Who: Agnieszka Holland is a Polish-born filmmaker whose feature directing career began in 1978, and has been highlighted with three Oscar nominations. The first was a Best Foreign Language nomination for 1985′s Angry Harvest, about a Polish Catholic farmer who hides an Austrian Jewish refugee during World War II. The second was a Best Adapted Screenplay nomination for 1990′s Europa Europa, about the harrowing experiences of teenaged Solomon Perel, who hides his Jewish identity to evade the Holocaust. Her 2011 film, In Darkness earned a Best Foreign Language nomination at this year’s Academy Awards ceremony, and concerns a dozen Polish Jews who spent 14 months hiding in the city sewers of Nazi-occupied Lvov, and the Polish Catholic sewer worker (and sometime-thief) named Leopold Socha who proved to be their savior. The film opens in U.S. theaters on Friday, February 10th with screenings in New York and Los Angeles.
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How did you depict the wartime relationship between Lvov’s Catholics and Jews?
In the script and in the story it was shown in quite an unconventional way, and I think a deeply honest way. It means neither Poles nor Jews are the angelic faceless people, or the innocent victims only, or the bad guys only. So the complexity of this relationship, and kind of the objective point of view, I really liked it in this story. And I think what happened to Socha, it is not sentimental, it is not moralistic. It’s very ambiguous, until some point. And it’s dramatic, because for a long time you don’t know what he will do, and he doesn’t know himself. What he finally does, which is good, is a surprise to himself. But what is also interesting is I am from a mixed family. My mother is Polish, my father was a Jew. But my mother was not like a typical Polish Catholic person. She’s not a believer. She was as a young girl saving a Jewish family, and has the title of Righteous Among the Nations and the tree in Jerusalem, and she was always very sensitive to the subject. But I have explored the Polish anti-Semitism and the Jewish Anti-Polishness for a long time, and I know how dramatic, complex and traumatic it was. But at the same time, to show how it’s possible to pass this border when you see in another person not the enemy or stranger, but somebody who is human. And you know, [Socha] has all these stereotypes he was born and raised with by the community, by the church, by everybody. [The Jews] also don’t trust him. They treat him as a possible enemy, and there’s even some moments where the most courageous person in the group, Mundak Margulies, wants to kill him. So you see the complexity of that. And you see also how they are overcoming the things, and that it’s a slow and difficult process.
The real Socha was a worker, and he was also a crook. Before the war, he was twice or three times in prison for robbery. And after he married, actually he started to have a more respectable life. But he was on the bottom [of Polish society]. He wasn’t an intellectual. He wasn’t a middle-class guy. He was the working-class.
There’s some captions when the film ends, saying Socha was killed by a drunken Soviet in a truck, he died, and then that at his funeral somebody said, “God’s punishment for saving the Jews.” And it happened in reality. Krystyna Chiger and other survivors have been the witnesses of this, and it wasn’t uncommon. I put it in because it was what was felt by many people in Poland after the war — that it wasn’t right helping Jews. And the Righteous Among the Nations, they’d been mostly in hiding. You know, they didn’t come out and say, “We’ve been saving Jews.” No, they rather didn’t talk about it. I remember in ’68 when Władysław Bartoszewski, who was one of the persons organizing the Polish Home Army, the organization to help the Jews who had been in hiding in Warsaw, he wrote a book called He is From My Home Country, about people who had been saving Jews. And he had the big problem of getting the permission of those people to give their real names. And it’s changing only in the last 10 years. I think it’s an incredible change from this point of view, and for reasons which are very complicated and complex. It was also because some books have been published by Jan Thomas Gross and other Polish historians pointing to the very painful and terrible facts from Polish-Jewish relations during the German occupation, when some Poles killed their neighbors, and some Poles were also blackmailing. And you know, that relatively big group of Polish society had been Hitler’s helpers during this time. And those books are of course very painful for the Polish conscience, because Poles look at themselves as heroic innocent victims, and they are not used to playing the different role in history. And suddenly, they have to face those facts which are facts, and to deal morally and psychologically with that. And it is a process, but I think it’s a very positive process for most of the population. Of course, you always have the groups which absolutely refuse these facts. But it’s not like Turkey, for example, where the government and everybody is refusing responsibility for the Armenian genocide. In Poland, the main politicians, Presidents of the country and Prime Ministers, they took this responsibility and they tried to repair those relationships and to analyze them in an honest way. And paradoxically, at the same time, when the Poles had to face the fact that they had not been the innocent victims only, they also wanted to embrace this part of the population which had been heroically helping Jews during the war. So suddenly, those people who had been non-existent in the Polish conscience as the real national heroes, they became the national heroes. It is an interesting change. For example, in the obituaries, Poles are very close to the question of the dead, and have funerals and all of that. So the section of the obituaries in Polish newspapers is mostly much bigger than in any newspapers, and it’s a lot of the eulogies about the dead people. And for the first time, lately I’ve started to [notice] quite often the mention in the obituary that, “He was Righteous Among the Nations.” Before, it was unthinkable, and now it’s the reason for the family to be proud.
