February 12 marked the world premiere of Agnieszka Holland’s Pokot (Spoor) at the 67th Berlin International Film Festival. Co-financed by the Polish Film Institute, the film is screening in the festival’s Main Competition.

The film’s official premiere screening was preceded by a press conference with the filmmakers: director and co-writer Agnieszka Holland, co-writer and novelist Olga Tokarczuk, producer Krzysztof Zanussi, actresses Agnieszka Mandat and Patricia Volny, and actors Wiktor Zborowski, Borys Szyc, Jakub Gierszał, and Miroslav Krobot. The press conference was moderated by Berlinale programmer Nikolaj Nikitin.

A Challenging Film

Pokot (Spoor) cast & crew at the press conference. Photo by Marcin Oliva Soto

“Olga Tokarczuk is a wonderful writer, one of my favourites. I always thought her books were very inspiring for movies, because they are so clever, so rich and sensual. But her long novels didn’t have the structure to make adaptation possible. When I read ‘Drive your Plough Over the Bones of the Dead,’ what interested me was this mix of genres and the main character, the subject matter and the message. And because it was some kind of a thriller, I thought that this could be a movie,” said Agnieszka Holland at the press conference when discussing the process of adapting Olga Tokarczuk’s novel for the screen. “This film was a challenge from the beginning; it was difficult to define whether it is a psychological drama, black comedy, thriller, or fairy tale. All these genres are combined. That was a challenge for me […]. I thought about making a film that escapes the genre structure; a film with a very distinct main protagonist,” she said.

“The role of art is to broaden our horizons, pose questions, and provoke […]. For me, the region of Kotlina Kłodzka, where we filmed, is a metaphor for Europe, and the animals are a metaphor for the weakest, the vulnerable, those who have no voice, and on whose behalf we speak in this film,” said Olga Tokarczuk.

The Sensibility of Opening to the Rights of the Vulnerable

The cast & crew of Pokot (Spoor) before the world premiere at Berlinale. Photo by Marcin Oliva Soto

“This sensibility that opens us to the rights of the vulnerable, to our ‘lesser brothers,’ is in direct conflict, a conflict that has now become political, with the mentality of those who try to subjugate the weaker — be it nature, animals, women […]. We worked on this film for four years, and in this time the world has changed, not necessarily for the better. We weren’t explicitly referring to the political context, but most of all we were thinking of opening up our imagination and sensibility. Hunting serves as a metaphor,” said Agnieszka Holland.

Agnieszka Holland. Photo by Marcin Oliva Soto

“I chose hunting as the theme of this novel because I found it spectacular. But I deeply believe that I could have just as easily addressed commercial meat farming, or any issues that are handled behind closed doors, far from the spotlight […]. This book was written 8-9 years ago, and during the making of the film we all felt that reality was writing a type of commentary on it. The subject of hunting became a current event in Polish media. We were surprised to see how reality is commenting on the making of this film and adding new interpretations,” said Olga Tokarczuk.

Actors About the Film

“For me it is important that my character stayed true to her beliefs, regardless of the circumstances. Nothing could stop her when she believed something was the right thing to do; that’s what I found most appealing about her,” said lead actress Agnieszka Mandat.

“Agnieszka Holland took care to make sure that we are very real in depicting our protagonists, represent our own niche,” said Jakub Gierszał. “This is mainly a story about emotions. Animals in this film feel fear, but so does my protagonist — and this is where his aggression and anger stems from. My character only feels strong when he is part of a group; that’s how animals feel, too. We have to make sure to not live in fear, as it has become a currency even in politics,” said Borys Szyc.

Pokot (Spoor)

The main protagonist of Agnieszka Holland’s latest film is retired engineer Janina Duszejko, living in the Polish Sudeten mountains. Astrologist and vegetarian. One snowy winter night, she stumbles upon the dead body of her neighbour. The man, a poacher, had died a mysterious death. The only visible tracks around his house are roe deer hooves. Seeing the ineptitude of the police, Duszejko begins an unconventional investigation of her own.

Pokot (Spoor) Reviews in International Press

Deborah Young of “The Hollywood Reporter” compares Janina Duszejko to Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple, amateur detective, who is “a vegetarian hippy and animal rights activist living in Fargo.” In her review, Young notes that the antagonism between the passionate Duszejko and the obtuse monsters that surround her keeps the tension high as the murders accumulate. Young also notes that “full of spectacular nature shots of deer and boar scampering through snowy virgin forests, the film could find art house audiences on the sheer beauty of its production. Animal rights groups might well embrace it as a landmark.”

Pokot (Spoor) is arguably the most beautiful film in this year’s Main Competition. Finally we have a film with an interesting narrative, where the focus lies not only on shooting, but also on a fascinating soundtrack,” writes Bianca Friedman for Italian website Intrattenimento, noting that “only the stable hand of an experienced director could do so well with the intricacies of the story, giving justice to the innocent beings.”

