Movie Review: Agnieszka Holland Sheds Light on IN DARKNESS

Director Agnieszka Holland with Benno Furmann

By Christina Kotlar (doddleNEWS)

The opening scene in IN DARKNESS sent hairs on the back of my neck stand straight as a straggle of naked women run through the forest not far from where two local Poles trudge on their way to work. The two can do nothing but stay out of sight as machine gun fire follow the cries falling away into a pit of despair.

Academy Award nominee Agnieszka Holland, considered one of the world’s most important women directors, tackles a chapter in world history considered one of the most atrocious in living memory. Perhaps it is becasue there still is living memory that she was able to tap into the collective consciousness of this time and place which she feels may be geneticaly ingrained within herself.

IN DARKNESS is a drama base on a true story of a sewer worker and petty thief in Lviv, a Nazi-occupied city part of Soviet Ukraine during World War II years, who hides a group of Jews in the sewers for fourteen months. Leopold Socha (Robert Więckiewicz) and his assistant are seen looting the city ghetto concurrently being emptied of Jews. Lviv is war torn and in shambles suffering some of the greatest destruction ever inflicted on a civilian population. The Polish and Ukrainian city-dwellers are subject to harsh policies and executions by the Nazis.

While hiding their loot, Socha and his assistant run into a group of Jews trying to escape the ghetto liquidation and being sent to a concentration camp outside of the city. He refuses to get involved because of what the Nazis will do to people who help the Jews. After talking with his wife, Wanda, about the situation, she states, “they are people just like us.” Socha begrudgingly agrees to hide a chosen dozen desperate people for money. He knows every twist and turn in the dark labyrinth of the town’s sewers often popping up through the manholes and into the streets of Lviv.

The bustling activity of the city above belies what is actualy going on– a state of constant terror and enforcement. The Polish and Ukrainian (different from today’s), German and Yiddish languages flow between characters, their nuances often making it difficult to differentiate who are the sympathetic characters in this film. For the casual film goer not familiar with them, the bad guy is identified as a Ukrainian police officer/enforcer.

Agnieszka Holland concedes the possible confusion for the audience who cannot differentiate between the language similarities. She explains there was a decision not to provide too much verbal exposition, using character development instead. Some of the most impactful scenes are an elderly Ukrainian character, Kovalyev, helping Mundek (Benno Furmann) find Klara’s sister in the concentration camp. Kovalyev imparted a lesson on Socha, since he did not take any money in payment saying, “God will pay me.” Socha ponders the fateful remark only to see payback in response to a German soldier’s murder by the main Jewish character, Mundek. Walking through the square, Socha overhears a Ukrainian woman in the market sympathetically speaking about her neighbors–their citizens–as ten poor souls hanged in the square and forty more shot. Recognizing one of the hanged as his assistant, Socha’s agony over his friend’s death is undeniably painful and wracked with guilt.

The director also acknowledged she didn’t know very much about Lviv history before helming the film. More than a millennium of history and over seven centuries as a city, Lviv was always a multicultral land and had been part of numerous states and empires including the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth (Lvov), the Austro-Hungarian Empires (Lemberg), the short-lived (1918-1919) West Ukrainian People’s Republic (Lviv) and guided by varying amounts of Greek Catholic, liberal ideology, Roman Catholicism, as well as simmering discord during the interwar period and finally remaining under the Soviet Union and communist rule until 1991.

During the early 20th Century, the Polish and Soviet border was arbitrarily divided by the Curzon Line and was again carved up by the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact (Nazi and Bolshevik) which led to the German invasion of Poland in 1939. There were about 5.4 million people living in the territories with the cities mostly populated by Poles and Jews and agricultural Ukrainians dominating the countryside. Conflict often brewed among the indigenous ethnic groups as Hitler and Stalin ultimately took advantage with methodical, ruthless force. Ethnic cleansing prevailed on all fronts and an especially devastating decimation was inflicted on the Jews. It was a terrible time.

IN DARKNESS is not the first film coming from a Polish point of view. Renowned director Andrej Wajda directed KANAL (1957) and KATYN (2007) films about the Polish army and freedom fighters stacked against Nazi and Soviet murderous campaigns. Holland acknowledges Wajda’s influence as producer of IN DARKNESS as well as mentor and friend. She was up for the challenge to do a film similar to the themes of KANAL and KATYN; however, this time with a different story, a different reality.

Agnieszka Holland’s directorial style serves the story well and is ever changing from past work depending on the truth of the story. Her deft direction allowed actors to create characters and play convincing intimacy scenes and interactions provoking a restrained closeness to the characters that permeates throughout the film. Rawer scenes are primal, the nudity and sex scenes showed what it was like living during those times. People were sexual, having a rich erotic life in the ghetto, the crumbling city around them– even in the bunkers, where young men and women partisans were having sexual relations all the time when they were not fighting.

People are portrayed as flawed set in situations where no one can predict the outcome; thus, breaking the enduring faceless vision of angelic victims awaiting their fate. A noble illusion but not necessarily real or true. Details abound superbly that come from extensive research and real, personal stories. There lies the directing strength and skill as Holland does not look from just one point of view. Her interest in making this film was not to be judgmental, but to approach and depict what could be true, layered in complexity and steeped in credibility.

Therefore, the very importance of IN DARKNESS as a film, places another face on the Holocaust that has to this day become, to some, nostalgic and evolving into a sentimental legend. What starts out as a straightforward and cynical business arrangement turns into something very unexpected– an unlikely social connection between Socha and the Jews, along with the interwoven outer perimeter of citizens that make up a society that has struggled to live alongside one another through its multiculturism for a millennia.

The film is also an extraordinary story of survival as the men, women and children in hiding trying to outwit certain death during fourteen months in dank, smelly, cold sewer tunnels with ever increasing and intense danger. The lesson to take away from all the Holocaust films is that it can happen again. Will there be people willing to place their own lives and the lives of their loved ones in danger for strangers? During those dark times, the question was asked and often remained unanswered–Is there is a God, and why, why would God allow such atrocities happen to innocent people? Agnieszka Holland listened to these stories and superbly created a place, IN DARKNESS, for them to be told.

IN DARKNESS was filmed on location in Poland and Germany as well as Berlin’s Studio Babelsberg where the crew and cast worked in recreated water-filled sewers. Jolanta Dylewska, Director of Cinematography recently won the Grand Prix at Plus Camera Image for her work on IN DARKNESS.

A selection of the 2011 Telluride and Toronto International Film Festivals, IN DARKNESS is Poland’s official selection and was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film. Agnieszka Holland has made films in her native Poland and in the United States. Besides her Academy Award nominations for Europa, Europa and Angry Harvest, she has received numerous awards including the Golden Globe for Best Foreign Film and the New York Film Critics Circle Award for Best Foreign Language Film (Europa, Europa). She received an Emmy nomination for Outstanding Directing for the pilot of the HBO series Treme, and received critical praise for her work on The Wire. Other film credits include Olivier, OlivierThe Secret Garden, and Washington Square.

Running time 143 minutes. Rated R  In Polish, German, Yiddish and Ukrainian with English subtitles

Agnieszka Holland’s IN DARKNESS opens on Friday, February 10 in New York at Lincoln Plaza Cinema and the Angelika Film Center in Los Angeles at the Landmark (on Pico) A Sony Pictures Classics Release

About Christina Kotlar