his music, which grew until his death, was indeed something that intrigued me greatly.

SS: How do you feel his music would have been different if he’d been able to hear? Do you feel it would’ve been less passionate because he would not have felt so strongly that God was feeding him these sounds he couldn’t hear himself?

AH: Probably it would have been less passionate, yes. Less expressive. More conventional. Of course, I don’t know; no one knows. I read some theorists’ and music critics’ work about it. There is a lot of wonder. He was revolutionary even before, in his early work, which was much more “classical” than his late work for sure. But it’s still new, in a way. It’s not that he started to make music so totally different from the moment he went deaf. Though he certainly did not go so far as the late piano sonatas or late string quartets.

SS: Meditations on classical music are not exactly hot commodities these days. Was it difficult to get this film made?

AH: I spent a good deal of time trying to make the money come together. This kind of film is difficult to do now, you’re right. It was better than some instances, where you spend five or six years before you can start shooting. But I think the higher difficulty is to sell a film like this (to the public). The marketing system is quite conventional now. We tried to make it very accessible for a wider audience. Yet at the same time it is, subtly, for very particular interests. It needs a highly intelligent kind of marketing, which, I’m afraid — especially in America — the studios are not using.

SS: Since classical music is relatively new for America, considering the country’s youth and the fact that we’ve produced few so-called great composers, do you feel a film like Copying Beethoven would fare better as a European production?

AH: Well, officially it’s a UK/Hungarian co-production. I shot it in Europe, with a lot of German money. It is a European film, but it was mostly guided and co-financed by American producers and stars American actors.

It’s like Amadeus [Milos Forman’s 1984 film about Wolgang Amadeus Mozart] in some way, which came from an English play and was made by a European director who was living in America, working with an American crew. Music is very international. It’s true that maybe Americans are less familiar with classical music on the whole, but still I think it’s growing. You have so many good symphony orchestras in America, and the audiences are always full. You have classical radio stations in every state. I think the real question is how to attract people more than whether they are able to follow it.

SS: Can you comment on your specific aesthetic choices, in terms of the film’s visual style? Often the cinematography was very soft, almost dreamlike. Was that in some manner a representation of the way Beethoven or Anna Holtz saw the world?

AH: We tried to firstly express the feeling of the music, so the visuals followed suit. We wanted to create a participation between the two, making them adequate for one another and in synch. For example, take the opening sequence where the Gross Fugue plays and we have very fast, choppy editing that’s different from the rest of the film. Then for the Ninth Symphony we tried to create a sort of love song, visually. The late string quartets have a dreamy quality that’s very interior. They are introverted, so we tried to find a way to express it. More than anything, the cinematography serves this expression of the music. And also to sell it for you! [Laughs]

SS: In one scene in the film, Anna helps Beethoven conduct the entire Ninth from her hiding place because he’s so far gone. I felt like they were making love with one another over the vibrations of sound. He couldn’t actually hear them, she could, and all he could do was feel the trembling vibrations while she lovingly guided him through them. That was their physical connection. They were making love, and I thought that was well executed. Was this intentional?

AH: Absolutely.

SS: How did you go about filming that scene — a 14-minute climax, literally, on several levels — right in the middle of the movie?

AH: It was a challenge. It was the most exciting thing to me, this sequence. As a filmmaker I’d never done anything like this before. I knew we’d have to plan it very carefully. We couldn’t improvise or else it would jeopardize the concept. If I wanted to explain this emotional arch, it had to be shot in a very stylistically precise way. We storyboarded everything beforehand with my daughter, then added the music and put the storyboards against the music on the computer to see how it added up. We shot it very much like an action scene — nothing improvised, very precise and the actors had been greatly prepared. Ed Harris was magnificent in his conducting — he really learned every moment we’d laid out. Diane Kruger was also very good and the orchestra was good. We were lucky; the circumstances were such that we could shoot the scene in a very short amount of time exactly as I wanted. The producers were worried about it, yes. But, at the same time, they felt it was a chance to make a unique scene that was key to the axis of the story and of the film.

