Medicinal Secrets

Agnieszka Holland is one of world cinema’s most respected directors. Her work includes the Oscar-nominated Europa Europa and, recently, Mr. Jones, starring James Norton. She returns with Charlatan, the story of controversial Czech herbalist and healer Jan Mikolásek (Ivan Trojan), whose remarkable abilities saw him come into conflict with both the Communist and Nazi authorities.

ASFF: How did you come across the story of Jan Mikolásek?
AH: No, no, I didn’t know about him even if I was pretty familiar with Czech history and culture, because he was somehow a forgotten figure, and not very present in the public circulation and historical books. I just read the script, which was sent to me, a first draft by Marek Epstein. And I found this very intriguing. It was very interesting for me for different reasons. And actually, I read it a bit like you read fiction, which actually I liked, because I don’t like the classical, very factual biopic films. I find them mostly a bit conventional and boring and schematic, and this was…there is so little knowledge about his psychology about his private life, about his character, so it gave a lot of space for the writer’s, director’s and actors’ imagination.

ASFF: What fascinated you about him as a person?
Complexity. Complexity and ambiguous qualities – he was capable of the best and of the worst. He had this dream, like some kind of God to give to the people something others were incapable to give. To be so close to nature and at the same time, not accept his own nature, his identity, and fighting all the time with the demons which was pushing him in different directions. That was one thing. Another thing, I’m fascinated by the destinies and choices of citizens of middle Europe in the first part of the 20th century. That is the period and the place where you will see how difficult is to survive the different regimes without being conformist and what it means. What choice has the citizen of this time to keep his integrity, if he has any? Is it more important to survive and to live your life in the most accomplished way somehow?

ASFF: What conclusions did you come to? Was he a charlatan?
For this reality, we have a lot of props – he really did pass several medical tests with the different bodies of professors and experts before the Second World War in Czechoslovakia and during the German occupation. And the results of those tests have been exceptional. It means he really had ninety percent of the right diagnosis and also his very innovative knowledge and intuition concerning the combination of herbs as a medical treatment was also very efficient. Some of them they are used still nowadays by Czech herbalists. So yeah, I think he wasn’t a fake, he was certainly somebody quite exceptional from this point of view. And that it was a combination of learning, of knowledge, of intuition and of passion.

ASFF: What made you cast Ivan Trojan as Mikolásek?
AH: Well, I worked with him before on Burning Bush. I loved working with him and he is a great actor, one of the best of his generation, but he’s also very complex and very honest, and a very intelligent man. So I knew that making the journey with him will be very creative. So we did the casting. I tried other actors to be a hundred percent sure that it is not my admiration for Ivan which pushed me to cast him but by the end of the day, it was pretty obvious to everybody that he is Mikolásek. We were also extremely lucky that his second son looks so much like himself and has acting skills and has a persona very similar to his father, and he was able to play the young Mikolásek which is always the problem to find the right person to play a younger character.

ASFF: Are you concerned about the fate of cinema after the pandemic?
AH: Well, I am worried a bit. Certainly it was a lot of bankruptcies and we don’t know if the audience – and when – will come back. But on the other hand, you feel this desire to come back to normal and to have a common emotional experience. So I hope it will be not bad. It can be rocky for a few years, but I hope that the platforms will not kill theatrical cinema. But we have to make much better films to let cinema survive; it’s too much of mediocrity, and the way filmmakers too often are living in some kind of comfort zones when making those movies. And to attract the audience to come back to the big screens, we have to give them something much more courageous.

Charlatan is available on demand from 7 May. For more details click here.

James Mottram