Toronto 2011: Agnieszka Holland Says It Wasn't 'Easy' to Revisit Holocaust in Harrowing Movie 'In Darkness' (Q&A)

Krzysztof OpaliƄski/Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

"It took two years," the two-time Oscar nominee says of her decision to revisit the "terrible point in the history of humanity" at the heart of her films "Angry Harvest" and "Europa, Europa."

Much of the work of Polish director Agnieszka Holland centers on the question of moral choice in an immoral world, whether set in World War II – as in her Oscar-nominated Angry Harvest and Europa, Europa – or, in HBO’s Treme, on the mean-streets of a post-Katrina New Orleans.

For her new film, In Darkness, Holland returns to the subject of the Holocaust, adapting Robert Marshall’s book about a Catholic sewer worker who, almost inadvertently, saves a dozen Jews from certain death. A warts-and-all answer to Schindler’s List, the film forces the audience to see the complicated humanity of real people living through horror. It offers no easy answers and forces the audience to see the thin line that divides history’s villains from its heroes.

After an acclaimed bow in Telluride, In Darkness has its Toronto premiere Sunday night at the Elgin Theater.

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The Hollywood Reporter: This film, if only because of its subject matter, is inevitably going to be compared to Schindler’s List. Is that a fair comparison?

Agnieszka Holland: Well if you make a Holocaust movie and you make a good one, you will be compared to the best Holocaust movies. But this is a very different film. Schindler’s List was a very important film. I really like it, except for the ending of the movie, but I am very grateful to Steven Spielberg for making it and making it in the way he did, so he could reach a large audience. But personally, I worry that this kind of Hollywood portrayal of the Holocaust – with big stars, in English – is changing the way we view the history, giving it a sort of cuteness. I wanted to make a film that is more realistic, as realistic as possible. Which is why, for example, we shot the film in six languages, because that was the reality of that place in that time.

THR: The film’s main character, Leopold Soha, is certainly no Oskar Schindler. When we met him, he’s a petty thief and an anti-Semite.

Holland: I don’t think he’s an active anti-Semite. He’s an ordinary Polish worker. He doesn’t think much about the Jews, expect to think they are different than him. When they start getting persecuted, he probably thinks they somehow deserve it. And when he sees a chance to make money off of them (by hiding them in the sewers) he takes it. Only slowly does he start to sympathize with them. And it’s a complicated process. I was interested in showing how thin the line is between good and evil and how easy it is to step over into evil. And to show that when someone does something truly good it is so emotional and so rare that it is even more beautiful.

THR: But why make another Holocaust movie? You examined the period before – in Angry Harvest and Europa, Europa.

Holland: It wasn’t an easy decision to make. It took two years. But I think it is a period we keep returning to because we have the same questions about it – why and how this happened. It was a terrible point in the history of humanity. And I’m not of the opinion that it all ended with World War II. And I think the people who died they need a realistic version of their story.

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THR: The realism extends to the cinematography. In the sewer scenes, the film is literally “In Darkness” where it is often hard to see anything.

Holland: You can always see what you need to see. We were very careful about that. The face, the movement that’s key, you see. But I was very interested in this aspect – as a filmmaker to show this kind of darkness. I hadn’t seen that in a film before. To show the dark and smelling sewer and to show how even in this place, humanity continues. To see the hope in hell. We screened the film to audiences and every time one of the characters goes up out of the sewers, the audiences gasps in relief. They identify with the characters. That was my intention.

THR: You’re Jewish characters definitely aren’t the stereotypical heroic victims of many Holocaust films. Is there a danger portraying them as such flawed people will make it harder for the audience to identify with them?

Holland: I’ve seen that said in some reviews but I don’t believe it. Because the people and characters I always identify with are not ones that are just heroes or villains, just good or bad, but are flawed, multidimensional. They are the ones I find sympathetic. Because they’re human. And I think audiences do to. Look at popular TV series like Mad Men or Breaking Bad, with very flawed main characters. And the reality is that the Jews were not better or worse people than anyone else. They had their own traditions, their own way of life and looking at the world but some of them were crooks, some were weak. And some were heroes. That’s what makes them alive. And then, when you see them dying, it is even more powerful.

Vital Stats
Nationality: Polish
Born: Nov. 28, 1948
Festival Entry: In Darkness
Selected Filmography:
Angry Harvest (1985)
Europa, Europa (1990)
The Secret Garden (1993)
Washington Square (1997)