Interview: Agnieszka Holland - director of In Darkness
Holocaust film nominated for Best Foreign Language Film Oscar
Veteran Polish director Agnieszka Holland was initially reluctant to return to the subject matter of the Holocaust, but her latest Oscar-nominated film, In Darkness, is an extraordinary work, compelling and without sentimentality. Hannah McGill speaks to her.
When screenwriter David F. Shamoon was seeking a director for a project based on the true story of a Catholic sewer worker in wartime Poland who saved Jewish refugees by hiding them underground, Agnieszka Holland was the obvious choice. Or so Shamoon thought. But the veteran Polish director, whose recent work includes episodes of The Wire and The Killing, initially turned him down, unsure about taking on the emotional and moral baggage of another Holocaust story. Two of her most celebrated films, Angry Harvest and Europa, Europa, had already dealt with the subject, and ‘I wasn’t sure if I wanted to spend another year of my life going to those places,’ she says. Furthermore, the film had been envisaged as an English language project, and Holland, fearing ‘Hollywoodization’ of sensitive subject matter, thought it should be made in Polish. ‘If you translate it into another language you translate it into another kind of expression,’ she argues. ‘It becomes more conventional – more bearable, in some way.’
Still, things shifted, as things do in the film industry, and new producers cleared Holland to make In Darkness as she wished. The result is a dynamic, challenging and technically brilliant depiction of heroics, horrors, blunders and betrayals that has claimed an Academy Award nomination – Holland’s third – in the category of Best Foreign Language Film. Holland’s resistance to attempting to fix or explain away the meaning of the Holocaust comes through in the moral ambivalence of her characters and the irreverent, frequently acerbic tone of her film, but she’s quick to note that the story is buoyed up by the drive of human beings to survive. ‘Our natural tendency is to look for some kind of hope,’ she says, ‘and that’s the tendency of my characters; they believe that life has some kind of meaning.’ So it is that in the direst circumstances, the characters’ vitality continues to bubble forth, expressed, as Holland says, ‘through the comic... and through sex.’ Such flashes of absurdity and carnality ensure that these characters are more than mere suffering angels from an earlier, crueller time.
Holland shot both in real sewers and in reconstructed sets. She was determined that the stinking, often waterlogged tunnels in which Leopold Socha concealed ‘Socha’s Jews’ should be honestly depicted and not beautified. ‘I was determined to avoid the romantic side of the sewers. If you put big lamps in the tunnels and you light them they can become beautiful - like the sewers of Vienna in The Third Man.’ Instead, shooting on a Red camera and deploying minimal light, Holland and cinematographer Jolanta Dylewska achieve an authentic sense of cramped intimacy and oppressive dimness; the sewers become an otherworldly but wholly persuasive environment. The film’s authenticity has been attested to by real survivors of the Lvov sewers, several of whom have surprised Holland by making themselves known at screenings. ‘I was thinking no one was alive,’ she admits. ‘When you make a movie, you feel that you own the story.’ By imagining the unimaginable, and bringing it close enough to touch, Holland has brought an extraordinary story into the light, to be mourned and marvelled at anew.
In Darkness is on selected release from Fri 16 Mar.