Exclusive pre-Oscar interviews

Exclusive pre-Oscar interviews

Agnieszka Holland: Showing audiences the complexities of hate

Eric Goldman writes and teaches about Jewish cinema. He is president of Ergo Media, a distributor of Jewish, Yiddish and Israeli film.

Milla Bankowicz as Krystyna Chiger and Robert Wieckiewicz as Leopold Socha in the Oscar-nominated film “In Darkness.” Jasmin Marla Dichant/Sony Pictures Classics

Award-winning Polish-born director Agnieszka Holland discusses her Oscar-nominated “In Darkness” in this interview with The Jewish Standard film critic Eric Goldman. The film is nominated for “Best Foreign Language Film” at this year’s Academy Awards. It is one of two nominees with a Jewish theme.

Holland has tackled Jewish themes in many of her films. She wrote Andrzej Wajda’s film, “Korczak,” about Janusz Korczak, the celebrated educator and author of children’s books who was murdered by the Nazis.

Her films include “Angry Harvest” and “Europa, Europa,” which was nominated for a best screenplay Oscar. Holland’s family’s personal story could be a movie itself. She currently works largely in Hollywood.

“In Darkness” is a dramatization of the rescue in 1943 of Jews by Leopold Socha in the Lvov ghetto and their subsequent survival in the sewers where they hid. It is a powerful story, with superb performances. (During World War II a part of Poland, Lvov today is called Lviv and is a major Ukrainian city; it also has been known as Lemberg.) It was reviewed by Eric Goldman in our Dec. 9, 2011, issue.

What follows is an edited version of the interview:

Q: An increasing number of critics are troubled by the nature of Holocaust cinema. They feel that these films trivialize the Shoah. Do they?

Holland: Claude Lanzmann started it after “Shoah.” He became critical of any other representation of the Holocaust. He felt that fiction films are inappropriate for the subject. Some people share his opinion, and I can understand the reason. They think that a lot of Holocaust stories became the attractive vehicle for dramatization – quiet, conventional, sentimental story-telling to tackle the stories that are so dramatic by themselves, that it’s easy to make melodramas out of them. Also they quite often have some kind of moralistic conclusion, showing that it had some meaning and that you can win – as in the film “Life is Beautiful”: “If you love your child, you can save your child!” I was always irritated by this kind of approach. For me, the Holocaust is the border experience of humanity. It’s senseless! There is no meaning to that! There is no lesson to that! That humanity is capable of doing the most horrible things and we are not vaccinated against it and that we have to be careful and watch carefully what is going on in the world.

Q: You are not giving any lessons?

Holland: The only lesson is that it can happen again, and that we have to be aware of that! We cannot just think that it was the only episode in humanity.

Q: You come to this with a very interesting history.

Holland: I was born in 1948. My father’s family was killed in the Warsaw Ghetto – except one sister, who escaped from the ghetto. [My father] left for the Soviet Union at the beginning of the war and spent the war there – in the Soviet and then Polish army. He came with the army to Poland and became the quite prominent communist journalist. He committed suicide in 1961, just before the political police in Poland [got him]. It was just before the official wave of anti-Semitism started.

My mother was from the Polish intelligentsia. She was 13 when the war started. She was in the “home army” – the underground Polish movement – as a very young girl. She was very sensitive to what was going on to the Jews in Warsaw. She helped one Jewish man by pretending that she was his fiancée and helping him to live officially with fake papers. Together with two girlfriends, she saved a Jewish family escaping from the ghetto. She has a title as “a righteous among the nations.” She has a tree [named for her] in Jerusalem, and her name is on a plaque at the Holocaust museum in Washington. She and her girlfriend were so deeply touched by what happened to the Jewish population that they swore that if they would survive the war, they would marry Jewish men and make Jewish children. It was their determination. Both married Jewish men.

Q: That’s quite a load on you!

Holland: Yes. And at the same time, I was as a child in Warsaw meeting the popular anti-Semitism. The Jewish friends of my family – most of their friends were Jewish – they were pretty active Stalinists! It’s such a complicated fabric of relationships – before the war; during the war; post-war – between Jews and Poles. There is no simple vision of this.

