Polish Movie “In Darkness” (W Ciemności) playing at the Maple Art Theatre in Bloomfield Hills

By Frank J. Dmuchowski

         The movie In Darkness (W Ciemności) was the Polish entry for the American Oscars for Best Foreign film. It was directed by renowned Polish director Agnieszka Holland. Briefly this is a film about the true life survival of a small group of 11 Polish Jews in the sewers of Lwów for 14 months during the latter part of the Second World War. Key to their survival is their “Polish Moses,” a Pole and a part time thief and a sewer worker whose name was Leopold Socha. He along with his wife Magdalena were later to be memorialized in Yad Vashem as One of the Righteous Among the Nations. For Holland this may well be her finest movie.

The film is gripping and extremely intense because of the  challenges continuously surrounding those living in the sewers as well as Socha and his co-worker Stephen Wróblewski who must negotiate between the sewers, Ukrainian nationalists and the Germans who are determined to murder the Jews along with any Pole who would try to assist them in any way.  The two and half our film literally flies by as you try to grasp the complexities of the characters and their interactions. Seeing the movie a second time enhanced my understanding and experiencing of this remarkable film.

 

The movie is filmed in such a way that you find yourself becoming a part of the action. This occurs because much of the movie occurs in a darkened sewer setting. Consequently you find yourself focusing on the film and the characters in a very intense way so as not to miss any of the nuances.

How it is possible for the audience to become visually and emotionally so intensely engaged in the film is also due to the outstanding directing, script writing, acting, setting, which results in the telling of a true life event. For example Jolanta Dylewska won the Polish Film Academy Award for Best Cinematography. Robert Więckiewicz won for Best Actor for his portrayal of Leopold Socha. Więkiewicz, who is regarded as one of Poland’s finest actors, has been tapped by director Andrzej Wajda to play Lech Wałesa in an upcoming movie on the life of the Solidarity leader

Some of the Goals of Director Agnieszka Holland and Screenwriter David Shamoon

     Key to understanding In Darkness is to understand the goals, objectives and a little of the background of Ms. Holland and Mr. Shamoon.

Agnieszka Holland is a Polish born director whose mother was a Polish Catholic who was active in the Polish resistance during the Second World War in which she protected several Jews from the Nazis. Her father was a Polish Jew whose parents were murdered in the Warsaw Ghetto.

David Shamoon is an Iraqi born Jew who became a Canadian advertising executive and for whom the script for the movie In Darkness was his first foray into screen writing. His script is based on the book “In the Sewers of Lvov” by Robert Marshall. He had decided early on that he wanted Agnieszka Holland to direct the film. She was initially not interested but he was persistent. However there were some strong terms that she insisted upon.

 

Ms. Holland, as she reported in many interviews, was absolutely not interested in doing another Holocaust film. It was emotionally draining and in her opinion there already were quite a number of such films that were completed. However due to the persistence of Mr. Shamoon, she became more and more intrigued by the character of Leopold Socha.

What she required is that the film must be authentic. In other words the language of the film must be Polish, Yiddish, German and Ukrainian. Immediately this removed a large English speaking audience who would not (or could not) sit through a movie that was subtitled. This is the way in which the movie was developed.

The director and the scriptwriter both wanted characters that were not one dimensional but were presented with all of their qualities.  As reported by Reed Johnson, a film critic of the Los Angeles Times on December 11, 2011:

 “Ms. Holland stated that she was attracted to the screenplay by David Shamoon because it presented a ‘not only black and white, sentimental vision of the angelic innocent victims and the bad guys,” but a complex portrait of people in extreme circumstances who are sometimes generous, sometimes selfish, sometimes bad, sometimes loving.’ In other words, fully drawn human beings.”

 

Reed Johnson goes on to say: “This might sound like good cinematic drama. But Holland’s morally clouded perspective on the Holocaust has led some European critics to level charges of anti-Semitism (against her.)”

 

Regarding Mr. Shamoon’s script, Jonathan Romney of the Independent (March 18, 2012) writes:

 

“the script… concentrates on the flaws within and the tensions between people, eschewing the exaltation of moral nobility that often afflicts Holocaust cinema. The Jews, and their reluctant “Moses” as one of them skeptically calls him, have no love for each other: “Never trust a Polack” someone says in Yiddish (one of the films languages alongside Polish, German, and Ukrainian), while Socha tells his sidekick that they can always turn in the Jews if need be. One man abandons his wife and daughter to go underground with his mistress. The refugees bicker, prevaricate: the single overtly religious man among them, when heard uttering his Hebrew prayers is mocked by his fellows: ‘God isn’t listening.’”