It wasn’t such a risk to them, because they gave me only three days to shoot it, and if it didn’t work it’s always possible to cut down, right? That is an easy thing to do. The bigger problem is that it’s in the middle of the film, which was indeed their risk, because it’s like having a false happy ending in the middle. Yet I thought it would stand on its own, because the audience would be engaged after this sequence, enough to go to those different places Beethoven took us with his music.

SS: Can you talk a bit about how Ed Harris prepared for the role? I read that he spent nearly a year immersed in the figure of Beethoven, so much so that he began to adopt some of his supposed characteristics and obsessions. How did he become interested in the role in the first place?

AH: I was thinking of him when I read the script. We discussed other possibilities, but he kept returning to everyone’s minds, especially mine, because I’d worked with him before. I trusted him, and I knew he was a very deep person. With scenes like the Ninth Symphony, he would not be faking — he would really try to become the medium for his character. So I sent him the script and was he was very excited, but also scared. He hesitated some days, asking me if I believed he could actually do it. He should have known better. [Laughs] I let him know I was quite sure he could. He then told us he needed time to prepare, and we didn’t have money yet anyway, so it seemed like the film might not even happen. He began the musical preparation: learning to write music, taking piano lessons and, of course, listening to Beethoven and reading the biographies. But the music was most important. He decided, since there’s five seconds of him playing violin in the film, that he needed to take violin lessons. The conducting lessons were the crucial physical aspect, the most difficult and important thing. In most films about conductors I sense the actors are faking. You can tell it. The fact that Harris was really able to create this music, was able to conduct this orchestra and have this orchestra respond to him [meant we didn’t have] to necessarily use a soundtrack. We did, but that he’s able to do this gave him extreme emotional power. Same with Diane. Her task was easier, because she was giving the tempo. But still, she was actually giving the tempo. She was not faking it. They did their jobs beyond what the consultant and coach on the set believed was possible, because to achieve the level they attained, you need years and years of study. It was a miracle. It was like extreme sports in some ways. [Laughs]

SS: Can you compare his performance as Jackson Pollock in 2000 to this performance of Beethoven?

AH: Pollock was one of the reasons I thought he’d be able to embody the genius artist. When he prepared Pollock, he spent several years with the material. He started to paint and was nearly able to paint like Pollock. I knew he has this dimension that makes him not just an actor but the real character on a level. Though Pollock was easier because the subject was much closer to him personally. Pollock is a very American artist. Ed’s family background shares similarities with Pollock’s. He physically looks like Pollock. In his youth he had a drinking problem, so he was responsive to Pollock’s struggle with alcohol. In some ways it was a better match for him than a 19th century German composer who was known for being quite fat, with big hair and so on.

SS: What do you want audiences to come away with concerning the dynamic between Beethoven and Anna Holtz? Considering that she’s a fictional character, what does she represent in his life?

AH: It wasn’t me, it was the writers. But I like the idea that she’s a copyist and she’s a woman. She’s a young female with the ambition to be a composer in restrictive times. Immediately, through her point of view on the bettering of her personage, I could see myself 30 years younger. I was in a similar relationship with someone where all my art was this kind of vague admiration and jealousy. I had this relationship with the great Polish director Andrej Wajda. So the character of Anna was very personal to me. She did not exist in history, but she’s constructed from the realities of the time. Throughout his life there were many young, ambitious musicians serving Beethoven. But at the same time they were taking advantage of his knowledge and genius. This kind of relationship existed for him, but was it so unique and intense [as his and Anna’s]? There we took liberties.

Also, Beethoven had a very deep need of laughter and sharing, which wasn’t satisfied. He tried to establish this kind of relationship with his nephew, which didn’t work so well. He wanted to have the idea of the companion — the woman — next to him and he never succeeded. So it was like giving him a little gift, you know? It is the very least that I can do.

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