In Darkness – Interview with director Agnieszka Holland

Polish director Agnieszka Holland was in Dublin recently to present her Oscar nominated film In Darkness.

Polish director Agnieszka Holland was in Dublin recently to present her Oscar nominated film In Darkness at the 10th Jameson Dublin International Film Festival. sat down with Poland’s most prolific director to talk her new project, which follows a group of Jewish people in Lvov who hide from Nazi forces in their city’s sewer system.


You originally tuned down the chance to work on In Darkness. Why was that?

AH: I don’t remember whether it was twice or three times. Probably three times. It was so painful to go back to those times again for me and I was afraid that… I know it is very difficult to sell today, the subject is not sexy any more and even the festivals find that and also that there are so many not very good movies about it. I knew that if I was to do it, I would have to do it very real, very authentic, and also it means not in English, which was difficult to convince the producers and it was difficult to finance the movie. These were the main reasons that I didn’t respond to the project with enthusiasm.


What changed your mind?

AH: The screenwriter was very stubborn and he kept sending me new versions [laughs] and after a while I started to dream about it and see, in my dreams, the images so I realised that it entered my system and I had to in some way, throw it out. Also they agreed to my conditions to do it in the real language. I thought they would not agree, and I would have a good excuse but they did agree so there was no way back [laughs].


You mentioned that it was painful for you to do this film, and you mentioned that there are many films on this subject. Why do you feel it was necessary to tell this story?

AH: The story was good, but most of the stories are good; it is the way you tell the story that can be good or bad. This story was good because it had very interesting and vivid characters and the dramatic strings were put on the characters, so the characters have been doing this dramatic line, especially the character of Socha. The fact that it is in the darkness, underground makes it different because you have to express life underground and in the darkness. It is very particular and at the same time, symbolic, because the light and the darkness mean something that has bigger meaning. The emotional symbol is very powerful if it is made in the right way. Everything can very easily become kitsch in this kind of subject; to become sentimental or overly moralistic or over adventurous in the exterior way or whatever. I knew that if I would focus on the story I would at least avoid those traps, but that is a big trap; to make a movie that touches the hearts of the people at the same time.


In Darkness is based on a true story, were you aware of it before you got involved with the film?

AH: I never heard about this story. I know a lot of stories because I read practically everything that goes through my hands. A lot of people send me their stories and I receive a lot of scripts about it and my family’s stories are rich enough to pull from. I didn’t know too many stories from Lvov, now it is in the Ukraine, before it was part of the Soviet Union and before that it was Poland so when it was part of the Soviet Union practically all of the archives and the knowledge disappeared. Very few Jews survived Lvov’s ghetto… Very few… Only about 100 from 150,000. There are very few memories that came from there. Afterwards when I was doing the research a historical consultant found for me the testimonies made just after the war by the special anti-fascist committee. It was incredible, how terrible it was. All the ghettos were terrible but this ghetto… For one year it wasn’t walled in and still people didn’t escape because they didn’t have a place to go. The Ukrainian attitude was so negative that they felt safer in the ghetto than outside.


Can you talk about creating the confined environment on screen?

AH: I went to real sewers in many cities with my crew to check which were possible to shoot in and the best were in Lodz in Poland and so what we shot in the real sewers we shot mostly in Lodz, some also in Leipzig in Germany and some in Berlin. We constructed the chambers, one was in the real sewer and two were on a stage as well as some systems of pipes. Without that, it was possible to shoot in the real sewers but it would take forever and we didn’t have the money or the time so it was cheaper to construct. The guy who did it did a very good job and it is hard to tell when I cut from real sewers to the constructed ones. We were shooting in the winter, it was a very harsh winter, it was like -20 degrees all the time so we were freezing. For all of the crew, the memory of shooting is like memories from gulags or something [laughs] so Robert [Wieckiewicz] cried twice on the set, we finished the shooting and he sat and cried because he was so exhausted. Now it’s over and the movie exists…


How challenging was it to work in such darkness?

AH: I insisted and the cinematographer felt – for technical reasons – that she wanted to make the level of the light a little higher and bring it down in post production, but I wanted the actors to be really in the dark. I was screaming at her ‘Darker! Darker!’ [laughs] It was technically challenging and artistically challenging because I wanted it to be dark but at the same time to see what we needed to see to connect to the story and the characters, so her incredible craft was to have both. Mostly it is lit by flash lights and things like that so it was very elaborate and the actors were lighting themselves so that was another challenge.