One of the last survivors of the story is the 76 year old Kristin Chiger, who wrote her memoir The Girl in the Green Sweater, said of the movie – as reported by Gayle Mac Donald of the Toronto Globe and Mail on February 16, 2012:

“The movie is very real. Everything that is shot in the movie happened. The first time that I saw it I was at the Toronto International Film Festival and I was both relieved and incredibly moved. I always wanted a director with a European sensibility to possibly tell the story. I did not want some Hollywood version. Agnieszka told the good the bad and the ugly, which is what, really happened. A woman really did give birth in the tunnel and strangled it to stop its cries, my brother and I did play with rats. They were our pets”.

Some Events That Took Place in the Movie

In a very general sense, some of the events that also took place were: deciding which Jews would be saved and whether Mr. Chiger, one of the leaders, was “playing God”. Another involved the execution of ten Poles by hanging and another 30 plus who were shot because of the unique killing of a German soldier. This action brings into play the question of collective punishment and the consequence of Poles aiding Jews, and the decision by Socha’s sidekick, Stefan Wróblewski, because of the stress of aiding the Jews and the consequences if caught. Another interesting situation which was implied in the movies involved the reality that Socha was not betrayed by his fellow Poles who had to know that something was up since he was purchasing enough food for over 20 people at one point.

Several interesting events in the movie involved children. In one instance one of the children in the sewer gives her apple to another person. Another involved Socha’s daughter who accidentally said in front of a Ukrainian who was working for the Nazi’s “Father that food is for the Jews!” The Ukrainian interrogates her and this ten year old child gives a clever answer that makes use of two dolls that she received and that were originally found in the ruins of the Lwów ghetto.

Key to the Movie is the Believability of the Portrayal of Leopold Socha

 

     For this movie to succeed the presentation of Leopold Socha had to be believable. This was the great challenge faced by Ms. Holland, Mr. Shamoon and the Polish actor who played him, Robert Więckiewicz.

Larry Rohter in the December 2, 2011 issue of the New York Times writes about Leopold Socha, a sewer worker, Polish Catholic who is not particularly fond of the Germans or the Jews for that matter. On the other hand as Mr. Shamoon is quoted in the article as saying:

‘This guy (Socha) was not a hero, yet he ended up doing the right thing, which is to me the true version of heroism… It’s difficult, almost counterintuitive and yet people do it. We would all like to think we would know what to do. But if I were in his shoes, would I have done these things?”

In the same article Ms. Holland acknowledged that the success of the movie would depend on how convincing the characterization of Leopold Socha was. To achieve a convincing performance she turned to veteran Polish actor Robert Więckiewicz. Of him she said:

“ he is probably the most interesting Polish actor of his generation., able to do two things that I’m not sure that I have ever seen before, which is to play in the same moment, not one after the other, being very brutal and primitive but also very subtle and very emotional. Mixing these two things was the key to Socha.”

Więckiewicz said:

“Socha is a very simple man, a physical worker who is not educated, who doesn’t function on some high, lofty level of perception about the world. The way he acts is very instinctual, impulsive even. He’s not crystal-clear character from a moral point of view, someone who makes a firm resolution: ‘Starting today I will be a good man.’ But he has the capability of doing good, and over the 14 months that potential allows him to transform himself.”

Conclusion:

     In writing this review I went to a variety of reviews in order to give the reader a taste of the movie from many perspectives and many reviewers. More could be said. This was a fascinating movie about the determination of Polish Jews to survive under very difficult circumstances during the Holocaust. In this case it only became possible because a Polish Catholic and his wife were willing to commit to saving them at great peril to their lives and the life of their daughter.

This movie was popular enough in Poland to be seen by over a million people—some of whom saw the movie several times. In this movie the Poles are generally portrayed positively through the character of Leopold Socha and his wife Magdalena and their daughter. In addition in 1981 Stefan Wróblewski, Socha’s co-worker, and his wife were also recognized as Righteous Among the Nations.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

One Response to “Polish Movie “In Darkness” (W Ciemności) playing at the Maple Art Theatre in Bloomfield Hills

  • I am Jewish and just watched this movie…he IS a hero. A hero is someone who doesn’t want to be one and who is not motivated by heroism. He is a simple man who does extraordinary things and who potentially saved thousands of people, not just 20. It is so tragic that he passed away so young, it made me cry. Just like another hero- Witold Pilecki. They were some amazing Polish people, never forget…

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