Agnieska Holland, director of the Academy Award-nominated (Best Foreign Language Feature) Holocaust drama “In Darkness,” is no stranger to documenting that period on film (or to Academy Award nominations, for that matter), having made “Angry Harvest” and “Europa Europa,” both Holocaust films nominated for Oscars. But “In Darkness” does mark a departure for Holland — it’s her first film set primarily undergound.
Based on a true story, “In Darkness” centers on Leopold Socha (Robert Wieckiewicz), a sewer worker in Lvov, a Nazi occupied city in Poland. After coming across a group of Jews trying to escape the liquidation of the ghetto, Leopold agrees to hide them undergound in the town’s sewer system, for a price. What soon begins as a business arrangement soon blossoms into something deeper, as Leopold’s conscience gets the better of him.
Holland spoke with Indiewire from Poland about her latest work.
This doesn’t mark your first Oscar-nomination. What did it mean to be nominated for this film in particular?
It’s an important film to me. It certainly helps, so it’s good. I’m very pleased and also for the first time I’m nominated for Poland, which is my country. Of course for Polish people it’s an important event. It’s not only my success, but it is also some kind a national issue. It’s different from before because it was much more private for me [last time].
Sounds like you’re feeling an added pressure time around…
Yes, it’s not so nice. You feel a responsibility and expectations. I have these expectations in my private life and certainly it’s not very easy to have it in my professional life. On the other hand, you have the support of the people and it’s nice to know they’re behind you. But it’s a game only — it’s a competition. It doesn’t change the world. It just can make the day better or less good.
Anyway, we’ve been nervous about the nomination, and when this happened I was so relieved; I didn’t think about the future. It is very difficult category and there are at least four best films of the world in this category. So the choice is quite difficult for the committee. You just have to enjoy the moment, I think.
What made you revisit the Holocaust on film with “In Darkness?”
The story and the script were very powerful. I felt that I could show it in such a present way. The characters are so complex and ambiguous. I could feel that the emotional actualization would be possible.
The audience of today can receive this emotional impact in a very strong way. When you are tackling subjects like this, which are timeless in some way, it’s not okay to just say, “We’ve seen that Holocaust story and now here’s another story.” It’s a story which never goes away because it’s such an important part of human history. With the guilt of humanity, it will be coming back over and over, I’m sure about it.
I’m guessing the fact that the majority of the film takes place in the dark proved to be an exciting challenge to you as a filmmaker. How strongly did that factor in to you taking this on?
It was one of the things which really tempted me as a filmmaker, even if I knew that this would be a pain in the ass and a hellish part of the filmmaking. It was not the only to fulfill my cinematic ambition — it’s such an important tool in telling the story. The darkness has a symbolic meaning and a very convert, very real meaning. So you have those two elements in one. It’s not just meant to show, “Look how great a filmmaker I am!”
How did you prepare, both mentally and technically, for a shoot like this?
I was really afraid of because I went to those places before. You’re really paying the price; you have to really spend two to three years of your life, very deeply, going to the bottom of this reality. Not only by reading this and thinking that and listening to the stories and watching the movies and documentaries, but also making some kind of emotional journey to try and imagine what these people went through — to really express it in a truthful, authentic and profound way.
Actors only usually work for a few months, while directors are usually there quite a long time. So yeah, you pay for that, for sure.
You draw such vivid and varied performances from your large ensemble. How did you work with them to make that world very real for them? The film’s painful to watch.
Well you know, not too much. We read the stuff, we discuss the stuff. I told them a lot of stories. I know a lot of stories from my family and the stories that people told to me that were never published. They influence my thinking about the work.
I’m trying to translate this horror the characters go through to the contemporary experience of the real people, which are not so extreme. The good actor always finds inside of themself the strength to wake up their emotional imagination strongly enough to become the character. Robert, for example, the guy who plays Socha, the main character, is like that. He’s really using himself as the instrument in very conscious ways, but in some ways he’s got to disconnect the consciousness and just go with the instinct. Sometimes he’s just so tired and he’s so exhausted that he cries, but he goes there. You’ve got to choose the actors who are capable of doing this kind of work.
How would you characterize the atmosphere on a shoot like this? Did you try to bring levity on set in between takes?
Some of the actors, immediately after the shot was over, would run away. Either they went outside to grab some air, or some of them stayed for hours and hours, especially the younger girls. They stayed and were in a state of self consciousness — they’d been like sitting there for hours and hours. But you know, I don’t like to force actors to use methods. Every actor has to find their own method. After awhile, if they’re in a collective like that, then I am excluded in some way. Often I was talking to them and they would look at me like I’m from another planet. They get so deeply into that. You just have to help them stay so deeply in the feelings.
You spoke with The New York TImes last year, stating that the Holocaust films of late seem fake and kind of artificial. Can you elaborate on that?
No, I cannot. Because then I have to tell the titles and it’s not fair for me to criticize my colleagues who went through the similar kind of suffering that I did. It’s just my personal feelings. It gave me the strength to try because I didn’t feel that it was fulfilled, but I don’t want to criticize other people.
What’s that tendency that you’ve seen in films of this nature that you wished to correct?
I dislike sentimentalization, this sugar like embellishment of the situation. I dislike if somebody wants to tell that it had meaning, that it served something, that it was good for something. This kind of conclusion in connection Holocaust stories is a travesty. The main conclusion of the Holocaust is that it was totally meaningless and absurd. But even knowing that, you are tempted to look for little glimpses of the light, of something which is good. In darkness you want to see that there’s some little glimpse of hope for those people.