An interview with Agnieszka Holland

Agnieszka Holland

Polish film director Agnieszka Holland is no stranger to the Academy Awards.

In 1985, her film Angry Harvest received a nomination for Best Foreign Language Film. Since then, she’s directed such acclaimed movies as The Secret Garden, Total Eclipse and Europa, Europa.

Her latest film, In Darkness, hit theaters this weekend. Set in the Polish town of Lvov in 1943, the film tells the true story of Leopold Socha, a Polish sewer inspector who risks his life to help Jewish people hide in the sewers from the atrocities of the world above.

In Darkness

As riveting as it is unique, the movie has garnered a Best Foreign Language Film nomination at this year’s Oscars, now only a few weeks away. I caught up with Holland about the movie, the Academy Awards, what’s next on her plate and more.

AN: I read that upon first reading the script for In Darkness, you were not too keen about making this film. What were your initial trepidations about the movie and what changed your mind?

AH: There were many reasons. I liked the script but didn’t like the idea of spending the next two to three years of my life in the ghettos and sewers. I did two “Holocaust” movies before and knew how hard and painful it is for the director. You need to live though this experience in some sort of way. I also felt that for most critics, Holocaust films are not “sexy” anymore, so I knew that it would be difficult (especially after all the suffering of making the film) to sell and promote a movie with this subject. And, most importantly, I didn’t want to make another English language Holocaust movie, which was what the producers had planned. But David Shamoon, the writer who found the story and wrote the script, was stubborn and perseverant. He kept sending me the newest versions of the script until I started dreaming images from the story. Then the producers agreed to shoot the film in its original language.

AN: Why do you think this is such an important story to tell?

AH: Situation, characters, choices, the development of the human relationships, challenges, the absurdity of those horrors and the irrational hate that was sometimes overcome by glimpses of responsibility and some kind of love. What is important to us? What the human being is capable of? How could things like that happen? And what do we do when faced with this kind of situation? The mystery of this experience was not resolved yet and probably never will be. But those situations are so extremely dramatic that we can see the human soul totally naked in them.

AN: Can you talk to me a little bit about nationalism vs. morality in In Darkness? Did you find these two things to be mutually exclusive in the context of the film?

AH: No, it is not such a clear division for me. The human attitude is dynamic: you can be a nationalistic pig and still find in yourself some kind of the moral imperative to help people you theoretically despise. You can be the man with the highest morality and never find the courage to do the good deed. For me, the evil is easy to understand. It’s the good that is completely mysterious. Why do some people overcome the hate and fear and risk their lives to help others? Socha is an interesting example, because he even doesn’t want to do so. It is not part of his map of values. But at some point, he just has to do it, against his will and convictions.

AN: How has the film been received in Poland?

AH: Fantastically, to my surprise. It’s had great success at the box office and in its reception by very different people: young and old, educated and non-educated, left and right. Even some people on the extra right are sometimes deeply moved. The people there are very focused when watching this film. They don’t move for over 2 hours. They even are unable to eat their popcorn. They often cry and afterwards, they feel the need to share, discuss and talk about their experience. It really is an experience – not just a movie.

AN: In Darkness is the ninth Polish movie to be nominated for a Best Foreign Language Film Academy Award. If it wins, it’ll mark the first time that Poland has ever received this honor. Does this put you under a lot of pressure?

AH: Oh, yes. In a country like Poland, this kind of competition becomes the national issue and it doesn’t matter that I have Jewish roots; I am a Polish national hero for one moment and I have to keep the flame burning high. It is very touching but I feel the pressure. When I was nominated before, it was just my private issue and I was really cool about it. Here, if I don’t win (which doesn’t depend on me anymore), I will be deceiving my people. But you know, by the end it is just a game. What’s important is that the movie did reach the heart of Polish audiences and in some small way, it will change the way they see themselves and other people.

AN: Aside from In Darkness, what was your favorite movie out of the other nominees for Best Foreign Language Film?
AH: I haven’t seen all of them. But I have a very high opinion about A Separation. It is a difficult category and has more good movies then in the English speaking lot (in my opinion), and already some very strong movies have been left behind. So the nomination is already a big victory and I certainly have good opponents to lose with.

AN: There are two different worlds in In Darkness – there’s the world above ground and the world within the sewers. What were some of the key tactics you employed to show the distinctions between the two?

