"It's harsh," said Polish director Agnieszka Holland introducing her new movie, In Darkness at a special screening at the Museum of the Moving Image in Queens last month. Literally dark, In Darkness, to open this week in New York, takes place under ground in the sewers of Lvov, Poland in Holocaust era Europe. Based on Robert Marshall's book, In the Sewers of Lvov, about the story of Jews hiding in the wet, stinky sludge and the Polish thief and sewer worker, Leopold Socha (Robert Wieckiewicz), who helps them survive, at times, the rats -- seen and unseen, the soundtrack of their scurrying and little squeals is terrifically powerful -- seem more menacing than the Nazis hunting for Jews above ground.
Resembling something of a wise owl and speaking in accented English, Holland, a director of episodes of the HBO series The Wire and Treme, is perhaps best known for her 1990 film Europa Europa, the story of a young Jewish boy who, pretending to be Catholic, passes through the Second World War, hidden so to speak, and by contrast here, in the light of day.
Holland said she was not eager to re-enter the Holocaust and the subterranean territory filmed by Holland's mentor Andrej Wadja in his film Kanal, but something about David F. Shamoon's script pulled at her, kept her dreaming. Her condition for finally agreeing was to make the film in Polish, "the right way." She did not want to use the bottom of the A-list actors in an English-speaking project, and lost half the financing, she joked. She especially liked that the characters, Socha, at times religious, at others immoral, and the Jews he saves are ambiguous, never saintly.
"I did not want to be sentimental," said Holland. "I wanted to show human behavior in the most objective way possible. What is important to me is not how bad the Germans were, but what happens to humans with this genteel and cultured background when they are forced to come to this place. The worst acts are understandable. The good acts are harder to understand, even mysterious."
Even after the Holocaust, genocide continues. "We are not immune to this virus. That's why it is important to talk about it," Holland said. "Genocide can also recur against Jews. Israeli politics are often so terrible; they open the door to disaster. I want young people to understand this is their problem, not something old and historical."
Many are now calling In Darkness her masterpiece.
While her 1985 movie Angry Harvest had been nominated for a Best Foreign Language Film Oscar and Europa Europa for a Best Screenplay Oscar, so far the award has eluded her. Now In Darkness is nominated for an Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film. Holland says "It's better to have an Oscar than not, but it doesn't leave me sleepless."
A version of this post also appears on Gossip Central.