'House of Cards' Guest Director Is Feeling the Evil in It

Polish filmmaker Agnieszka Holland, whose works dive into the darkness of the human spirit, takes a turn directing the Netflix hit.
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This story contains corrected material, published Nov. 7, 2014.

The date of the third-season debut of "House of Cards"–Netflix's addictive, dark drama starring Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright–hasn't been announced, but political junkies already are speculating about what happens next in the tale of a Machiavellian congressman who schemes and murders his way to the presidency with the help of his Lady Macbeth-like wife.

Another reason to look forward to the new season: Agnieszka Holland, the three-time Academy Award nominee and chairman of the European Film Academy, is directing two episodes. Holland, 66, is best known for films including "Europa, Europa," and "In Darkness," explorations of the blackest sides of human nature, the compromises and deceptions people made to survive the Holocaust and post-war communism.

As she says, "evil is much more photogenic than good." And for that reason, "House of Cards" seems like a perfect fit.

Holland took a break from her work on location in Baltimore to talk about U.S. politics today and the vision she's bringing to the drama. Fittingly, Bloomberg Politics met Holland in the home of Polish Ambassador Ryszard Schnepf, who lives on the same tree-lined cul-de-sac in northwest Washington as Hillary Clinton. A condensed and edited transcript follows:

Which American politicians does Underwood remind you of?

"Frank Underwood is a psychopath. I don’t see people like that in American politics. I don’t think any American president so far was a cold-blooded killer. But I see a lot of pretty narcissistic and not very responsible politicians who are doing things for effect, who are conformist, who are going with the wave, not willing to stand for what they believe."

Do you see Frank Underwoods elsewhere?

"Certainly tyrants have his kind of brutal ambitions–tyrants like Stalin. But small Frank Underwoods are every place. I think most male politicians are very narcissistic. They think they can do immoral things and get away with it. [Former Italian Prime Minister Silvio] Berlusconi was like that, [Former IMF Chief] Dominique Strauss-Kahn, [Former French Prime Minister Nicolas] Sarkozy, they're all the same.

"I don't think Frank Underwood is a good metaphor for [Russian President Vladimir] Putin, because Putin didn't need to plot in a secret way. When he decided to kill some enemy, he just had them killed; when he sent troops to Ukraine, he's not hiding it. He's KGB. And he doesn't have a Claire Underwood."

What do you think of Hillary Clinton's chances in 2016?

"Hillary Clinton–she is a mystery to me. I don't know who she really is. She may be a bit like Claire Underwood. I have sympathy for a woman who can become president of the United States; it's about time. But I can't tell what she really believes in. I think what is good about her is that she is really experienced. This is a time that is so dangerous that to have another American president who has to learn how the world works is dangerous. She is very well equipped to run the country. But it's not easy being a woman who doesn't play a typical role for women."

What do you think of President Obama?

"I like the man; I do not always like the politician. No one can really stand up for his values in this job, you have to compromise and build up different agendas. Even [Nobel Peace Prize-winning Czech dissident] Vaclav Havel, who became president of a small country, even he was unable to keep his beliefs on a daily basis. Politics are dirty. 

"I didn’t expect Obama would do everything he promised, but I think he's a bit–well, he didn't understand some dangers that were present and he didn't deal with them when they could be more easily resolved. I'm referring to the rise of Islamic State and Putin."

Your most famous works are about repression under Nazism and communism. How do you translate those experiences to an American soap opera set in a democracy?

"I think 'House of Cards' is better than a soap opera. It's of a higher quality than 'Scandal,' which is really a soap opera. I love fiction and I love political fiction. I remember watching 'West Wing' and how it inspired us–it showed us the theater of politics. I don’t think human nature is so different now [from Nazism and communism]. I don't think the terrible things from our recent history or those that are going on now are God's choice - people are doing it because it's human nature.

"The most important to me is the thin line between good and darkness and how easy it is to slip between the two."

Does TV have the power to shape the real-life narrative in politics?

"Maybe Obama would not be elected president of the United States if TV hadn't shown first that a president could be black or Latino. Of course TV simplifies, but it shows some truth of the drama of politics. [Making films about politics], you can suddenly understand a lot of things, in some ways be the prophet. My 2007 Polish TV series 'Prime Minister' was prophetic, I'm afraid. In our final episode, the president of Poland is killed in a plane crash. A few years later, it happened in real life. We had the shivers. Maybe it's dangerous to play too much with politics and fiction."

What can we expect from the third season of “House of Cards”?

"Without telling you what happens, once Francis Underwood becomes president, suddenly he faces different responsibilities and international situations, and I think there are some similarities to what's going on now. Because I have knowledge of international politics, know more about the Russians and what they do, I can bring that to the show."

CORRECTION: In an earlier version of this story, the sub-headline misspelled Agnieszka Holland's first name.

(Corrects online sub-headline spelling of Agnieszka Holland's first name.)
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