AH: The way of lighting, of course: real darkness in the underground and much brighter and warmer up ground. The camera is more hectic down. I showed the people in the film mostly by close-ups. The action is often fragmentary, partly hidden.

AN: Protagonist Leopold Socha is a fascinating character because he’s not a typical hero. In fact, he is shown as being influenced by the anti-Semitic agenda and only beginning to help Jews in exchange for money. Yet ultimately, he decides to do the right thing and dedicate his life to saving Jews. What were the biggest challenges that you and actor Robert Wieckiewicz faced in bringing this complex man back to life?

AH: The movie would be not what it is without Robert. He’s able to show all this ambiguous quality: to be sensitive and primitive at the same time, clever and stupid, brutal and gentle. We see the man who is street smart and selfish, full of stereotypes but gradually feeling real responsibility for those he called “lice.” The key was not to show one moment of change. This change is not linear. It is like walking on the wire: two steps forward, one step back and you can slip down at any moment. On the side of good or on the side of betrayal.

AN: It wasn’t until after you had finished shooting In Darkness that you learned that there was still a remaining survivor who emerged from the sewers of Lvov. Tell me about the first time you met Krystyna Chiger (who is portrayed as an 8-year-old girl in your film). What was her reaction to the way you depicted her story?

AH:It was very touching. We met with her and her husband Marian in one Soho restaurant in New York. I was excited and afraid. Afraid she will be angry that I didn’t contact her before (I was told that no one from the sewer was alive anymore); afraid she would not accept the movie. But she’s a very open, generous and wise person. She embraced the film, was touched by it, found it deeply true and is doing everything possible to support it all over the world. Afterwards, I met many other people: the children and grand children of my characters. Even one man, who was watching them come out from the sewers, the real and unique witness of those events. This movie brought all of them together.

AN: You’ve made a number of films about World War II in the past, including Europa, Europa and The Angry Harvest. What is it about this period of time that has you continuing to explore more about it in your art?

AH: It was the most extreme experience in the history of humanity. It is not over. It can happen again in any moment and in any place. I don’t believe we can ever fully understand the nature of this virus. But we can try to explore it, actualize it and bring it to life for new generations.

AN: I read that up next for you is Christine: War My Love, a biopic of Polish Special Operations Executive agent Krystyna Skarbek. What can you tell me about this project? What drew you to Krystyna’s story?

AH: I don’t think it will be my next or even the one after next. It is a complex, expensive project and far away from being financed. The character of this woman and her destiny fascinated me. But right now I am starting a 3-part miniseries for Czech HBO about the situation in Czechoslovakia in 1969 – after the Prague Spring and Soviet intervention. The story starts with the young student, Jan Palach, who died via self-immolation to protest the lack of freedom in his country and the resignation of his people. I was there, a student at the Prague Film School myself at time, so the story is very close to me.

AN: In addition to film, you’ve also forayed into the world of television by directing episodes of shows such as The Wire, Treme and The Killing. From a director’s perspective, what do you think are the fundamental differences between these two mediums?

AH: Time to shoot (shorter). Length of the form (you have several episodes to tell the story and develop the characters, not 2 hours like in a movie). The best television fiction allows the complexity and depth. Also, the director – if he or she’s not one of the creators of the series, it is the medium where he or she is less independent. It is very much the writer’s medium. But I like doing it sometimes. It’s quick, intense and often brilliant.

AN: Can you tell me what and who you will be wearing to the Academy Awards?

AH: I don’t know yet. Some friends – costume designers – are preparing some outfit for me. I will be going with my closest collaborators and with Kristina Chiger. Unfortunately, the Academy doesn’t give us enough places to take everybody who deserves to be there.

AN: And for my final question: You started out your career as an assistant director to the Academy Award-winning and prolific filmmaker Andrzej Wajda. What is the best advice he gave you that has stuck with you ever since?

AH: So many that I cannot remember just one. Mostly it was about doing what you believe in and not to forget about the audience.

AN: Thank you so much, Agnieszka! I really appreciate your time and wish you the best of luck at the Academy Awards in a few weeks.

Agnieszka Holland

Alex has been writing for PopBytes since 2011. As the Theater Editor, he focuses on all aspects of Broadway, Off-Broadway, Regional Theater, and beyond. Alex lives in Western Massachusetts and can be found on Twitter at @AlexKNagorski.