|From left, top row: Maria Schrader as Paulina Chiger, Herbert Knaup as Ignacy Chiger, and Jerzy Walczak as Jacob Berestycki; Bottom Row: Milla Bakowicz as Krystyna Chiger and Oliwier Staczak as Pawel Chiger. PHOTOS Courtesy Sony Pictures Classics|
Since the end of World War II, filmmakers have struggled with myriad stories, both fiction and non-fiction, that recount the horrors of what was the Holocaust, the Shoah. These last several years, there even seems to have been increased activity, as new works are adapted for the screen. At this point, one might ask whether everything has been said that needs to be said on the subject.
Agnieszka Holland does not think so. She feels that “the main mystery hasn’t yet been resolved, or even fully explored.”
With that, she embarked on the making of “In Darkness,” which explores relationships, and the question of trust and betrayal in the midst of calamity and horror.
The Warsaw-born filmmaker, whose paternal Jewish grandparents were killed in the Warsaw Ghetto, grew up not knowing anything about her father’s family. When she finally was told about her Jewish heritage by her Catholic mother, it must have left a lasting impact, because “In Darkness” is her fourth film to examine an aspect of the Shoah.
Her 1985 film “Angry Harvest” was about a Jewish woman on the run during the war, who finds shelter with a Polish farmer. “Europa, Europa” (1990), is about a youth who conceals that he is Jewish by joining the Hitler youth. She wrote the screenplay for “Korczak,” about the life of the Polish Jewish educator and writer Janusz Korczak that Andrzej Wajda made into a film that same year.
Now 21 years later, she is again tackling the fragile wartime relationship in Poland between Catholic and Jew. For a woman whose father fled Warsaw for the Soviet Union and whose mother fought in the Polish Warsaw Uprising, how people react in the midst of the pressure-cooker that is war remains a fascinating subject. It is the focus of this, her latest film.
Over the years, we watched movies about groups of Jews who survived and became known for the person who saved or protected them. There were “Wallenberg Jews,” “Sugihara Jews,” “Schindler Jews,” “Bielski Jews” and many others. This film, based on a true story, is the account of the Socha Jews, a group of Jews who fled the Lvov ghetto as it was being liquidated in 1943 and who found refuge beneath the streets in the city sewer system. In order to survive, they had to find a lifeline – for food; for shelter; for news from the outside world. In that situation, who served as their protector and why did he or she act so nobly? Sometimes it was out of greed, sometimes humanity, sometimes circumstance.
“In Darkness” is the story of those Jews who by circumstance found themselves cared for by a sewer worker named Leopold Socha.
Elmar Klos and JÃ¡n KadÃ¡r explored an aspect of this subject in “The Shop on Main Street,” their 1965 Academy Award-winning film about a Czech peasant who is assigned to be “Aryan controller” of a small Jewish shop. Appointed ostensibly to profit from this acquisition, he develops a relationship with the aging Jewish shop owner. When it is time for her deportation, a variety of frightening developments unfold that threaten him as much as her. Anyone protecting a Jew during the Nazi occupation put his/her own life at risk. On the other hand, any person who turned in a Jew could benefit greatly.
As relationships developed between protector and protected, there always was the question of whom one could trust and for how long. Each time contact was made, there was no guarantee that the person from the outside would return. There was risk for everyone involved and, whereby those seeking shelter had nowhere to go, the guardian could easily walk away at any time, turning in the Jews on his or her way out.
Director Holland takes us deep into the rodent-infested depths of the sewer underworld, where light is a luxury, food a commodity that is hard to find, and fresh air is not always available. She effectively creates a dark and dank atmosphere, where we the audience experience the claustrophobia that drove some to the street and certain capture and death. The Jews she portrays in hiding are complex and difficult, sometimes selfish, sometimes generous, always real. Their link to the outside world in this narrative is a common crook, a petty thief – an ordinary man living in extraordinary times. All of Agnieszka Holland’s characters in this film are genuine. They are alive. They are human!
“In Darkness” is a film worthy of your attention. If confinement is an issue and you cannot deal well with small spaces, you may find this film too difficult to watch. This director, however, wants us to experience what it must have felt like to be in those sewers.
Missing here is the fear of possible betrayal, lethal gas, or flooding, but Holland tries to bring us as close as we possibly can get as an audience of bystanders from a huge distance of time and space.
“Angry Harvest” was an Oscar nominee for Best Foreign Film, but “Europa, Europa” was shamefully never submitted by Germany, where it was made, for Oscar consideration. Now, “In Darkness” is Poland’s submission for this year’s Academy Award for Best Foreign Film. Count on it being a finalist. The fine screenplay is David F. Shimoon’s first feature and performances by Polish actor Robert WiÄ™ckiewicz as Socha and German actor Benno FÃ¼rmann as Mundek are quite good. The film is in Polish, German, Ukrainian, and Yiddish, with English subtitles.
Go see this powerful film, but be prepared to squirm.
The film opens today (December 9) at the Lincoln Plaza Cinema in New York for a one-week engagement. It opens nationally on January 27.