Director Agnieszka Holland: Escaping Death, Surviving In Darkness

by Andrew Fish

Director Agnieszka Holland (Photo courtesy of Sławek Skonieczny)

This interview was conducted for Venice Magazine.

The remaining Jews of the Lvov Ghetto know their time is up. Having seen their friends and family beaten and shot and the survivors sent to extermination camps, a small group digs a hole into the sewer system to escape the fenced-in city’s final liquidation. While scouting out the tunnels, they’re spotted by a couple of thieves who agree to help them for cash. The elder of the crooks is Leopold Socha, a Catholic sewer worker who starts out taking their money with no intention of loyalty, yet slowly develops a love and sense of responsibility for them which gives him a sense of purpose and threatens his own survival.

In Darkness, the new film by Agnieszka Holland, sinks into the dank catacombs of 1943 Poland and tells the true story of this group of disparate Jews — including a businessman, a religious loner, two young children, and an adulterous couple who has left the man’s family behind — as they eke out a makeshift life for 14 months amid the rats and filth. Based on Robert Marshall’s book, In the Sewers of Lvov, the film stars Robert Wieckiewicz as Socha and Benno Fürmann as Mundek Margulies, a Jew and reformed criminal who falls in love with Klara (Agnieszka Grochowska), a fellow sewer dweller. Margulies is wary of Socha’s motives until Socha helps him infiltrate a concentration camp in an attempt to rescue Klara sister. Meanwhile, another of the group becomes pregnant. With Socha’s wife (Kinga Preis) fearing the repercussions of his secret, and his friend Bortnik (Michal Zurawski), a Ukrainian officer, prodding him to locate any Jews who may be hiding in the tunnels, the pressure builds aboveground and below. In Darkness is Poland’s 2011 Academy Awards entry for Best Foreign Language Film.

Holland has explored this point in history before, most notably with Europa Europa, her 1990 film about an orphaned German-Jewish teenage boy who survives the Holocaust by posing as a pure-bred Aryan, which earned the director an Oscar nomination for Best Adapted Screenplay. Before that, her World War II-era Angry Harvest (1985) with Armin Mueller-Stahl was Oscar nominated for Best Foreign Language Film. She went on to direct Olivier, Olivier (1992) in French and The Secret Garden (1993) in English. Holland’s Total Eclipse (1995) starred David Thewlis and a young Leonardo DiCaprio, who played out the volatile relationship between respective 19th-century French poets Paul Verlaine and Arthur Rimbaud. She then helmed the big-studio picture, Washington Square (1997), with Jennifer Jason Leigh, Albert Finney, Maggie Smith, Ben Chaplin, and Jennifer Garner, based on the 1880 novel by Henry James. After HBO’s “Shot in the Heart” (2001) and Copying Beethoven (2006) starring Ed Harris, Holland began directing for American television, with stints on “The Wire,” “Cold Case,” “The Killing,” and “Treme.”

Though taken with the script, Holland turned down In Darkness screenwriter David F. Shamoon twice before it was agreed that the film would be shot in its authentic languages of Polish, German, Yiddish, and Ukrainian. “With this Holocaust reality in the Second World War,” Holland explains, “I think in some ways it’s so connected to those places and to those people and to those languages, that shooting in English immediately changes it into some kind of theatrical convention. I just wanted to be as close to the these people and to this reality as possible. I love a lot of American and English actors. I’ve worked with them, but in those parts I didn’t think that they would be right, that they would be real, that [audiences] will believe them.”

Holland is also quick to point out that the events in Eastern Europe during World War II represent human tendencies that are still alive and well. Recent atrocities in Rwanda and Bosnia are cases in point, and the director sees a looming danger in the aftermath of the economic meltdown. “You’re seeing now a chain reaction,” she submits, “that countries are falling apart. It is kind of a global crisis, at least in this democratic world, which can lead very easily to the outburst of populism, frustration, anger, fury, and hate.” And quelling the rumblings of neo-fascism, she says, “is in the hands of the new generation, because they have to do something. If not, they don’t have a chance to have a normal life.” We meet with Holland in Beverly Hills.

What first drew you to the story of In Darkness?

The screenwriter; he was so perseverant. In principle, I didn’t want to do a Holocaust movie. I knew how painful it is, and I knew how difficult a sell it is, and I knew that it would be giving blood and sweat for two or three years, but the story was fascinating and the characters were fascinating and the challenge to do a film which happens 80% in darkness was very fascinating. I felt that I could probably do it better than anyone else. I had this pretentious feeling that I would be really strong, fighting for the truth, for authenticity, and that this story must be told in the most authentic way possible. I felt that I know how to do it — a bit. Of course, I was full of doubts. Finally, I decided to do it.

Was the fact that this amazing story actually happened a factor in drawing you to it?

