Agnieszka Holland talks about In Darkness, Poland's Oscar selection


In Darkness is based on a true story. Leopold Socha, a sewer worker and petty thief in Lvov, a Nazi occupied city in Poland, one day encounters a group of Jews trying to escape the liquidation of the ghetto. He hides them for money in the labyrinth of the town’s sewers beneath the bustling activity of the city above. What starts out as a straightforward and cynical business arrangement turns into something much unexpected, the unlikely alliance between Socha and the Jews as the enterprise seeps deeper into Socha’s conscience. The film is also an extraordinary story of survival as these men; women and children all try to outwit certain death during 14 months of ever increasing and intense danger.

Agnieszka Holland, director of In Darkness was born in Warsaw in 1948 and studied at Prague’s renowned FAMU, upon which she returned to Poland. She began her film career working as assistant director to Krzysztof Zanussi and with Andrzej Wajda as her mentor. Her TV film debut was An Evening at Abdon’s (1975) and her first feature film was Provincial Actors (1978), winner of the International Critics Prize at the Cannes Film Festival in 1980.

After immigrating to France, Ms. Holland continued his filmmaking career by directing Washington Square (1997) and Europa Europa (1990), which received an Academy Award nomination for Best Screenplay and won the Golden Globe for Best Foreign Language Film. Holland also received an Academy Award nomination in 1985 for Best Foreign Language Film for Angry Harvest.

Holland’s later films include Olivier, Olivier (1992), The Secret Garden (1993), Total Eclipse (1995), Washington Square (1997), the HBO production Shot in the Heart (2001), and Julie Walking Home (2001). Her most recent films are Copying Beethoven (2006) and In Darkness (2011).

Bijan Tehrani:   What motivated to make In Darkness, reading “ In the Sewers of Lvov” by Robert Marshall?
Agnieszka Holland:   No actually it was the screenplay writer, David Shamoon that contacted me. He had found the story in the newspaper and then he had read the book. I was moved by the screenplay, then I read the book by Robert Marshall that was published in the 80s and there was a also documentary where several survivors living in Warsaw Sewers were telling their stories. David Shamoon had written his script Based on the book and the documentary. He contacted me after one of his British friends had told him that I might be interested in directing it.  Then David and a Canadian producer came together to produce the film. When I read the script I liked it but I also told David that I have done  two films dealing with the same kind of subject and I think that it is enough for me. I also did not want to make an English speaking Holocaust movie, and it is very hard to finance a film in original languages.  After watching a few American and English speaking movies dealing with the Second World War tragedies, I felt that they do not speak to me anymore and if I make this film, I have to find a way to make it most faithful to its reality. That meant make it in original languages that  characters of the film were speaking. 

BT:   It should have been challenging to make In Darkness?
AH:   This was also one of the reasons that I was tempted to make it, it is not often that you have this kind of challenge to make a film like In Darkness. Dealing with this challenge was scary but at the same time exciting. I thought that overcoming the challenges would help to express something new about the soul of this story, about a new kind of horror and the people that had to face it.

BT:   As you mentioned before, it was a great decision to shoot the film in the different languages that people were speaking; there is Polish, German, Yiddish, Romanian and I think that this really adds to the reality of the film. 
AH:   Yes, I’m not sure how Americans would receive this matter and react to  it, but people from the area where they speak those languages, had found this as a  great quality in the film.

BT:   We rarely see films that show the reality and violence of the war; you showed them very bravely in your film. How important do you think it was to show the brutality that war brings?
AH:   It is always a challenge also, you have the props of this periods that have been used and reused and there are some of the images that have been used so many times that they have lost their emotional impact, so the challenge was to renew them and to find ways to show them and also in a way that would be emotionally awakening. 

