Agnieszka Holland Addresses the Politics of the Foreign Language Oscar (Q&A)

42 FEA Awards In Darkness H
Jasmin Marla Dichant/Sony Pictures Classics

Robert Wickiewicz (right) plays a man who hides Jewish refugees in the sewers of Poland.

The Polish "In Darkness" director tells THR about her fact-based saga of Jews hiding from Nazis in sewers and the often unjust representation of foreign cinema at the Academy Awards.

This story first appeared in the Nov. 25 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.

Oscar-nominated in 1986 for Angry Harvest and in 1992 for Europa Europa, Poland's Agnieszka Holland now has another Holocaust film in strong contention, Sony Pictures Classics' In Darkness. Like a cross between Schindler's List and The Diary of Anne Frank, it's the fact-based saga of Jews hidden from Nazis in Lvov sewers by a Polish Catholic crook who does it for the money until he discovers his better self. 

The Hollywood Reporter: Movies are about light, and this is shot largely in dark sewers. Did that risk attract you?

Agnieszka Holland: Of course. To make it dark in a realistic way, but at the same time to let people follow what's going on, what the characters are feeling, was a challenge for me and the cinematographer. We really were working on the edge of danger, and I wasn't sure we'd succeed.

THR: The characters are a bit dark, too. One victim leaves his family above-ground and flees with his mistress to the sewers.

Holland: Even in the bottom of hell, people behave in the crazy human way. The bourgeois jealous wife, the sexy girlfriend … it's some kind of travesty to show all Jewish people as angelic victims only. If you portray them in a not real way, in some way you are killing them. They are not alive anymore.

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THR: The Anne Frank play and film censored her sexual musings and anger with her mother and shaped the tragedy into a sitcom. Are we ready now for more truth?

Holland: Probably at the time, kitsch made it easier to swallow. I think truth is the best tool. What makes her so incredibly touching and important is the fact that she's not so different from another sensitive, intelligent teenage girl.

THR: There's incredible heroism in the story. Did one man really sneak out of the sewer into the ghetto and the concentration camp and back?

Holland: People had incredible balls. He was a real hero. He did it for his girlfriend. He went into the mouth of the lion and survived. You have many incredible stories in the Holocaust. The challenge is to make incredible stories credible, as exciting, tense and emotional as possible.

THR: There's a lot of rich period detail in the film. How is it different from a documentary?

Holland: Sometimes you can go into somebody's mind, which you can't do in a documentary, right?

THR: Art Spiegelman just published MetaMaus, about his Holocaust graphic novel. It depicts Jews as mice, Nazis as cats and Poles as pigs. How do you feel about that?

Holland: Pigs, yes. I don't have trouble with that. The Poles found it offensive, but the author had his reasons. It's a cartoon; of course it's simple. I found it revolutionary.

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THR: Your film isn't morally simple. The Polish hero is an anti-Semite who doesn't know his beloved Jesus was a Jew. He's forced to choose between the sewer refugees and an old friend who's become a Jew hunter.

Holland: It's not a political statement -- those people are right, those are bad. In some way, they're all trapped.

THR: Politics affects the Oscar race. Oscar historian Mark Harris argues there should be a special expert committee to add a few more films to the submissions by national governments for the foreign Oscar.

Holland: It looks like a good idea, yeah. Sometimes the choices are political and unjust, and really good movies are omitted. And it's geographically just, but it doesn't represent the richness of foreign cinema, where France has 200 movies a year and Albania two. So to have, I don't know, five more chosen by the special, really competent committee might repair some injustice.

THR: In Darkness makes one feel confined. It's an intense relief when the little girl finally gets to poke her head out of the sewer and breathe air. Did you do that to give the audience a respite?

Holland: Maybe, but it just happened, really. I didn't want to make it worse than it was. The little girl is the last one alive. She wrote a beautiful book, The Girl in the Green Sweater. She came to the Toronto premiere. For her, the film is like a travel to the past.