The film In Darkness tells a remarkable story of survival underground — under the streets, in fact, in the Polish city of Lvov — during World War II. It was directed by acclaimed filmmaker Agnieszka Holland, who knows the subject and the setting firsthand, and it's one of the five Academy Award nominees for Best Foreign Language Film.
And for Holland, it's a return to a subject she'd sworn off. She'd decided long ago that she didn't want to revisit the Holocaust in her films, so she rejected — twice — a script she really liked called In Darkness. The story haunted her, but she told the screenwriter and producers no.
"I said that I cannot spend another three years of my life in the Holocaust time, and that is too painful, and I know how costly it is psychologically."
Holland knew the pain personally; her father's family perished in the Holocaust. And she knew it professionally, because she'd already made two films on the subject. Her 1985 drama Angry Harvest, which centers on the intimate struggle between an escaped Jewish woman and the rough Polish farmer who shelters her, was also an Oscar nominee.
And Europa Europa, a black comedy based on the memoir of Solomon Perel, earned a best adapted screenplay Oscar nomination when it was released in the U.S. in 1991. It's an almost picaresque adventure about a Jewish teenager who stumbles into an opportunity to survive by passing as a gentile; the film's narrative is punctuated with the boy's fantasies, including one in which Hitler and Stalin dance together.
The boy eventually enrolls in an elite Hitler Youth school, which gives rise to one of the film's most talked about scenes, a sequence filled with rising tension and disgust. The boy's pompous teacher regales his students with a crudely anti-Semitic imitation of "Jewish characteristics," contrasting them with golden Aryan beauty. He then calls our brunette impostor to the front of the class to measure his skull and his nose and his eye color. He declares the anxious boy ... unmistakably Aryan.
Holland has been criticized, as well as praised, for using comedy and sexuality in dealing with the Holocaust. But her unconventional approach is exactly what made screenwriter David F. Shamoon keep after her until she finally agreed to direct his script. Shamoon is himself the son of Iraqi Jews who fled a 1941 pogrom in that country.
"I never looked at In Darkness as being a so-called Holocaust film," Shamoon says. "In many stories like this, the Jews are portrayed as victims, as very holier-than-thou. And that really did not interest me. I wanted to know of them as human beings, which of course they were. They had their foibles; they had their weaknesses; they had their evil impulses, as much as anyone else. One of the characters leaves his wife in the ghetto and runs off with his mistress into the sewers to save himself and her. Another one is a con man."
But the character who most interested both Shamoon and Holland was Leopold Socha, the sewer worker and petty thief — historical memoirs suggest a reformed thief — who at first sees mostly opportunity in the plight of the Jews.
When Socha discovers they've broken into the sewers from a ghetto apartment, he debates with a younger co-worker about whether to help them for a price — or collect the Nazi bounty instead. The penalty for hiding Jews was summary execution; Socha reassures the boy that "we can always turn them in." In Holland's staging, the Jews are having their own debate a few feet away. One suggests they could kill the sewer workers right there. "This is war," he says.
But a deal is struck, and eventually Socha does help this small group of Jews, hiding them from the Nazis after the final raid on the Jewish ghetto, late in the spring of 1943. He continues to help them even after their money runs out.
Still, Holland says she wanted to depict him not as a guardian angel but as a conflicted human being — a man who can "at any moment make the totally different decision, and turn them down or betray them. And why he does the good deed by the end is mysterious to himself."
Again, Holland had a personal experience to explore. Her mother, a non-Jew, worked with the Polish resistance.
"My mother was a very young girl in Warsaw. She was in the Polish underground. She helped several Jewish people, and she's held the title of the Righteous among the Nations," Holland says, referring to a list of non-Jews who helped Jews, which is maintained by Yad Vashem, the Holocaust memorial and research center in Israel. (Leopold Socha and his wife are also on the list.)
"In some way, you know, those two sides of the stories are part of my identity," Holland says.
In Holland's film, the main character grows fond of the children of the Chiger family, whom the director depicted quite accurately in the film, says Krystyna Chiger (now Keren). She was 7 in 1943, when she went to live in the sewers under Lvov. Now 76, she says Holland showed her the film just before it was finished.
"I was so moved," she says with a trembling voice, "and all the time I was shaking, because you see a part of your life coming back."
Chiger wrote a memoir of that part of her life in 2008, too late to be a source for In Darkness, which drew on a 1991 book called In the Sewers of Lvov by Robert Marshall. But Chiger says Holland is the only director who could have made this film.
"Always when people heard my story, and they said it should be a movie made, I always had in back of my head that the director should be Agnieszka Holland. Years already, since I saw her movie Europa Europa, I made up my mind that she should do it."
Krystyna Chiger's book is called The Girl in the Green Sweater, because she wore a wool sweater knitted by her grandmother through all of the 14 months she spent sheltered in the sewers. It's depicted in the movie.
And she took good care of the original. It now resides at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, in Washington, D.C.