Q: Is not “In Darkness” a film about just that – relationships between Poles and Jews? Some people argue that many Polish films may be too sympathetic to the Poles.

Holland: Some facts have been unknown or hidden. They came out only after Poland became a free country in the late 1990s and the beginning of the 21st century. That’s when the historical books started to be published and the archives [became accessible]. These proved that the Poles had not only been ‘innocent heroic victims’ during the Second World War, but that a big part of the population, especially in the countryside, participated in some way in the crime. This was a big shock to the Polish conscience….[But] we also have the second part of the story. I’ve always been against simplistic generalizations. I try to see the big picture.

Q: The villains in Polish films always seem to be the Nazis. You don’t see Polish villains?

Holland: Some Poles say to me today, “How is it possible that you show a Polish guy and he is doing it [saving Jews] for money?” Some Ukrainians say, “How is it possible that the villain in the story is a Ukrainian guy?” And some Jews – fortunately not too many – ask, “How is it that the Jews are not all angelic?” Then there are the Germans, particularly the German distributors, who ask, “Why is there all this unnecessary Nazi cruelty?” And so on. I try to be honest to the truth of the story – this particular story, without making generalizations. I also want to show the public the relationships, the stereotypes, the guilt, and the hate in as complex a way as is possible during two hours and 20 minutes.

When we did the last version of the script [of “In Darkness”], I tried to introduce the beginning of the “situation,” the historical facts that were happening in Lvov….

Just before the Germans came to Lvov, the Soviets assassinated all of the political prisoners – three or 4,000 people, mostly Ukrainians. When the Germans came, they found the bodies and they blamed Jews for that. They then gathered a large group of Jews to clean this up and at the end of the day, they killed practically all the Jews in this group. They also gave some Jews to Ukrainians who had come looking for their relatives, and let the Ukrainians kill them. So for Ukrainians and Poles, it was the Jews who were responsible for killing the prisoners, not the Soviets.

Most of the pogroms during the war happened on these “post-Soviet” territories. It is also true that some Jews were responsible for the crimes against the local population. It is so complex that you can’t just point and say that this nation is totally good and this nation is totally bad!

Q: You chose not to integrate that story into your film?

Holland: It simply is too complex.

Q: You don’t feel that hatred from Leopold Socha (the Polish hero of the film who saves Jews)?

Holland: He was a lower-class guy, just making ends meet. He was also a petty crook, more interested in learning which house he could rob, with little risk. His head was filled with the primitive stereotypes – that the Jews were crooks, stingy, rich, killers of Christ.

I had a nanny, a simple woman from the countryside, who was illiterate. She only was able to write her signature. She was really a deep and wise person. She heard some place that in reality Christ was a Jew. She also worked for a Jewish family before the war. She loved children. She knew that the Jews were humanists. She told me when I was a little girl, “Don’t worry that your father is Jewish, because so was Jesus Christ! The priest doesn’t like to talk about it, but I know!”

Q: How did you make the earlier films that you made under the communist regime? You must have been suspect because of your father.

Holland: That’s why I went to Czechoslovakia to study. I was 17 and I decided not to go to the film school in Lodz, because I probably would not have a chance to be admitted there. So I escaped, kind of, to Czechoslovakia. That was also the best period for Czech cinema. It was 1968 – with [the Prague Spring and] all that was happening. It was so exciting and I got involved in the political student movement and was in prison. In some way, it made me independent from my father. Then I came back to Poland, because in Czechoslovakia it became really unbearable. In Poland, there started a little liberalization and Andrzej Wajda became the head of one of the film groups, and he wanted to give me a chance. After some years, I made my first movie. I was taking advantage of the fact that Poland was not totalitarian. At some moments, with some pressure, we were able to do things. We had a great deal of freedom in making movies, except for some taboo political subjects.

Q: You were able to create a different enemy – other than the Soviets?

Holland: Yes. The people were very smart. The audience was much better than today, in terms of being intelligent and reading between the lines. And if you made a metaphor or parable, or something like that, they immediately knew what was going on. It was a very grateful audience.

Q: Thank you.

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