Pokot (Spoor) is eclectic, yet satisfying,” writes Sarah Ward in her review for Screen magazine. “Spoor’s narrative defies easy categorisation but invites considerable contemplation.” Ward also notes how well Agnieszka Mandat’s performance was received in Berlin, which in her opinion should help drive the intriguing Spoor into wider festival play around the world.

Alex Billington of Firstshowing praises the cinematography by Jolanta Dylewska. In his piece, he notes that thanks to the cinematography, “along with an incredibly unique score from Antoni Lazarkiewicz, and exceptional lead performance by Agnieszka Mandat-Grabka, this won’t be a film you forget” and that audiences will share his own enthusiasm and love for the film. “There’s definitely a cathartic feeling to this film, but it never overindulges on that feeling, and instead encourages the audience to viscerally connect with her message. […] An exciting film that animal lovers will instantly embrace,” writes Billington.

“Totally loved the new Agnieszka Holland film,” writes John Oursler of Film Society of Lincoln Center on his Twitter page, calling Pokot (Spoor) “an ecological thriller.”

“The best thing in Pokot (Spoor) is Mandat’s performance; she makes Duszejko a figure of equal parts love and rage,” writes Variety critic Owen Gleiberman in his review.

Independent critic Aseem Chhabra, head of the New York Indian Film Festival, praises the film by stating that in his opinion Agnieszka Mandat as the “feisty Duszejko” is a strong contender for the Silver Bear for Best Actress at this year’s Berlinale.

Pokot (Spoor) Reviews in Polish Press

“Agnieszka Holland’s Pokot (Spoor) is a multi-dimensional and exciting film,” writes Barbara Hollender in her review for Rzeczpospolita. “This film is not easy to judge; it does not conform to schematic formulae. In terms of style, this is an unusual film in Agnieszka Holland’s oeuvre. The director, who usually narrates in a very clear and concise manner, this time allowed herself to make a hybrid of genres […]. Agnieszka Holland and Olga Tokarczuk provoke, take audiences out of their comfort zone. Critics came out of the Berlin screening without ready-made labels […]. Perhaps it is a sign of the times. What comes to the front are not ready answers, but questions.”

“This intelligent play on cinema is a new trend in the works of Agnieszka Holland. By bringing the prose of Olga Tokarczuk to the screen, Holland made a film that is subversive in its take on reality. The story lingers between brutal fairy tale, somber analysis of the post-transformation reality, spiteful satire, and a vivisection of the myth of rural Poland. All these seemingly incongruent dimensions are linked by a common diagnosis: all is not right with the world,” writes Krzysztof Kwiatkowski in his review for Wprost.

“In a sense, that’s what Holland’s new film is about — different points of view. It is a brutal fairy tale about a world in which the highest value is diversity,” notes Paweł T. Felis in his review for Gazeta Wyborcza.

Pokot (Spoor) is immersed in the literary imagination of Olga Tokarczuk; a crime utopia story that poses difficult questions about the shape of our community. For the main protagonist, a retired engineer living in seclusion, hunting is a crime on par with the Holocaust. Pokot (Spoor) is part thriller, part mystery, comedy, and romance, with excellent music and performances,” writes Łukasz Knap for Wirtualna Polska. “It should be said that every intelligent viewer, regardless of their political views, will find in Holland’s provoking film questions that no one in Polish cinema has ever posed,” he adds.

“The winter landscape of the film looks fantastic, bringing Pokot (Spoor) into the classic thriller formula. The eerie wind and crunching snow amplify the feeling of dread, while Duszejko’s private investigation, in itself a little absurd, fits this bizarre, almost fable-like structure of the film. This feeling of unease is amplified by the austere score by Antoni Komasa-Łazarkiewicz and beautiful cinematography by Jolanta Dylewska,” writes Małgorzata Steciak in her Berlinale article for Onet.

Polish Film in Berlinale’s Main Competition

Berlinale’s Main Competition is judged by an international jury. Its members include director Paul Verhoeven (head of the jury), film producer Dora Bouchoucha Fourati, sculptor Olafur Eliasson, actresses Maggie Gyllenhaal and Julia Jentsch, actor Diego Luna, and screenwriter Wang Quan’an. Pokot (Spoor) is in the running for the following awards: the Golden Bear for Best Film; the Silver Bear for Best Director, Best Actor or Actress, and Best Screenplay; the Alfred Bauer award for opening new perspectives in film art, as well as awards for Best Cinematography, Best Music, Best Editing, and Best Costume Design.

Further details are available at www.berlinale.de.

Agnieszka Holland’s new film, co-financed by the Polish Film Institute, will be released theatrically in Poland on February 24. Distribution is handled by Next Film.

Marta Sikorska

Translated by Karolina Kołtun