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A 2011 Polish drama directed by Agnieszka Holland, In Darkness is based on a true story in German Nazi-occupied Poland, the film tells of Leopold Socha, a sewer worker in the former Polish city of Lwów (nowLviv in Ukraine), who
uses his knowledge of the city's sewers system to shelter a group of Jews from the Nazi Germans. The true story of Leopold Soha who risks his own life to save a dozen people from certain death. Initially only interested in his own good, the thief and burglar hides Jewish refugees for 14 months in the sewers of the Nazi-occupied town of Lvov (former Poland).
It was nominated for the Best Foreign Language Film at the 84th Academy Awards.
Born November 28, 1948, Holland is a Polish film and TV director and screenwriter. Best recognized for her highly political contributions to Polish cinema, Holland is one of Poland's most prominent filmmakers.
Q: How did you find the locations for In Darkness?
AH: First, we wanted to shoot in Lvov[, Poland]. But it was impossible for financial reasons. We had to spend some money in Germany and also the Ukraine, and conditions were the most expensive.
Q: We thought everything was cheap in the Ukraine.
AH: It's not a logical market economy yet, you know? I remember in the early '90s I went to a festival and it was so cheap in Russia, living in the hotel which was like a very Communist kind of apartment hotel.
On every floor you had those women, which during the Communist times, they'd be the KGB-like people. And after perestroika, they decided they wanted to [go into] business and they [were] selling vodka on every floor.
Except that in the shop downstairs, you can buy vodka for 10 rubles and on the floor it was for $100. They did not understand why no one [was] buying, and they said, "These Western people they are so stingy." I said, "Change the price to twice what [it] is downstairs and they will [buy] it." But they didn't believe me.
And it's a little the same with the Ukraine film industry, apparently. We didn't shoot in Lvov, but we visited Lvov and Lvov sewers, which are the worst, because I visited the sewers in many cities in Poland and in Germany.
Q: So you have a whole new documentary on the sewers of Eastern Europe.
AH: Right, I am quite an expert. But you can find the website and there's a guy who is filming all the sewers in the world.
I was using his website. He didn't know about it. And the most spectacular are the sewers in Montreal. Beautiful. Beautiful sewers.
Q: This film recalls Kanal by Andrzej Wajda. Did he or his work have any influence?
AH: For sure. He was my mentor, my producer and my friend also. I was a part of his film group for a long time when I was working in Poland, and I wrote some scripts for him. So he was a huge influence on me for sure, and Kanal was like the classic movie.
Everybody in Poland interested in the cinema -- or even not interested in the cinema -- watched this movie at some point. So for me it was the challenge: If I can do another Kanal, if I can send [it] to competition, was my private [goal].
Of course, it's a different story and a different reality in some way. But Wajda was very complimentary about my work and was very gracious and said that I did better, but no.
Q: Your depiction of the people who lived in that time is really extraordinary. They were flawed characters, real people, with real connections between the people that lived in that area, whether it was the Polish, the Jews, the Ukrainians. You could tell by the languages that the Ukrainian was the bad guy as the police, but there was also the good guy who was helping getting to the work camp.
AH: I know. We didn't want to put too much information into the dialogue. But if you know the languages, you know that Kovalev, this guy who's helping him for nothing, gives to the main guys some kind of a lesson. He's a high [stakes] man and he said "God will pay me."
Also, the woman in the market who is speaking sympathetic[ally] about these hung people, she's Ukrainian as well. It's not only bad guys who are Ukrainian.
So yeah, it's a lot of subtlety like that which you will not have if you don't understand the language.
Q: Shooting with a lack of light is obviously a challenge. What tools did you use with the cinematographer [Jolanta Dylewska] to make it readable for the audience?
AH: She's a master, really. We had very little dramatic moments because she accepted the pressure from the producers. We had a very limited budget to shoot it on Red.
Red is the digital material, which when we were shooting two years ago, it was not sensitive, really. So her concept was that she would put relatively a lot of light, and after she would dim it down during the post-production process.
But I didn't want it in this way. I wanted it to be really dark and to have the actors to really act in darkness and not pretend that they see nothing.
She also thought that she would put strong sources of light inside the tunnels. Mostly, when you watch The Third Man, for example, you'll see that it's lit in this way.
The canals, the sewers, looked very spectacular; they look like the cathedrals in some way, and they didn't want the cathedrals.
So by then she said, "Okay, but I'm afraid that it will be totally invisible." And she pushed Red, she pushed the things, and we made the flashlights as strong as possible, which made them incredibly hot. The actors had been lighting each other, and it was really challenging.
