Agnieszka Holland set three conditions for herself when she agreed to make In
Darkness, her harrowing new film based on the true story of a Polish petty thief
and sewer worker who helped a handful of Jews escape the Nazis by hiding in
First, it couldn’t be shot in English, said Holland, whose
credits include the feature films Europa Europa and The Secret Garden and
episodes of HBO’s The Wire and Treme. It had to be made in the authentic
languages of Polish, German, Yiddish and Ukrainian.
insisted on imbuing the film with documentary-like realism by shooting parts of
it in real sewers, in bad lighting.
“I didn’t want the actors to be
well-lit and pretending they are blind,” she said during a recent promotional
stopover in Los Angeles. “They have to feel they are really in the
And, crucially, the 63-year-old Polish director wanted In
, which is currently playing for a oneweek run before returning to
theaters in late January, to grapple with moral and psychological ambiguities,
rather than settling for simplistic depictions of heroism and villainy. Those
ambivalences pervade not only the character of Leopold Socha, the scrappy,
courageous and possibly anti-Semitic sewer worker, but those of the Jews he
aided for months living underground in Lvov, Poland (present-day Lviv,
“I had seen recently too many not very good Holocaust movies,”
said Holland, politely declining to name the films.
“It was fake
Holocaust movies. It was several movies which had been made with a lot of money
and the best intentions. And at the same time, they changed it to some kind of
theatrical, fake reality.”
Holland had made two previous
Holocaust-related films, both nominated for Oscars for foreign-language film:
(1985), about a Polish farmer who assists a beautiful Viennese
Jewish refugee hiding from the Gestapo; and Europa Europa
(1990), inspired by
the true story of a Jewish youth who disguised his identity so convincingly that
he was accepted into the Hitler Youth.
She was attracted to David
Shamoon’s screenplay for In Darkness
, Holland said, because it presented a “not
only black and white, sentimental vision of the angelic, innocent victims and
the bad guys,” but a complex portrait of people in extreme circumstances who are
“sometimes generous, sometimes selfish, sometimes bad, sometimes
In other words, fully drawn human beings.
might just sound like good cinematic drama. But Holland’s morally clouded
perspectives on the Holocaust have led some European critics in the past to
level charges of anti-Semitism against her.
Holland, the child of a
Jewish father and a non-Jewish mother, has a personal history as complex as that
of many of her characters. Although her father didn’t hide his Jewish ancestry,
as did many other Polish Jews of that era, Holland said she first learned she
was part Jewish when some schoolmates taunted her.
“I came home and I
asked my mother what it does mean, and she told me, ‘Yeah, it’s true, you are
Jewish, and your father is Jew, and your grandparents have been Jewish, and they
all died in the Warsaw ghetto. And you have to be proud that you are Jewish.’”
Speaking by phone from his Toronto home, Shamoon, 64, said he also was drawn to
the moral complexities of the story, which he first read about in Martin
Gilbert’s The Righteous
and learned about in more detail through Robert
Marshall’s 1991 book In the Sewers of Lvov
Born in Baghdad to Jewish
parents who later migrated to India and then to Iran, Shamoon regards
one-dimensional representations of Jews as “very condescending, quite
“As a Jew myself I’m really tired of Jews being depicted as
victims,” said Shamoon, an advertising executive whose In Darkness
script is his
first produced screenplay.
Evil is easier to depict in film, and easier
to fathom, than true goodness in whatever shades of gray, Holland
“When you see the history of humanity, killing each other,
hating each other, it’s so easy to understand,” she said.
“You just take
off the costume of civilization and it grows in one minute. And that in those
circumstances somebody can act good is something which is really mysterious.”