From left, Herbert Knaup, Maria Schrader and Milla Bakowicz star in "In… (Jasmin Marla Dichant / Sony…)
Agnieszka Holland set three conditions for herself when she agreed to make "In Darkness," her harrowing new film based on the true story of a Polish petty thief and sewer worker who helped a handful of Jews escape the Nazis by hiding in sewers.
First, it couldn't be shot in English, said Holland, whose credits include the feature films "Europa Europa" and "The Secret Garden" and episodes of HBO's "The Wire" and "Treme." It had to be made in the authentic languages of Polish, German, Yiddish and Ukrainian.
Second, Holland insisted on imbuing the film with a documentary-like realism by shooting parts of it in real sewers, in bad lighting. "I didn't want the actors to be well-lit and pretending they are blind," she said during a recent promotional stopover in Los Angeles. "They have to feel they are really in the sewers."
And, crucially, the 63-year-old Polish director wanted "In Darkness," which is currently playing for a one-week run before returning to theaters in late January, to grapple with moral and psychological ambiguities, rather than settling for simplistic depictions of heroism and villainy. Those ambivalences pervade not only the character of Leopold Socha, the scrappy, courageous and possibly anti-Semitic sewer worker, but those of the Jews he aided for months living underground in Lvov, Poland (present-day Lviv, Ukraine).
"I had seen recently too many not very good Holocaust movies," said Holland, politely declining to name the films. "It was fake Holocaust movies. It was several movies which had been made with a lot of money and the best intentions. And at the same time, they changed it to some kind of theatrical, fake reality."
Holland had made two previous Holocaust-related films, both nominated for Oscars for foreign-language film: "Angry Harvest" (1985), about a Polish farmer who assists a beautiful Viennese Jewish refugee hiding from the Gestapo; and "Europa Europa" (1990), inspired by the true story of a Jewish youth who disguised his identity so convincingly that he was accepted into the Hitler Youth.
She was attracted to David Shamoon's screenplay for "In Darkness," Holland said, because it presented a "not only black and white, sentimental vision of the angelic, innocent victims and the bad guys," but a complex portrait of people in extreme circumstances who are "sometimes generous, sometimes selfish, sometimes bad, sometimes loving." In other words, fully drawn human beings.
That approach might just sound like good cinematic drama. But Holland's morally clouded perspectives on the Holocaust have led some European critics in the past to level charges of anti-Semitism.
Holland, the child of a Jewish father and a non-Jewish mother, has a personal history as complex as that of many of her characters. Although her father didn't hide his Jewish ancestry, as did many other Polish Jews of that era, Holland said she first learned she was part Jewish when some schoolmates taunted her.
"I came home and I asked my mother what it does mean, and she told me, 'Yeah, it's true, you are Jewish, and your father is Jew, and your grandparents have been Jewish, and they all died in the Warsaw ghetto. And you have to be proud that you are Jewish.'"
Speaking by phone from his Toronto home, Shamoon, 64, said he also was drawn to the moral complexities of the story, which he first read about in Martin Gilbert's "The Righteous" and learned in more detail through Robert Marshall's 1991 book "In the Sewers of Lvov."
Born in Baghdad to Jewish parents who later migrated to India then Iran, Shamoon regards one-dimensional representations of Jews as "very condescending, quite frankly."
"As a Jew myself I'm really tired of Jews being depicted as victims," said Shamoon, an advertising executive whose "In Darkness" script is his first produced screenplay.
Evil is easier to depict in film, and easier to fathom, than true goodness in whatever shades of gray, Holland suggested.
"When you see the history of humanity, killing each other, hating each other, it's so easy" to understand, she said. "You just take off the costume of civilization and it grows in one minute. And that in those circumstances somebody can act good is something which is really mysterious."