Polish director Agnieszka Holland is no stranger to controversy. The granddaughter of Holocaust victims, and the daughter of a woman who participated in the Warsaw Uprising, her films “Europa Europa” and “In Darkness” (as well as Andrzej Wajda’s “Korczak,” which she wrote) received criticism and acclaim for their explicit portrayals of Nazi violence and the Hitler Youth. But the response to those films was comparatively muted compared to the reception of her latest, “Green Border,” which premiered at the Venice Film Festival last September, and was released in Poland that same month. Since the film’s debut, she has received a flood of death threats over its portrayal of Polish border guards’ mistreatment of Muslim refugees. These threats have been fueled by a flurry of official condemnation. Poland’s deputy prime minister has called “Green Border” a “shameful, disgusting mockery,” while its ministers of justice and education have likened the film to Nazi propaganda and directly invoked Hitler’s “Mein Kampf.”

This controversy not only fails to obscure the film’s status as a modern masterpiece, but enhances it as an unflinchingly political work. Its depiction of the plight of Middle Eastern and North African migrants at the Polish-Belarusian border spent two weeks atop the box office after its Polish release. Abroad, it not only received a slew of awards at Venice (including a Special Jury Prize), but went on to play at numerous high-profile festivals in New York, Rotterdam and Geneva, before returning full circle to win Best Film at the Polish Film Awards.  

Set in 2021, Holland’s use of black and white recalls landmark Holocaust films like Steven Spielberg’s “Schindler’s List” and Václav Marhoul’s “The Painted Bird.” Other echoes, though not direct, are unmissable, taking an approach similar to Christian Petzold’s “Transit,” a film that transposes a tale of World War II fascism to modern day in order to ring the alarm ball about Europe’s strengthening far-right. In one powerful and chaotic scene in “Green Border,” a desperate Syrian refugee hastily shares the phone number of an activist organization that might be able to help a fellow stranded migrant. As he etches the number onto the man’s forearm, the image recalls the Nazis’ death camp tattoos, and it feels as if the helpless refugee has been marked for death.  

This controversy not only fails to obscure the film’s status as a modern masterpiece, but enhances it as an unflinchingly political work.

The story centers on the ensemble journey of a Syrian family of six that feels like a modern update on “The Grapes of Wrath”: a grandfather, two parents, two elementary school-aged children and a newborn. During their flight to Belarus, they meet an Afghan woman with whom only the grandfather, a schoolteacher, is able to converse in broken English. Together they sneak their way into Poland’s eastern forest through a barbed wire fence on an expensive path laid out by seasoned traffickers. “We are in Europe!” they shout in joyful celebration early in the film, as though the EU were a promised land. In this moment, like “Stalker”in reverse, “Green Border” transitions from lush, lively greenery, to stark, morose monochrome. Their perilous journey has just begun.

After Polish border guards make a friendly approach and promise them shelter, they are cruelly deported back to Belarus — where military forces send them back to Poland. A game of human pingpong ensues, trapping the film’s stateless family (along with many others) in a narrow no-man’s land between the two nations, leaving some to attempt to brave the frigid forests nearby. It’s the plight of the modern migrant laid bare: They’re always someone else’s problem. As this vicious cycle unfolds, Holland expands the movie’s narrative to tell the stories of a Polish border agent with a pregnant wife; a local activist group who can assist with medicine and legalese (but not transport or shelter); and a liberal Polish psychiatrist living near the border who is radicalized by what she sees.

A scene from ‘Green Border.’ Courtesy of Agata Kubis

The furious sentiments roused by the film have not only been sparked by its documentarian portrayal of the migrants’ torment, but by Holland’s unapologetic and multifaceted portraiture of the film’s border guards. By putting human faces on her monstrous men in uniform, she explores not only their doubts, their fears and their ruthless anger, but also the psychological texture of vulnerability to the anti-Muslim, anti-refugee propaganda that trickles into the frame through news broadcasts and official communique from senior border officers. The result hit a little too close to home for the Polish government, which demanded that the (mostly arthouse) cinemas playing the film precede it with a 30-second propaganda clip entitled “Safe Poland,” which framed the arrival of refugees at the Eastern border as “a hybrid operation” against Poland carried out by Russia and Belarus. The theaters refused. 

The unyielding close-ups that Holland deploys to capture the sufferings endured by the migrants is rooted entirely in story, and never feels like rote sentimentalism. The wars and horrific encampments they’ve escaped are not shown in dramatic flashbacks, but recalled in dialogue. Instead of justifying their need for shelter by depicting past hardships, Holland emphasizes their innate humanity through a floating camera (courtesy of cinematographer Tomasz Naumiuk) that creates tension and momentum during hapless chases through forest thickets. This often yields genuine anguish in a way few films can.

The unyielding close-ups that Holland deploys to capture the sufferings endured by the migrants is rooted entirely in story, and never feels like rote sentimentalism.

Along the way, the film explores family dynamics that are worthy of their own movie: A grandfather who prays, but whose son won’t join him; a father who smokes too much; children who get on their mother’s last nerve with their bickering and soiled undergarments. None of these secondary story arcs are resolved. They are instead interrupted by guns, batons and bloodthirsty guard dogs, by hunger and thirst. The denial of completed narratives mirrors their denial of humanity by the Polish characters. In contrast, the lives of border guard characters are allowed to follow fuller redemptive arcs, even as the film eventually spits in the face of this idea.

Late into the film’s 150-minute run time, grief begins to scab over into anger, for both the characters and the audience. The ostensibly heroic activists, after assisting materially with phone chargers and medical aid, leave migrants in the forest to die. They have lucid reasons, usually concerning the legality of interference and how helping further might undermine their organizations in the long run. But it’s no less enraging to witness — especially in retrospect. The film implies that the EU would respond (and has) with significantly more kindness to white refugees from Ukraine, a contrast that highlights the deeply racialized nature of its characters’ suffering. 

The film’s politics are embedded in its purposeful use of on-screen text. The first time the migrant characters cross over into the EU, a single word slug line appears at the bottom of the screen: “Poland.” Usually reserved for transitions or establishing shots, the text speaks to the arbitrary nature of borders. Each time the characters are violently forced over razor-wire fences — back into Poland, Belarus or the thin, purgatorial exclusion zone in between — the slug text not only establishes their location, but also each country’s arbitrary legal confines, rules and designations that alternately endanger them, or grant them moments of respite. These moments are always deceiving. Through Holland’s astute and stirring cinematic lens, we bear witness to these fleeting moments of calm before the dehumanizing storm, while seated firmly in its eye.

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