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The Warsaw Voice » World of Movies » January 26, 2012
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In Darkness
January 26, 2012   
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Agnieszka Holland’s latest film, In Darkness, is based on the true story of Leopold Socha, a Pole from Lvov who transformed from a small-time crook into a hero during World War II.

Socha decided to help a group of Jews from the Lvov ghetto by keeping them hidden in the sewers for many months. Initially, he demanded to be paid for his help. Later, however, he decided to help Jews selflessly. What seemed like an opportunity to strike it rich developed into an emotional bond between Socha and the fugitives, turning into a heroic battle for their lives.

Holland said of her film, “The main character is ambiguous: seemingly a good family man, yet a petty thief and a crook, religious and immoral at the same time, perhaps an ordinary man, living in terrible times. During the story Socha grows in many ways as a human being. There is nothing easy or sentimental in his journey. This is why it’s fascinating; it’s why we can take this journey with him.”

The screenplay, by David F. Shamoon, was inspired by Robert Marshall’s book In the Sewers of Lvov: A Heroic Story of Survival from the Holocaust, which was published in the United States in 1990. This book, in turn, was inspired by the diary of Ignacy Chiger, the father of Krystyna Chiger, one of the characters in the film, at that time a small girl. She too, many years later, described this story in her book The Girl in the Green Sweater.

In Darkness is Poland’s candidate for an Oscar in the best foreign-language film category. It stars Robert Więckiewicz as Socha and has an international cast of actors including Maria Schrader (Silver Bear award winner at the International Film Festival in Berlin), Benno Fürmann, Agnieszka Grochowska and Kinga Preis.

The film has been well received by audiences and reviewers alike. It has been compared to Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List and Roman Polanski’s The Pianist. It won the viewers’ choice award at the International Film Festival in Mar Del Plata, an award for best director at the Valladolid International Film Festival, and best film award at the St. Louis International Film Festival. The film also met with an enthusiastic reception at prestigious festivals in Toronto and Telluride.

Critic Joe Morgenstern wrote in The Wall Street Journal, “A brave epic film, far from conventional entertainment; the suspense here, derived from a true story, is excruciating and inspiring in equal measure. The hero, Socha (a perfect performance by Robert Więckiewicz) brings Oskar Schindler to mind because he’s a Gentile who decides to save Jewish lives. Otherwise, Socha’s story is singular and superbly dramatic, the evolution of an obtuse anti-Semite into a guardian angel.”

The Hollywood Reporter’s Todd McCarthy said, “Using a Red system camera and illuminating the underground scenes almost entirely by flashlight, Holland and cinematographer Jolanta Dylewska successfully create an oppressive, suffocating, terrifying subterranean world where everything could end in a second or go on indefinitely. Some interludes, particularly one in which the two children get lost in the maze of tunnels and a sudden underground flood is triggered by a rain storm, are particularly tense, but Holland generally resists the impulse to create trumped-up suspense for its own sake.”

After the premiere screening of the film in Poland, Polish President Bronisław Komorowski said, “I think this film by Agnieszka Holland is one of the answers to what should be done to make sure the world continues to reflect on the border between heroism and cynicism, between a greed for money and altruism, between heroism and cowardice—because in life it usually happens that these qualities co-exist and are sometimes very close to each other and separated only by a very thin line, and it takes great strength of character as well as great courage to talk about that today.”

Krystyna Chiger, the last surviving member of the group of Jews who hid in the sewers of Lvov, watched the film as it premiered at the festival in Toronto. She summed up the show by telling Holland, “You pulled it off. That’s exactly how it was.”

The cinematography on In Darkness is by Jolanta Dylewska, winner of the Golden Frog grand prix award of the Plus Camerimage 2011 International Festival of the Art of Cinematography in Łódź.

The film was produced by Poland’s Zebra film studios in co-production with Germany and Canada. The rights for distributing the film in the United States were acquired in February 2011 by Sony Pictures Classics, which specializes in promoting and distributing non-English-language films in the U.S. Sony Pictures Classics has 116 Oscar nominations and 27 statuettes to its name. The distributor has organized several previews in the United States to enable the film to compete for Academy Awards in other categories as well.

Marzena Robinson

Dark Truth
“At first, I did not want at all to make this film,” Agnieszka Holland said at a press conference before the Polish premiere of In Darkness. “What convinced me was above all the incredible persistence of the screenwriter. The fact that producers had agreed that everything should be done in Polish, with historical languages, Polish actors and with a largely Polish team, gave me the strength to make this film.”

Holland returns to the subject of the Holocaust because, as she says, the greatest mystery still remains unsolved. “Someone could ask if everything has not already been said on this subject. I think the greatest mystery is still unsolved. How was this crime at all possible? Are these developments an exception in human history, or do they perhaps reveal a deeper and dark truth about our nature?” Holland said, stressing that in her film she had tried to show people in all their complexity. “This is not a film with a thesis, a film against someone, defending someone or accusing someone,” Holland added.

