Agnieszka Holland was sitting by a window in a Los Angeles hotel recently, bathed by sunlight streaming in through slatted Venetian blinds.
Light and dark are the prominent metaphors in her film, “In Darkness,” based on the true story of a group of Jews who escaped the liquidation of the Lvov ghetto, fled into the sewers and survived in darkness for 14 months. They’re aided by two Polish-Catholic sewer workers who are also casual anti-Semites and petty thieves.
The well-received drama opened in theaters on Feb. 10, and on Feb. 26 it will compete for the foreign-language film Oscar, alongside nominees such as Israel’s “Footnote,” and Iran’s “A Separation.”
About 80 percent of Holland’s film is shot in darkness, often with the actors’ flashlights providing the only illumination. “Darkness is the metaphor for the Jewish destiny during the Holocaust,” the soft-spoken director said, taking a break from preparing to direct an episode of AMC’s “The Killing.” The sewer worker Leopold Socha, who provides the Jews with food and other necessities, was lit brighter: “You have the impression that the light is coming out of him, that he is the flashlight in the darkness for these people, which the real Socha was. Without him they would not have survived longer than a week or two.”
But the storytelling isn’t melodramatic. It’s blunt and gritty — Holland’s antidote for what she has perceived as the “Hollywoodization” of movies about the Shoah. Images of the Holocaust have become “in some ways more sentimental and moralistic,” she said. “What was very difficult for me to accept is to try to put some meaning into the Holocaust; that in some ways it made sense; that you can make some lesson out of it. … The most terrible thing about this human experience is that it was senseless; that it wasn’t a meaningful death, or something that served us to become wiser or better people. … We have to be very non-compromising in the preservation of this reality.”
The sewers in the film appear freezing and filthy, and Socha, the head sewer worker, is crude rather than angelic. He’s a small-time crook who initially agrees to help the Jews in exchange for money. The Jews, as well, are flawed — some are adulterers, snooty intellectuals or thugs, and sex abounds against the fetid underground walls. “I believe that the audience identifies with real people and not saintly, kitschy images,” Holland said of her protagonists. “My characters have a lot of sex,” she added — just as Jews did in Nazi ghettos in real life. Holland learned this from one of the commanders of the Warsaw uprising: “He said he never had so much sex in his life as during this period,” the director said. “In some ways, it was a reaction to the horrors, and the need to feel alive.”
Holland said she tries to see every film released about the Shoah: Her interest stems in part from the experience of her own Jewish father, whose parents died in the Warsaw ghetto after they refused to flee with him. “For my father, the fact that he left his family behind and they died, was extremely painful, and he never talked about it,” she said. “He committed suicide when I was 13 and he was 41. … It was my mother who is Polish [and non-Jewish] who told me that I am Jewish and that my father was a Jew.”
As a filmmaker, the 63-year-old Holland has delved into the time period with dramas such as “Angry Harvest,” about the ordeal of a Jewish woman during World War II, and her Oscar-nominated “Europa Europa” (1990), the story of a Jewish boy who survives by posing as an Aryan, even joining the Hitler Youth.
When interviewed about these movies years ago, Holland said she had had enough of making movies on the subject, which was so emotionally harrowing. “I really didn’t want to go back,” she said. But then she read the screenplay for “In Darkness,” which tempted her despite her hesitations. At first Holland tried to discourage the producers by imposing tough conditions: She said she would not make the film in English, but in the “real languages of the story”: Polish, Ukrainian, Yiddish and German. “Finally, they agreed to everything, so I was trapped into doing it, in a way,” Holland said.
Her film depicts the liquidation of the Lvov ghetto with a nonchalant brutality; when a woman runs to hide in her apartment, we see a body fall almost casually from a window in the background.
“It was a really difficult shoot,” Holland said of the claustrophobic sewer set. “Sometimes you can shoot in sewers and they look beautiful; for example, in ‘The Third Man,’ they look like cathedrals … but we knew that it was not beautiful; it was really scary and dark and cold.”
Holland shot the subterranean scenes both on a set and in real sewers: “It was psychologically difficult because all the actors very deeply went into the characters, into the reality, and they really tried to live in that way.”