I am kind of used to it, because I really know a lot of Kraków stories. Before Europa Europa, I was reading everything that was possible to read and talking to people and talking to survivors . After Europa Europa, practically after every screening, when I had the Q & A — I had hundreds, maybe, all over the world — at least one or two people came to me and said, “It’s a fantastic story. Thank you for this movie, but my story…” And they start to tell their stories, and their stories are incredible. In some ways, most of the stories of survivors have this incredible, biblical dimension, and this dramatic and emotional quality and these adventurous qualities. So it didn’t surprise me that this is a true story. I kind of expected that true stories are the most incredible. But yes, the fact that it really happened, it gives a special kind of responsibility to the filmmaker, because you have to be faithful to the spirit of those people in the story. You cannot just play with them, so you feel less free in some ways.

Did you find it an imposing idea that you were going to be filming in darkness? You mentioned that you felt a lot of doubts.

It was a challenge for me and for the cinematographer because from the beginning I knew one thing — that I wanted it to be really dark. It’s not only that it’s going to be dark on the screen, but I really wanted my actors to be in the darkness. And at the same time I knew that I didn’t want this darkness to be beautiful, to be spectacular, to have nice contrasts, because you can light the sewer in a way that they look like Gothic cathedrals, very spectacular. So we knew that we needed some level of realism and at the same time we wanted people to see what is important for the story and for the characters. Those were the biggest challenges. The actors were helping because a lot of the light came from their flashlights, so they not only had to act but at the same time to be partners. Especially Robert [Wieckiewicz], who plays Socha; he was our main lighting operator.

When you were shooting, did you and the actors feel the same claustrophobia that the audience feels?

To some extent, yes. When we were scouting, we took our first trip to the sewers with the crew, was to go to Lvov, to the real sewers where it really happened. This was one of the worst. We escaped after one hour; we were suffocated, physically, from the panic. I had planned to spend about two hours, and we just were unable to do it. So I had this feeling, and I thought that we have to express this feeling, to find a way for the audience to feel the same way, at least in the beginning. And when we were shooting in the real sewers, in Lvov especially, but also in other German cities, this feeling comes immediately. All of the crew starts to feel claustrophobic, but when we re-created it on the stage, of course, it’s easier. You can go out and take a smoke or whatever, but the actors, they stayed for a long time on the set, in this closed, claustrophobic, wet set, and at some moments, I had the feeling that they are half conscious. They’re sitting there, and they don’t feel that they have a right to go outside. But, of course, it’s not the same to shoot it for two months and have the possibility to go for drinks in the evening, than to sit for 14 months in those things. But we came pretty close to feeling what they felt.

When you first went into the sewers, did you wonder how these people could have possibly done this for so long?

It was a very strong feeling. I cannot imagine the experience, but at the same time I know now, and I knew before, theoretically, that human beings can stand a lot, that we have such an incredible perseverance and vitality. Actually, just being there is difficult, but to create a life, to play with the children, to teach them, to cook, to make love, to argue, to fight, all of this human occupation which are the everyday things that we’re doing, that happen to us. To pray. It happened there. It was kind of miraculous.

It reminds me of Leonardo DiCaprio’s line in Total Eclipse, where he says that the only unbearable thing is that nothing is unbearable.

Very much so. I’ve been thinking about this line, actually.

I thought one of the most fascinating moments was when they come up from underground and the little boy says he wants to go back.

Yes, and it really happened this way with this little boy. For him, it became his world. He was three or three and a half when he went into the sewer, so he was five when he went out. Most of his conscious life was in the sewer. The rats became his pets; he played with them all the time.

Was it emotionally draining for you to shoot a movie like this?

Yes, that’s why I didn’t want to do it again. It’s costly; it’s painful. I’m cool when I’m doing it. I’m not crying. Even reading the most terrible material or watching the most graphic photos, I think, “Ah-ha, how can I do this or this?” It means you’re somehow very cynical or very matter-of-fact when you’re doing a movie, but at the same time, maybe it’s even more [difficult] because of that. You have to put down your natural emotions and at the same time, in order to understand what’s going on with those people, you have to in some way practice those emotions on yourself. I think it’s really costly. Afterwards, you need some kind of therapy. After Europa Europa, the therapy was doing Secret Garden. But after that, I wasn’t sure what’s more difficult, to make a Holocaust movie or to make a big studio movie. [laughs]

So what was your therapy after In Darkness?

I did some TV episodes after. It’s quick, like washing your hands and going to a different place.

In your opinion, when did Socha go from taking money from these people to a feeling of real responsibility and connection?

