When Canadian advertising executive David Shamoon wrote “In Darkness,” an English-language screenplay about Jews who hid from Nazis in Polish sewers, there was a natural choice for director: Agnieszka Holland.
She was born to a Catholic mother and Jewish father in Warsaw in 1948, barely three years after the Third Reich fell. She had made two acclaimed films with Holocaust themes, 1985’s “Angry Harvest” and 1990’s “Europa, Europa.” And she had worked extensively in Hollywood, directing such movies as “The Secret Garden” and “Washington Square” as well as episodes of “The Wire” and “Treme.”
Yet there was a roadblock to Holland’s filming the true story of Jews who hid under the streets of Lvov, sheltered by a Catholic sewer worker who gradually came to identify with the people he helped at first only for cash.
“I passed on it, two or three times,” says the gray-haired, black-clad director, in town in January to present “In Darkness” at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum. “Because I didn’t want to make it in English. And I was a little afraid to do this kind of movie again, for my inner health.”
The first problem was solved when the script — like Angelina Jolie’s for “In the Land of Blood and Honey” — was translated into the languages of its characters. That’s why “In Darkness” is vying for this year’s foreign language film Oscar.
“For me, it was absolutely obvious,” Holland says. “I didn’t want to make another Holocaust story in English. I just felt that it would be fake.
“When an American director like Spielberg does it, it’s natural to him. But for me, it was the first step to have any right to tell this story. I thought a lot of things would be lost in translation. Especially with Lvov, which was multicultural and multilingual” (and is now the Ukrainian city of Lviv).
So Holland — who divides her time among Los Angeles; Brittany, France; and Poland — had the screenplay rendered into several languages. These include such nearly lost ones as Yiddish and Bolak, a working-class Polish dialect. “Only a small part of the audience can really appreciate it,” she says. “But I think it’s like music. If the music is different, you feel the movie differently.”
The director also resisted making “In Darkness,” she says, because “it costs a lot to do a movie like this. After ‘Europa, Europa,’ I said, ‘Never again.’ Then 20 years later, I did another one. But I don’t think I will do another one in 20 years.”
Holland lists many potential dangers of addressing the Holocaust in a fictionalized feature: “Being moralistic, being sentimental, looking for some good-feeling lesson coming from this experience, because I think it’s impossible to have one. Making all the Jewish characters some kind of faceless angels. To make it black and white. To make it accusatory. To re-create cliches that have already been told many times.”
Like the director’s previous Holocaust movies, “In Darkness” presents its overwhelming subject in microcosm: A dozen Jews escape the local ghetto and find themselves under the protection of Leopold Socha, sewer rat and petty thief.
Socha is one of Holland’s favored dramatic types: anti-heroic but capable of change. “What attracted me,” she says, “is that you cannot tell exactly when the change happens. It’s the tension of the story in some way. He doesn’t know what he will do next. He’s not someone who has very strong opinions or very strong values. He’s just reacting to what’s going on, and at some point, he starts to feel responsible. It causes him to act in an irrational way. He does things that are dangerous for him and his family. It’s very complicated.”
About 20 percent of the film was shot in sewers and the rest on a German soundstage. “It would be difficult to shoot everything in real sewers,” she says. “But I visited a lot of them when I was, you know, casting the sewers. I saw at least 10 sewer systems in different cities.”
For a Polish director, making a film set in sewage tunnels naturally evokes “Kanal,” a 1956 classic about anti-Nazi resistance fighters who travel through Warsaw’s underground conduits. That film was directed by Andrzej Wajda, later a Holland mentor; she wrote or co-wrote such Wajda films as “Korczak” (also Holocaust-themed) and “Danton.”
Holland was inspired by “Kanal,” and “I was making a little homage to it. But at the same time, it is a different story. What’s important in mine is that they spent such a long time in the sewers. It means the sewer becomes their home, their life. In the bottom of Hell you can create a normal life, kind of. With loving, [sex], cooking, educating children. This aspect, this everyday-ness was, for me, very interesting.”
Once known for scripting both her own and other director’s films, Holland hasn’t directed a screenplay she wrote in nine years. “Now I am too lazy,” she says. But she came to feel that “In Darkness” was as personal to her as anything she wrote.
“From the moment I said yes, it started to haunt me. It even entered my dreams. I felt that it was mine. I was pretty pretentious in telling the writer what he had to change, but fortunately he liked my ideas. And he made them even better.”
She catches herself being pretentious. “ ‘Even better!’ — sorry.” She chuckles and edits herself. “He made them better.”
Jenkins is a freelance writer.
★(145 minutes, at Landmark’s Bethesda Row and AMC Loews Shirlington) is rated R for violence, disturbing images, sexuality, nudity and language.