How did you and the film’s leads become involved in this project?
I was courted by the producers, because I was refusing to make this film for quite a long time. And the screenwriter, who is Canadian, David Shamoon contacted me and sent several versions of the script, and was very insistent. Because I did another two Holocaust movies, and I wrote one, and I’m very knowledgeable about it, and read everything which is possible to read, and talked with the people. I knew it was so painful to go through that, and making the movie is a long process. It means you are spending at least three years of your life dealing with this subject. And I thought, “I did it already. It’s enough.” And another reason why I was hesitating was that I didn’t want to make it, as most of the Holocaust movies are made these days, in English with some kind of international Hollywood stars. I felt that if I want to tell this story, and at some point it started to haunt me, I have to do it in a very alternative way, and to try to make the real journey to this time and place to give the [viewer] the feeling they are watching the reality, not the theatrical version of the reality.
Robert Wieckiewicz is a fantastic actor, and his career in Polish cinema started quite late, but he did some important movies. And when I saw him for the first time, it was probably like five or six years ago. I thought, “I want to work with this guy.” And when I read David Shamoon’s script, even before I had accepted it, I had immediately his face in my mind. So, I thought he would be perfect for this part. And also, Kinga Preis, who plays his wife is also a very interesting actress, and I always wanted to work with her. So, I thought she would be perfect for the wife. The rest of the group I was casting with the casting tests, but I knew most of the actors before. I wanted them to be really believable.
It means I cast some really thin actresses. But I told the other group that they had to try to go on a diet, which they did to some extent. You cannot really cast only from this point of view, but it was important to me that they were not fat. And it was difficult to cast the children, because I wanted them to be very present all of the time without acting too much. The actors have been incredibly generous and really hardworking. And the conditions of the shooting have been really difficult.
What were those filming conditions like for the sewer scenes?
We’ve been shooting in Germany and Poland, and the sewers have been built on the stage by the German production designer. And about 20%, we shot in the real sewers in Lodz and in Leipzig. And there, it was really difficult. It was technically difficult. The conditions have been really harsh. But even on the stage, it wasn’t very easy. It was a very harsh winter, and it was probably the most difficult shoot I ever had. Also, we didn’t have enough money, enough time, so it was fighting every day to do what was necessary to do. And the actors, they also learned the languages, because it’s several languages in this story. German actors had to learn Polish. Polish actors had to learn Lvov slang, which is very specific. And Yiddish, I had some Yiddish-speaking people there who learned Polish a bit. It means it was like a language school for some moments. But I think it helped them in the process of going through the characters.
They were in real sewers in Lodz, but not shit sewers. They were in water sewers, which join the shit sewers at some points. And in Berlin, we shot once in the shit sewers, which was pretty bad. But the sewers are very sticky. They are very claustrophobic. And if you spend more than two or three hours, you have a problem with breathing. So, I don’t know how they survived it — especially the Lvov sewers. The real sewers of the story were probably the worst among those I visited.
For example, the chambers are tighter. The chambers where they had been hiding were lower. In reality, it was like 150 centimeters, meaning a grownup person has to duck down. We made it a little bigger. Because if not, it would be very difficult to shoot. Where the children were shot, it was the best. The children have been comfortable.
You know, when you talk to Krystyna Chiger, who is the last survivor of this story, who was the little girl in the film, she wrote in her book — which is a very wonderful book, that I can advise you to read it, The Girl in the Green Sweater — that in some ways the stay in the sewer, this year and two months, was the happiest part of her childhood. Because when the Germans came, the children were taken quite quickly from the parents to send to the gas chambers. So her parents had kept the two kids in hiding in small places, and they’d been alone in the dark for the entire day when the parents had been working. So when they finally went to the sewer, they spent all the time with their parents, and they felt safe. And they became friends even with the rats. They’d been treating the rats like their pets. So, everything is very subjective. I think for those who survived the sewers, it was a terrible experience, but it probably wasn’t the worse one.
What has the response been like in Poland to this film?
The response is incredibly strong. I didn’t dream that it would be such a strong response. Both on the level of the box office, that the people are going to a cinema and watching this film, and for this kind of movie, I think it will probably be one of the biggest successes ever in Polish box office [returns]. But also, the emotional reaction of the audience is very strong. I had a lot of letters, a lot of text messages from total strangers, and everybody who’s been in the theaters tell that the people are sitting in total silence for 2-and-a-half hours. Even if they bought popcorn at the beginning, they never touch it during the screening. It’s very emotional. So I think that it’s a good lesson in some ways. And I didn’t want it to be against anyone. I didn’t want to make this film as a district attorney. I wanted to show all the complexity of the human condition. And I think it pays off, because the people can identify with this main character in Poland, but identify also with the people in the sewers. And [Polish viewers] don’t feel attacked, but they feel concerned, which I think is good.