Agnieszka Holland – Angry Harvest (1985)
Agnieszka Holland’s Angry Harvest (1985) may not frequently be referenced in terms of the portrayal of women in Eastern European film or films by Eastern European directors in general. However, though the film centers around a male figure undergoing several crises during WWII, including harboring a Jewish woman he finds in the woods hiding, after jumping from a train bound for a concentration camp, and may be most aptly compared to Klos and Kadar’s The Shop on Main Street (1966), there are certain details of it that allow for a feminist, or woman centered analysis of it.
In Angry Harvest, Leon Wolny is a hardworking farmer who happens to find Rosa Eckart in the woods and takes her in, hiding any traces of her from neighbors who could turn him in to the Gestapo. During the course of her hiding, however, Rosa appears as a weak, helpless, desperate woman just trying to survive through her captivity, rather than just a woman who is being helped or hidden. I bring forth these observations because Leon frequently treats Rosa as if she is his rag doll, there to give him some sort of pleasure and enjoyment, but not worthy of any true compassion. He hides her to save her from execution, yet he treats her like an animal as the film progresses; it is almost as if his hiding her is a selfish act done either so he can have her in his possession at all times or so that he can ease his conscience. It is almost as if we could picture Leon thinking that whatever he does to disrespect Rosa is ok because she is a woman and a Jew and he is ultimately saving her anyway.
This depiction I have set forth, however, presents some ideological problems to the film’s concept as a whole, though, because the audience identifies with some of Leon’s demands on Rosa as being necessary to her and his safety. For example, there is a scene where Leon lets Rosa outside after days of hiding in the cellar. As she marvels at the sun, gun shots are suddenly heard in the distance and Leon explains that they are coming from the woods and that if she were found hiding, if anyone were to see her outside, that both she and Leon would be similarly shot – one for being a Jew, the other for hiding one. Here we sympathize with Leon, who we may have previously come to identify solely as a lustful, controlling male out to dominate Rosa with rules that keep her locked in the cellar.
As for a more specific and detailed analysis of Rosa herself, within her situation of hiding, it seems as if she is willing to accept Leon’s view of her (possibly women in general) and to follow his demands in order to survive. A vast majority of shots involving Leon having sex with Rosa are not undercut by Rosa’s facial expressions of agony, or her body struggling to resist. Yet, as the film continues, Rosa seems to grow complacent and to accept her condition, hoping that one day she will find her husband. What does this say in terms of assigning a feminist meaning to the film? One possibility is that Rosa is consciously choosing to submit to a man with greater power in hopes of creating agency for herself later, when an opportunity arises; another, is that she does not hope for agency in the future but believes that she is being treated as women of her condition, paired with a more powerful, non-Jewish man, could be expected to. In either case, it is clear that Rosa begins to be less opinionated and less rebellious toward Leon as the film progresses. And yet, something very peculiar happens at the ending – Rosa does take control of the direction of her life, even though her actions turn tragic by the film’s close.
Rosa commits suicide because Leon was going to send her to live with another family for fear that her hiding in his cellar had been discovered. The tragedy lies in the fact that her husband comes looking for her at Leon’s door just after he has discovered her lying in blood, her wrists slit. Leon lies to her husband, telling him that she had left about a month ago in search of her husband; that she had gone back into the woods. The facts of Rosa’s suicide both support and further complicate my claim that Rosa was just trying to survive in Leon’s home, in hopes of being able to create agency for her self at a later date. Her suicide can be viewed as an act or agency in itself; she finally took control of her circumstance, deciding that she could not continue to live locked in the cellar, a slave to Leon. However, this is complicated by the fact that Rosa probably would not have killed herself if she had hope that she would continue to stay with Leon until the end of the war.
Our question is this: was she so distraught about leaving because she had formed some type of attachment to Leon or because it would be more difficult for her husband to find her in a more distant town? Was her reasoning some combination of these two? It is difficult for us to quite answer this, just as we may not know exactly how to feel when Leon tells Mr. Eckart that he loved his wife very much. There is no clear cut answer to any of our questions about Rosa’s motives or Leon’s love for her. The only sense that I got which led me to come to some of these conclusions about the importance of Rosa having control over her death, was that in the end Leon realized his own inner darkness and could not easily reconcile with himself over the way he knew Rosa and his selfish, lustful reasons for holding his power before her while she stayed in his house. The film ends with a close-up of Leon’s absent face, his blue eyes almost shining, but filled with complete emptiness, even as he reads a letter thanking him for helping Rubin’s (a man he refused to help while he was alive) daughter by paying her the debt he owed her father. He had helped her, along with Mr. Eckart to make it to America and begin a new life, yet there is a deep sense that his personal anguish over Rosa’s suicide will never subside. It is as if Rosa holds the power over his happiness just as he did over hers while she stayed with him. The only difference is that Rosa refused to let Leon control her ultimate fate, whereas, perhaps Leon will never be able to forget the weight Rosa has brought upon his soul (due to how he treated her in life, too concerned about himself to offer sympathy, compassion and genuine respect to her).