The director wanted the actors to speak the languages that had actually been used at the time in the places that the film depicts. The Polish actors had to learn the local dialect of Lvov as well as Yiddish and Ukrainian. The German actors learned Polish. “I think there are no other films where so many actors had to learn languages about which they did not have the foggiest idea,” Holland said. “The production of this film was a sort of Tower of Babel and a language school.”

Cinematographer Jolanta Dylewska spoke about the challenges she faced while shooting the film. “It was difficult, though at the same time it spurred me on to be hugely inventive. Whereas most directors in my previous films would have said, ‘Add some light’ Agnieszka said, ‘Make it darker.’”

Robert Więckiewicz, who plays the leading role, admitted that the film was specially difficult for him. “First of all, the conditions in which the film was shot were difficult. Second, the story we were telling was difficult—I mean its emotional charge, the tragic nature of those events,” said the actor, adding that he had been specially moved by scenes with children.

Factfile: Agnieszka Holland
Film director and screenwriter. Born in 1948 in Warsaw, studied at FAMU (Film and Television School of the Academy of Performing Arts in Prague), from which she graduated in 1971. After graduation, she returned to Poland to begin her career under the guidance of acclaimed Polish director Andrzej Wajda. She worked as an assistant to Krzysztof Zanussi on the film Iluminacja (1972). She made her debut with the television film Evening at Abdon’s (Wieczór u Abdona) (1975). The first cinema film she directed was Provincial Actors (Aktorzy prowincjonalni) (1978), a key movie of the so-called cinema of moral anxiety of the 1970s. The film won an award from the International Federation of Film Critics (FIPRESCI) at the Cannes Film Festival in 1980. Earlier, Holland also directed theater plays, frequently with her husband, Czech director Laco Adamik. In 1981, she emigrated to France.

After leaving Poland, she continued to make films about people looking for happiness and fulfillment without having to make compromises. This subject matter is evident in both Washington Square (1997) and Europa, Europa (1990), for which she won an Oscar nomination for best adapted screenplay and a BAFTA award nomination for best foreign language film. The movie also won a Golden Globe award for best foreign language film and awards from the New York Film Critics Association (NYFCC), the Boston Society of Film Critics (BSFC), and the Los Angeles Film Critics Association (LAFCA). This last award was for the score by Zbigniew Preisner.

Holland was nominated for an Oscar earlier as well—in 1986 for the film Angry Harvest (Gorzkie żniwa). She collaborated with her friend, director Krzysztof Kieślowski, on the films making up the famous Trois couleurs trilogy, contributing to the scripts for Bleu and Rouge.

Her filmography includes movies such as To Kill a Priest (1988), Olivier, Olivier (1992), The Secret Garden (1993), Total Eclipse (1995), Washington Square (1997), The Third Miracle (1999), Shot in the Heart (2001), produced by HBO, Julie Walking Home (2001), Copying Beethoven (2006), and The True Story of Janosik and Uhorcik (Janosik. Prawdziwa historia) (2009). Earlier, before leaving Poland, she made films that have become a permanent fixture of Polish cinema: Screen Tests (Zdjęcia próbne) (1977), Provincial Actors (1978), Gorączka. Dzieje jednego pocisku (1980), A Lonely Woman (Kobieta samotna) (1981) and Postcards from Paris (Pocztówki z Paryża) (1982).

In 2007, she was honored with a retrospective of her films at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.

Besides cinema Holland is also involved in television productions. In 2007, she directed, together with her daughter Kasia Adamik and sister Magdalena Łazarkiewicz, the Polish political series Ekipa. She has also directed foreign series, such as: Fallen, Lords of the Street and Cold Case. David Simon, the author of the series Lords of the Street, invited Holland to work with him on his next series, Treme. For directing a pilot episode for that series, entitled “Do You Know What It Means,” Holland received an Emmy nomination in 2010.

Factfile: Robert Więckiewicz
Prolific Polish stage and screen actor, born in 1967, graduated from the State Theater School in Wrocław in 1993. Made his debut in 1993, with a role in Jerzy Skolimowski’s Ferdydurke. Has played in over 30 films. Won many Polish film awards, including at the Polish Film Festival in Gdynia for best actor in All Will Be Well (Wszystko będzie dobrze) (2007), three Eagle awards for his roles in the films All Will Be Well, How Much Does the Trojan Horse Weigh? (Ile waży koń trojański) (2009) and Little Rose (Różyczka) (2011), six Golden Duck nominations (in 2008 for All Will Be Well; in 2009 for How Much Does the Trojan Horse Weigh?; in 2010 for Kołysanka, Little Rose and Zero; and in 2011 for Zwerbowana miłość), and the 27th Warsaw Film Festival Special Jury Award for best actor for his role in the film Courage (Wymyk) (2011).

In the latest film from director Andrzej Wajda, Więckiewicz will play legendary Solidarity leader Lech Wałęsa.

Więckiewicz is also a respected stage actor. He has performed in theaters including the Polski Theater in Poznań, and the Rozmaitości, Montownia, Laboratorium Dramatu and the National Theater in Warsaw.
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