Can you talk about the progression of Socha through the movie and how you created this?

AH: Robert [Wieckiewicz] is extremely talented and deeply honest as an actor. We thought from the beginning, what attracted him and me to this character was not the turning point. The tension is because any moment he could go one way or the other. You don’t know for quite a long time whether or not he will betray them, that was really interesting for him and for me. He told me afterwards how he did it and it is quite interesting; Socha doesn’t know what he will do next, he is not somebody who has a plan, he is not somebody who has strong beliefs; he is in some ways like a little animal, he is reacting instinctively. Robert also played it like he didn’t know what was going to be next and I think it gives you a feeling of the real challenge; that you really don’t know what he will do.


What do you hope audiences take from the film?

AH: I think, empathy. I think that people watching this film mostly feel to be there with those people; to understand or to feel close to the people in some way and particularly because they are so imperfect. I think that the only thing film can do it wake up their emotional imagination and it makes you closer to another person, to another race, to another nation, to another human being.


How useful is an event like the Jameson Dublin International Film Festival to a film like In Darkness

AH: Festivals are very important to the promotion of movies like this, on the other hand, festivals are also dangerous because several movies, and mostly good movies, the only distribution they have is festival distribution because people are used to going to movies as events and it is very difficult to create the event every time. It’s very good, the festival, but it has its limitations. Afterwards, you just have to hope that the people respond strongly to the film and are talking about it. For example in Poland, this was a total success, which was a total surprise to me. Over a million people will see this film and if somebody had told me that a year ago I would have said ‘It’s not possible, no way!’ [laughs]


How did it feel to be nominated for an Oscar for In Darkness?

AH: It’s good. It’s good because it helps the film, and it was nominated for Poland and Poland is not a small country, but it has the mindset and attitude, and this immediately becomes a national issue. It’s a bit too much responsibility on my shoulders [laughs]


You directed the pilot episode of Tremé, how did you connect with the story of New Orleans, post-Katrina?

AH: It’s not so very different from the Holocaust story in some ways [laughs] and it was interesting, I did the pilot so I spent a lot of time there to research and talk to the people and watch the places so my knowledge of the events and the people’s attitudes and the trauma, which I think still didn’t heal, was strong. I became friends with some special black people there and one woman was an important figure in the milieu of the city. At some point it was talked about that Spike Lee Wanted to do the pilot and he is logically the person to do the pilot of this kind of series and the producers decided that I would do it – which wasn’t an obvious choice because I am not black, I am a woman and I am not American. So this woman was talking to a friend of mine who asked if they are not sorry that it wasn’t Spike who did the pilot, and she said ‘No, no, no… Agnieszka is much better. What does Spike know about suffering?’. It was very touching to me because I understood that in some way she felt that I had some deeper understanding of what they went through – a deeper empathy – because exactly it is my heritage already in some way. So it showed me also how universal those things are… Human misery, strength and betrayal…


You have worked in film and TV. Which do you prefer?

AH: Film is closer to me because it is more a director’s medium. My control over what I am doing when I am doing it is much bigger. In TV in some way you execute better or worse, somebody’s vision and the writer is the main god on TV. What I like on TV, especially on American TV today – the good American TV – is that it’s so brave, so courageous, it is so important in subject that they are stylistically much more open to the new kind of languages, the stories are told in an unconventional way and you can have actors who are not A-List stars and it is immediate, it happens quickly. For me, it’s a nice change from movies to do something like this; especially the movie is such a long process. Today it’s longer and longer; from the moment you develop to the moment you finish the promotion, it’s like three years and television is month to month and it’s over.


What’s next for you?

AH: I am doing television now, but a special one. I am doing it in Prague for Czech HBO and it is a very important Czechoslovak story that was never told in a movie. After the Prague Spring and the Soviet intervention in 1968 the slow process started of what they called ‘normalisation’, which means breaking the society, and a man assimilated with that to protest against it; his name was Jan Palach. He became, for a short time, the national hero, but after people didn’t want this kind of hero any more because it was too disturbing so they got rid of him. It is a three part mini series.

IN DARKNESS is now showing in Irish cinemas

Words – Brogen Hayes