BT:   Did you make any changes to David Shamoon’s screenplay?
AH :   I think  that the second draft that I read was very efficient, after we worked with the writer and we made several drafts and discussed it with the actors and I gave myself some possibilities to improvise. I think that the structure of the original scripts was good and we just tried to make it a little less conventional.  But we still wanted to keep the tension up.  Making movies is like cooking and you add different spices here and there and at the end of the process you will be able to see I if it works or not. When we did the first rough editing, the film was around four hours, but after I screened it to myself I knew that it would work,  because it had the emotional tension I wanted and people would love the story even it was a difficult one.  

BT:   The lighting of In Darkness is almost like a character in the film, how did you conceive the way you wanted to light the film?
AH :   We had Jolanta Dylewska , a female cinematographer, I knew and admired her work,  but we were working together for the first time.  We a had lot of discussion about the extent of the darkness and we wanted it to be very non compromising,  to go for the real dark and to try not to make those sewer  look too spectacular; which quite often happens in films that are shot underground.  Usually in filming of sewer systems DPs put the lights beneath the tunnel and this creates a cathedral like quality effect. I did not want that, I really wanted it to look real, it was challenging as most of the light came from the real sources, like flashlights, and the actors besides performing their parts, were operating those flashlights.  Therefore it was a very special kind of lighting and Jolanta Dylewska was actually awarded The Golden Frog Award at CamerImage in Poland for In Darkness, which is one of the most prestigious cinematography awards in the world.

BT:   How did you go about casting the film?
AH:   I knew from the time I was working on the script, and to be more exact, from the moment the producers agreed to shoot the film original languages, that  Robert Więckiewicz was perfect for playing Leopold Socha. Therefore to cast Leopold and his wife I did not need to test them, but for the other parts in the film I mostly tested and tried to find the best combination of the people.  Most of the cast ended up being Polish and of course there are a few Germans.  

BT:   I think one of the difficult parts of the film is when you are directing a group of people in a scene at one time, how did you manage to direct the group on this film?
AH :   It was painful, this was not the first film that I have directed a group, it is always difficult to balance the characters and to balance the presence and specificity everyone in the group and sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t. In cases like this every actor has to become the character he plays for the entire time of the shoot, even when they do not have a precise task to follow.  I was lucky enough to have a group of talented actors that had melted into their character. Our success in group scenes comes from their excellent performances and the fact of not forgetting their character, even for any second, and to find always the way to be present on the screen.  

BT:   Another interesting aspect of the film is the use of sound, which is in such harmony with the film, almost to the point where you cannot tell if there was any music composed for the film or not, how did you go about creating the sound track of In Darkness?
AH :   We had a young composer, Antoni Komasa-Łazarkiewicz,  attached to the project that I had worked with him before.  I started early to work with him on the music for In Darkness and at some point when we were editing the movie I realized that we did not need music in the film, except for the credits and a few other parts.  In total there is only about twenty four minutes of music through the whole film. We wanted to melt the music with the sound effects and with the sound design so that the audience does not feel it.  In final stages of post-production, we screened the film once with music and once without music and it appeared that the music did give some kind of emotional quality to the film but it was not for sure typical Hollywood sound track music. I think one of the tests for this film is that it does not need music to exist.  

BT:   What do you think about the chances of In Darkness nomination for the Best Foreign Language Film Award at 2012 Oscars?
AH :   It is difficult for me to judge, it depends on the reaction of the people and the critics, the competition is tough, there are a lot of the other movies going for the same award, I have only seen five of them.  

BT:   Do you think if your film becomes nominated that it will gain a wider audience?
AH :  Yes, it will help the film. When you are making a film without a typically entertaining subject, you need all of the support that you can get to help the film becoming well known and a nomination will do that. 

BT:   Do you have any new projects lined up?
AH:   I am writing a mini series in Prague for European HBO which talks about Czechoslovakia after 68′, that is kind of a political historical film which I know very well because I was a student in Prague at this time. This project is written by a young Czech screenwriter and it will be done in the Czech language.


About Author

Bijan Tehrani

Bijan Tehrani a film director, film critic and writer, works as editor in chief of Cinema Without Borders while teaching Language of Film and Film History at workshops nationwide. Bijan has won several awards in international film festivals and book fairs for his short films and children's books.

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