Q: What work did you do with the actors so they could get into the feel of that whole environment? Did you lock them into a room for days?
AH: We'd been meeting a lot, especially with the Polish gang, because there were three Germans who came later to the process. They'd been learning the languages also, because it was languages that they didn't know.
For example, Socha, the main guy, and his wife and the young guy who is helping him, they learned a special kind of the Polish dialect which today Polish audiences don't understand. So they spent probably months learning this with the coach and everything.
Two Polish actors learned Yiddish, and the German actors learned Polish.
So this language school was [the way] to go into the time and the place of the characters. I think it was very helpful.
We watched a lot of documentaries together. I think they are very grownup, cautious actors, most of them, and they found their ways to connect to the story of the characters.
During the shooting it was actually interesting. We were shooting the chambers. The second chamber and third chamber had been on the stage, and they [had not] been leaving during the day. They were not going to the trailer or to the room or [anything] like that.
Q: How did you deal with some of the nudity, some of those types of scenes, and how did the actors kind of react to those scenes in particular?
AH: I told them that we wanted to try to be as real as possible and to show all the dimensions of those characters and what's going on.
I was inspired very much by the man who I put in the beginning of the movie [Marek Edelman], the medical man. [He] was a very important Jewish figure in Poland and was the last commandant of the ghetto uprising. After the war, he was in the opposition to the Communists and he was also a very famous professor of cardiology. Very wise and very brave, non-conformist man.
Before dying two years ago, he wrote the book called Resisting the Holocaust: Fighting Back in the Warsaw Ghetto. He was always obsessed about making the movie that would show the people in the ghetto were loving. In some way, he never had such a rich erotic life during those years in the ghetto.
It was fucking, it was [an] erotic dimension, a sexual dimension, also a very altruistic dimension, just the closeness. Even in the bunker, when the commandants of the uprising had been hiding, and after they died, they were fucking all the time when they were not fighting.
So I thought that I have to show it. I have also to break this kind of faceless, bodiless vision of the angelic victims [who are just noble, and I think it's not true.
Q: Did you discover things or were certain feelings and attitudes brought up about the Holocaust?
AH: I don't know. I have always the impression that I know it in some way.
I learned when I was six that I'm partly Jewish from my mother, who is not Jewish. Her vision of the Judaists was an experience of the Holocaust. For her, to be Jew means to be a Holocaust victim, and she had incredible interest, compassion, for this experience. She was also saving the Jews during the war as a very young girl, so it was a very courageous act.
So for me for a long time, to be a Jew meant to be the Holocaust victim or Holocaust survivor, and to have this burden of the memory and the duty to remember.
Only later, when I'd grown up and I had the possibility to connect any kind of the other aspects of Jewish history or religion, culture or whatever, everyday life, and to read, I realized that the Holocaust in some way was the most terrible and murder, but the episode [was not central] to what the Jewish identity is.
I'm not mystical, really, but sometimes I play with that. I started to think that probably I lived during the Holocaust because I feel it so well. And maybe I died after and was reborn in my body or whatever. Anyway, my knowledge of the details was surprising to myself, especially before I really started to make the extended research.
So I think that this double identity and the fact that I was so close in times, at the same time because I have this double identity, I'm never looking from only [one] side on those stories.
I cannot [say] that I am objective, but I'm certainly much more objective than most of the people who are dealing with those stories. And I'm not interested in judging. I'm interested in approaching what I think could be truth of that without being judgmental on any level.
Q: Besides reading the book this is based on, when you were talking to the family members, were there any elements that you ended up putting in the film?
AH: When I did this movie, I was already talking to probably a thousand survivors. I'm not speaking about my family, but some of the people who survived in my family and told me to an extent their experiences of the story.
A lot of friends of my parents have been Jews and some of them have been sharing the experience, and they read the book, which was accessible to me.
But after doing Europa Europa, I traveled a lot over the world with the movie, with the Q&A and meeting the audience. It was 20 years ago, so it was a lot of the people who were still alive.
Now it's less of them, because in this time they'd be in their 60s. And after every screening, it was at least like three, five, sometimes 10 people who came to me and who said, "Listen, this is an incredible film, an incredible story, but my story…" and they told me their story.
I was stupid enough not to collect them, not to record them or something. But a lot of them stayed in my memories. So I already had a pretty rich knowledge of the different facts and destinies and details.
For this movie, I read. I didn't know too much about Lvov because there are very few survivors of the Lvov ghetto, so there are not so many of the memories.
Q: Did you used something from [____]'s biography?
