Agnieszka Holland’s latest film, “In Darkness,” pulls us into a monochromatic world in which all of the primary characters display shading and nuance. The film is based on a true story about a sewer inspector in Lvov, Poland (now Lviv, Ukraine) who helped a group of Jews hide in the sewers to save them from the Nazi holocaust.
The sewer inspector, Socha, is a thief, a scavenger and an opportunist, but his life is hardscrabble and his blonde wife and daughter, who are decent, kind and diligent, love him. The Jews in the Lvov ghetto are a motley bunch who have survived on what resources they have, be it wealth, stealth or the ability to dig a hole straight through to the sewers. The sewers are their refuge, a smelly, wet refuge, swarming with rats.
Down in the sewers, it is dark, dank and dangerous. In a recent public screening, Holland stated that “In Darkness” was “the hardest film I ever made,” adding that the film experience was “as harsh as it is on the screen.” Socha is played by Robert Wieckiewicz, an acclaimed Polish actor who not only had to wade through sewers – 25% of the sewer scenes were shot in actual sewers – but also had to provide much of the lighting of “In Darkness.” Holland described in a recent interview how Wieckiewicz, who as Socha is symbolically bringing the light to the hiding Jews, was during the shoot literally bringing the light, holding a high-powered flashlight and carrying a battery pack, illuminating the actors with whom he shared a scene, so that he often played the dual role of Socha and the lighting assistant. (The stellar cinematography was provided by Jolanta Dylewska.)
With its painful subject matter and its use of subtitles, the film will not be an easy sell, although it can easily be categorized as a masterpiece. Holland insisted that she would only make this film if it were done in its “original languages.” “In Darkness” received its foreign film Oscar nod as a film “from Poland,” although the film’s characters speak a variety of languages. Holland revealed that when she turned away from a Hollywood-processed, English-language version of this story, she immediately lost half of her financing. But she abandoned the money in favor of the “reality which was so close to me.” Holland’s work has often addressed the question of identity, of asserting yourself by declaring what you are not. The underground Jews speak Yiddish, Hebrew and German, depending on their class, but once they become sewer-dwellers, all that matters is that they do not speak Polish, which could have helped them to go into hiding above ground. What holds them together – the fact that they are Jews – also keeps them apart. Socha’s sinister friend, who buys him drinks and offers rewards for turning in Jews, is a Ukranian who often looks to him for translation help. Socha himself speaks Balak, a near-forgotten dialect of Polish which Holland compares to Cockney, adding that even in Poland, the film is subtitled in parts, the way that Mike Leigh and Ken Loach films are subtitled in America, to clarify the spoken English of the characters. No character in this film understands another through words alone.
The greatest form of communication among these strangers is their compassion, their fear and their courage. The true language of this film is light and darkness. Moments of horrible suffering are balanced by scenes of unexpected tenderness. Socha’s radiant young daughter receives her first communion in a glow of a tawny candlelight. At the same time, her counterpart in the netherworld is literally drowning in filth. Exquisitely visual, this film is not easy to watch, but impossible to forget.
In Darkness, directed by Agnieszka Holland
Distributed by Sony Pictures Classics
Opens in New York and Los Angeles February 10
Elizabeth Bales Frank is a New York-based writer who manages the website So Much So Many So Few, which focuses on the literature of World War II.