Thursday, March 22, 2012

From the darkness of the sewers to the Oscar gala

Nominated for Best Foreign Language Film at the Oscars, Polish drama In Darkness tells a remarkable story of survival during the Holocaust: a group of Jews hid for 14 months in the sewers of Lvov after the destruction of the ghetto above. The IFI talked to Polish director Agnieszka Holland about the film at the Jameson Dublin International Film Festival.


She may have lost out on an Oscar to critically-acclaimed A Separation, yet Agnieszka Holland seems to have a bigger picture in mind when talking about her recent release, In Darkness (W ciemności). Tackling the Holocaust, she seems to follow Andrzej Wajda’s (the Academy-winning director of Man of Iron and Katyn) urge to constantly remind the audience of the horrors of the war.

“In contrary to Andrzej [Wajda], I don’t see myself as a preacher. Yes, undoubtedly, we must never forget, otherwise we may slip into that madness so easily. But personally in making the film I wanted to question some stereotypes that we have about those different to us, whom we meet more and more often in this globalised world. I wanted to make a film about empathy, to make people wonder: what would I do? Which side of the conflict would I take? So far my film has received a great response from people who can engage with these emotions”. 

In telling a story of a group of Jews in hiding, Agnieszka Holland skilfully avoids the temptation to portray her characters in monochrome.

“Among the millions of people who were killed in the Holocaust, there were all sorts of individuals. Seemingly virtuous ones may have turned immoral in no time. There were no written rules. That’s why I wanted to depict them as living human beings, unlike some mystical shadows with neither face nor flesh. Unfortunately, in many Holocaust dramas, Jews are usually pictured as some faultless group of angels, quietly waiting for their fate to be fulfilled. I have spoken to many survivors, people who were in Auschwitz, and they like my film for its realism. Although, when I was first asked to make this film, I was totally against it! I was worried that the audience wouldn’t be interested in yet another movie about the Holocaust. And I was afraid of this heavy burden that I was just about to take on my shoulders – it’s a difficult task, to talk about the Holocaust, you know. But I don’t regret it.”

Agnieszka Grochowska as Klara Keller

In Darkness is beautifully shot in between two contrasting worlds: dark and claustrophobic sewers under the ghetto, and grim reality of a daily struggle for survival in the Nazi-occupied city of Lvov. Thanks to cinematographer Joanna Dylewska, the titular darkness becomes an effective metaphor for the fate of the Jewish people during the Holocaust.

“It was Joanna’s idea to use the light and darkness to tell their story. When Socha choses a group of fourteen people to show them a place of hiding, the rest is left behind in that fading light. During the filming, I was insisting on shooting even darker frames, as I was obsessed with the reality of that underground world, so it’s been quite a challenge, both from an artistic and a technical point of view.”

It was only when the film was in post-production that Holland discovered one of the survivors from the sewers is still alive and they met with Krystyna Chiger who had published her memoirs The Girl In the Green Sweater, in Toronto.

“I never heard of Krystyna until last year, when my agent got a phone call from her. We did our research before and were sure that all real-life characters were already dead. I was very worried about whether she would like the film. But she loved it and her reaction was very emotional and positive. And now she’s going to attend an Academy Awards ceremony with us. From the sewers to the Oscars, that’s quite something!”

Leopold Socha (Robert Wieckiewicz) and Krystyna Chiger (Milla Bankowicz

“Krystyna says: We have never made a big tragedy out of the episode in the canals. She is a remarkable person, full of life and joy. Her family, years after the war, did talk about what happened in Lvov; it’s was never a dark secret swept under the carpet. I know many people with equally difficult experiences who are unable to talk about their trauma, and that can eat away at person but Krystyna was always able to talk about it”.

Having been born in communist-ruled Poland, Agnieszka Holland has a few difficult experiences under her belt herself including being imprisoned for six weeks in 1970.

“I remember after being released from prison I used to look at people as the ones I’d like to be jailed with and the ones I’d prefer not to share my prison cell with. It was some sort of a test: who would have been strong enough, who would have been able to cooperate with others and embrace each other in that moment of the greatest challenge. Sometimes people can truly surprise us: they seem to hold strong and then fall apart in a few days time. Marek Edelman [the last surviving leader of the Jewish Uprising in Warsaw] said ‘Love means responsibility’. I believe our character Leopold Socha (Robert Więckiewicz) cares about the ones he loves. That’s why he’s been continuing his risky operation down in the sewer system, helping Jews when they no longer were able to pay him, because he felt responsible for their lives. ‘They are my Jews, mine!’ – he shouts in the final scene of the movie. That’s the biggest mystery out there. In many war-time stories we gain a glimpse of that mystery: of the human spirit and our own weakness, of a fine line between being a hero and becoming a villain. The never ending struggle between good versus evil. There’s been so much already told about it yet we still hardly understand any of this. Well, maybe we are getting a little bit closer, bit by bit?”

In conversation with Anna Paś

Dublin, 22nd February 2012.  

In Darkness continues at the IFI until March 29th. For more information and bookings, please contact our Box Office on 01 679 3477, or book online on www.ifi.ie.

Watch the film trailer here:

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