AH: It was [19:20]'s story. For example, he went to the concentration camps; he did this courageous stuff. And I actually met a lot of his family, because they moved to London after the war. They were a loving couple until the end. They have two children. Two granddaughters live in New York, and they came to the premier in the Toronto Film Festival.
I was showing the movie in LA and the daughter came with another granddaughter, and the grandson, who's a rabbi in Los Angeles.
Q: As a woman and as a strong director, did that help you in getting those emotions out and getting all that fierceness in the very beginning? It was very, very powerful.
AH: I don't know. Probably, yeah, it is different being the woman and telling this story for sure. But I am not analyzing myself.
The actors are more open with me, also, and more trustful, maybe because I am a woman -- they don't need to be macho or something. They know that it doesn't work with me, so they are very humble, they are very open.
Q: Europa Europa was a wonderful, exciting film. The style was more playful and incorporated a lot of fantasy scenes, like Stalin and Hitler dancing. Over the years, would you say you changed your style?
AH: I think I have something like my style in those episodic things, but at the same time, I'm very much serving the story. My style is changing depending on the truth of the story.
Europa Europa, from the beginning, I wanted to make it [a] kind of philosophical fable, like Candide by Voltaire. And I did also like the comic books. It never goes to the depth of the psychological things, it's a little superficial in some way, and it has this epic dimension. Here is something very intimate and very restrained in some way and very close to the people. Most of the shots are closeups.
And this story is like that. I cannot imagine tell[ing] this story in the way I was telling Europa Europa, and I cannot imagine telling Europa Europa in this way. It's a different song.
Q: It says that you bought the last copy of the book on Amazon.
AH: It's the screenwriter. First, I read the script. I didn't know even [if] it was a true story. He sent me the script without the notes about the background, and I found the script very interesting.
Actually, it wasn't written like a true story, which is the strength of that. When you are doing the true story, mostly you simplify the things because you don't want to tell something bad about the real people. This was written with a lot of freedom, and I make even more of the liberties when doing it.
Q: You show prayer underground and we can hear prayer. You hide them under the Catholic church. What kind of prayer?
AH: When they hear it for the first time, they are [25:30].
Q: For you it was important what kind of prayer?
AH: Yeah, more of the sound, but it had some meaning, also.,Q: And Jewish meaning?
AH: Jewish prayer, which is during the Passover, and upstairs it's the First Communion. But in reality, it was in hiding under the particular church in Lvov.
Q: That was really a great juxtaposition to have the praying above and the praying below. Did you consider it an equally important, impactful scene?
Q: Well, the sewers were right underneath the church.
This duality of the religions is important to me. There's also another scene when the child [who] was killed by the mother is burned by Socha, and the Jews in the background don't want to go out. But they are there, they are making the Kaddish, and he's putting the child and he's praying to his God. I don't have the conclusion about it.
Q: Is it important to you to put a more complex face on the Holocaust?
AH: Yeah. If you are reading the memoirs of the people, the statements of the survivors, they are mostly very complex. Not everybody, because sometimes it's a little sentimental, nostalgic memories of something. But most of the people are very honest with themselves, and they are very complex and complicated.
But after the movies, or some books, it's changed to some kind of sentimental kitsch and I think that it's bad.
From the educational point of view, it has some advantages. I think that, for example, Holocaust, the TV series in the '70s, which was pretty kitschy, really changed the [consciousness] of Americans. It was very important.
So I'm supporting this. But I think at the same time, now we are at the point when, because the people who have been the witnesses of that are dying, we don't want the truth to die with them and change the Holocaust to some kind of a sentimental legend.
That, I think, is very dangerous, because the only lesson that you can have from the Holocaust is that it can happen again.
Q: In the movie, the Poles didn't know that Jesus was a Jew. That was a really good thing to throw in there.
AH: My nanny, who was an illiterate Polish peasant woman and was wonderful, she told it to me as a secret.
Q: You directed the pilot and the finale for Treme. How did that come about?
AH: Well, I did some episodes of The Wire before for David Simon, and apparently he liked what I did. So he [asked] me to do the pilot of Treme, which was a totally new experience to me. I'd never been to New Orleans before.
Q: Did you like it?
AH: Loved it. But in the same time, I've seen the darker sides of that as well. It was pretty challenging how to express the city -- and the music, especially.
Q: You received an Emmy nomination for the episode, right?
Q: What are you doing next?
AH: A miniseries for Czech HBO in Prague about 1968, '69 in Prague, which was my youth in Prague. Not a very nice story.
I really want to make a comedy. No one wants to finance a comedy of mine.
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