Director Agnieszka Holland is striving for reality and honesty in her film about Polish Jews hiding from the Nazis
By Stephen Applebaum, March 8, 2012
It is late January and two days since Agnieszka Holland's tough Holocaust film, In Darkness, was nominated for the foreign-language film Oscar. She has been in this position before, but 2012 is the first time that the 63-year-old director has represented her homeland: Poland. On the night, the prize will go to Iran's A Separation. For now, though, Holland feels like she is carrying the weight of the Polish people on her shoulders.
"It's like God gave me the honour of Poles and now I have to win the World Cup," she says in heavily accented English. "Normally I am cool about these things, but today I am really nervous."
In Darkness has not been an easy project. Having covered the Holocaust in Angry Harvest and Europa, Europa, the film that broke her in America, and as a screenwriter on Andrzej Wajda's Korzcak - whose final scene led to Holland, the daughter of a Catholic mother and Jewish father, being branded antisemitic - she was not in a hurry to return to it again.
While its stories are charged with dramatic, psychological and moral potential, "you have to go into the reality very deeply, on many levels, for two or three years," she says. "So you read books, watch documentaries, watch movies, talk to people, and then you try to recreate the horrors without being superficial or kitsch. This process is so complicated and so painful that after finishing the film, you feel like you have been there in some way."
Holland (right) believes a tendency towards sentimentality has undermined recent Holocaust films.
The specific "there" in In Darkness is the rat-infested sewers of Lvov, where for 14 months a group of Jews hide from the Nazis following the liquidation of the ghetto, helped by a Polish Catholic sewer worker. The story is true but has so many incredible elements that even Holland admits she thought David Shamoon's screenplay was fiction when she first read it. Adding to this impression was the presentation of the Jewish characters as flawed individuals rather than the noble innocents often found in films. For someone who insists on the truth, in her life and her work, this honesty was appealing.
She was "irritated" by many of the Holocaust films made in the past 20 years or so, she says, because of the tendency of filmmakers to theatricalise events and, in particular, to draw moral conclusions. "I hated Life is Beautiful [Roberto Benigni's 1999 Oscar winner] for this reason. The philosophy of that was so offending to the people that went through this because it says if you love your child, you will save it. And what was worst about the Holocaust is that you could love your child, and still you could not save it… It wasn't that the right people were rewarded and the wrong people were punished, and this absurd, irrational meaninglessness is something which is crucial, I think, to this experience. If you try to embellish it and make it sentimental, you just lie."
Her commitment to the truth in In Darkness has been praised by Krystyna Chiger, the last surviving member of the Lvov Jews, who declared the film to be "very, very realistic, and accurate. What happened was so terrible that you don't need to dramatise anything. Show the truth of how it was, I think this is the best way. And I think that Agnieszka did this." Chiger had heard about the movie only after filming was completed, something Holland blames on her Canadian producers. "They'd been doing the research and told me everyone was dead," she says. When she received a letter from Chiger, she immediately set up a screening for the Long Island-based retired dentist.
"I showed her a rough cut of the film because I wanted her to have the possibility of making changes, but she didn't have any comments." What would have been the worst criticism she could have made? "That she found the spirit of the story wrong and emotionally didn't connect to it. It would mean that I'd shot very far away from the target. That, fortunately, didn't happen."
The relationship between Jews and Catholics in In Darkness, and in Holland's other Holocaust films, reflects the filmmaker's own "double identity" as a Pole and a Jew (the "battlefield", she calls it), and her personal experience of antisemitism. In contrast to her own openness, her father never spoke about being Jewish to her, and it was only when some children called her a "dirty Jew" while out playing, aged six, that she discovered this side of her heritage. "I felt intrigued and offended, and I asked my mother what it meant." Her mother, who as a member of the Polish underground had fought in the Warsaw uprising in 1944, explained that Holland's father was really Jewish and that his parents had died in the Warsaw ghetto. "She said I didn't need to feel ashamed or angry, and that I should be proud, and made a speech about Jewish martyrhood." Asked why her dad had been silent, Holland pauses for a moment. "I think he was traumatised. I think he felt guilty. He escaped at the beginning of the war and he left his family behind and they all died, except for one sister."
He later died in mysterious circumstances while being held by the secret police under suspicion of treason, a victim of one of the post-war Communist regime's antisemitic purges. The Holland name was blacklisted and although Agnieszka had several opportunities to change it, she refused, feeling it her "duty to preserve the line."
Unable to go to film school in Poland, she studied in Prague instead. When she returned home, she struggled to get her films seen. In 1981, she went into exile in France and today lives between Los Angeles and Brittany.
Does representing Poland at the Oscars feel bitter-sweet? "No, no, no," insists Holland. "After Communism fell apart I started to go there very often and got involved in the inner life, the social life, cultural life, and political life, even. This year I was listed as one of the 100 most influential and important people in Poland." She smiles. "So I am Polish, you know?"