What was fascinating for me is he wasn’t a man who would consciously plan this. He was pretty spontaneous and primitive in some ways, and he reacted to the situation by action. At any moment he was able to either save them or damn them, and sometimes it was by chance that bad things didn’t happen, until some point when he achieved this level of identification that it was impossible to step back. It’s not one moment where suddenly he changed; until the end, he didn’t even know for sure. The fact that he was doing something generous surprised him, and he wasn’t even pleased with himself. The moment when he learned that the Jews don’t have the money anymore and he decides to follow through anyway, makes him feel that he wants to hide it. He doesn’t want other people to know about it because he thinks, in his world of value, that he’s stupid. He’s doing such a dangerous thing for nothing. So it’s more touching for me that this temptation of good comes to a man who is not morally or theologically prepared for that.

Tell us about the importance of showing everyone in the film as flawed individuals, including the Jews who were being saved.

I think that what is very important for me in the experience of the Holocaust is that it happened to the ordinary people. People like anyone. Not better than Germans or Poles or Americans, and not worse. Just people with the same needs, with the same desires, the same weaknesses, the same greatness. I sometimes imagine the people who were hiding in their own homes, that it was unbearable. Very irritating, because they’ve been nervous, they’ve been scared, they’ve been traumatized by what they went through, and they had a strong need for closeness. They had a need for love and they had a need for sex. They’ve been loving their children but they’ve been hating their neighbors. They had all of the dimensions that a human being has. And portraying them all like some kind of uniform, saintly victims, just takes the life out of them. They’re not alive anymore; they’re just icons. And they’re not icons; they’re human beings. What I wanted to know about my family that died in the ghettos and camps — I talked to the surviving members, to my aunt, or to the cousin of my aunt — I wanted to know the details. I didn’t want to hear the story, “Oh, your grandfather was such a great, generous man.” I wanted to know what he liked, what he didn’t like, what was his relationship with the children, if he shouted at them. The things which make human beings specific, special, and unique. So we tried to show these people in this way.

Tell us about your parents.

My father was a Jew. He escaped Poland at the beginning of the war. He went east and spent the war in the Soviet Union. He went to the Soviet army first and after to the Polish army, organized by Stalin. He became captain, I think, and went to Berlin. And in the meantime, his family was practically entirely killed by Nazis. My grandparents died in the Warsaw ghetto. One of his sisters also died there and another sister escaped the ghetto, actually, in the coffin of her sister. They buried Jews outside of the ghetto. She went to Germany pretending that she’s Polish. Except for her, there were only two other cousins from the extended family that survived. So when he came back he found that everybody was dead. He never talked to me about it. It was my mother, who is not Jewish, who actually taught me that I’m Jewish, and who my family was, and what happened to them.

And your mother was involved in the underground?

She was very young. She was born in 1925 so she was 14 when the war started. And she was in the underground, and she was in the Warsaw uprising, and she was also together with two girlfriends helping the Jewish families escape the ghetto and hiding them. For her, witnessing the Holocaust was a crucial experience of her life. It was something that totally, in some ways, formed her.

The story that you’ve told with this film seems to take from both your mother and your father.

This division in me, both experiences, are important to me. It pushes me into those stories. I think it attracts me to those stories. For Jews, I’m not Jewish because my mother is not Jewish; for anti-Semitic Poles, I am Jewish. It depends on whoever is [asking]. [laughs] It puts me in, from my point of view, quite a comfortable situation because I can look at both sides with a great involvement and at the same time with an analytic distance. So I’m using this perspective when I can.

I’ve noticed a theme in your films of being trapped and finding liberation. Is that something you enjoy exploring?

I’m not analyzing from this point of view. When you ask me what my movies are mostly about, I can tell you that certainly the subject of identity is widely seen as important to me, and that life is complicated is the only morality that I can really express. That life and people are complex and complicated. But I am not going deeper into analyzing my own special subjects or the reasons for them. I feel it’s not my job. It was one woman in Poland who wrote a very big book about me, and very scientific. It was so complex and complicated, the language, even. I had problems with reading that. She had explanations for a lot of things that I didn’t even think can be explained. And maybe she’s right, maybe she’s not. Sometimes I make a decision with no real reason and mostly I regret it, but I know, deeply, if I feel that I want to tell a story. I feel it like some kind of a call; I can fight it but it comes back. And if it comes back over and over, that proves to me that this is a story I have to tell, even if, maybe, it’s not very reasonable.

And that’s what happened with this film?

Yes, it did.

What do you love about what you do?

It’s making something from nothing. I sometimes say that I feel it is very absurd, especially when it’s a hard time and there’s bad weather and you have this crew of 100 people. You have fathers of families, grownup guys who do everything and spend a lot of energy and work so hard to create something which is a fiction, which just doesn’t exist. It’s an illusion; it’s a shadow on the screen. I feel a little like I’m cheating, that I’m pushing people to do something which is absurd and useless, but on the other hand I feel real power. So maybe I’m supposed to be a politician. I don’t know, the President of United States or something — but I cannot, so I’m doing movies.

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