For a while now, I’ve found myself feeling protective of new Holocaust movies—as though they’re the least attractive kids in the orphanage that no one wants to adopt. I’m not referring to marquee films like Schindler’s List, The Reader, or Inglourious Basterds (although I made it a point of honor not to see the last) or even slightly meretricious reconstructions like Defiance, replete with an Aryan-looking Daniel Craig in the lead role as one of three intrepid Jewish brothers. Rather, I’m thinking of small, nuanced efforts that revisit the horror without aid of big-name actors, triumphant romance, or grotesque humor—like last year’s documentary A Film Unfinished, made by the Israeli director Yael Hersonski, which revealed heretofore unseen footage of the Warsaw Ghetto, in which residents of the ghetto were made to dress up and perform unlikely and often humiliating scenes for the purposes of Nazi cinematographers. Or this fall’s Sarah’s Key, which featured an affecting performance by Kristin Scott Thomas and a poignant storyline without adding anything new to the subject of French collaboration.
The fact is I’ve been haunted for years by a line from Hotel Terminus, Max Ophul’s movie about Klaus Barbie, the infamous “Butcher of Lyon,” that went like this: “Only Jews and old Nazis are interested in Jews and old Nazis.” If this is true—and in large part I believe it is—then the audience for Holocaust films is even smaller than the audience for Ukranian imports, one that is yoked together by questionable motives. The pleasure principle, that is, is generally so absent from Holocaust cinema that the only impulse to see a new film is one of masochistic duty to the victims or sadistic reminiscence on the part of perpetrators—and there we are, bound together once again with our tormentors.
I was struck recently by these thoughts when I went to see a screening of Agnieszka Holland’s In Darkness, which has been nominated as the Polish entry for Best Foreign Film and is scheduled to open in wide release in January. More than two decades after making the much-acclaimed Europa, Europa, and after moving on to such disparate work as The Secret Garden, Washington Square, and the HBO production of Shot in the Heart (based on Mikel Gilmore’s memoir), Holland has returned to the theme of the Holocaust. In her director’s statement, Holland, whose father’s family died at the hand of the Nazis and who had an aunt who survived by being smuggled out of the ghetto in her sister’s coffin, observes in the press notes: “One may ask if everything has now been said on this subject. But in my opinion the main mystery hasn’t yet been resolved, or even fully explored. How was this crime (echoes of which continue in different places in the world from Rwanda to Bosnia) possible? Where was Man during this crisis? Where was God? Are these events and actions the exception in human history or do they reveal an inner, dark truth about our nature?”
The screening took place on a Wednesday night at the comfy Sony screening room at 550 Madison Avenue in New York, where the seats are widely spaced the better for you to stretch out your legs and pretend that you’re Irving Thalberg, chomping on a cigar, checking out the dailies. (Sony Pictures Classics—but who else?—has picked the movie up for American distribution, with limited release in New York and Los Angeles starting Dec. 9.) I could find no one among my friends who wanted to see the movie with me, although I imagine I would have had no such trouble with almost any other offering. No one explicitly said, “Not another Holocaust movie,” but they might as well have. There was a clutch of people waiting for the publicist to arrive when I got to Sony, and by the time we entered there were about 20 of us. I looked around anxiously: No old Nazis as far as I could make out, but no one appeared to be brimming over with anticipation either.
In Darkness is is based on a true story of a Righteous Christian, a sewer worker and petty thief by the name of Leopold Socha, who over a period of 14 months helps hide a small group of Jews, including men, women, and children, in the sewers beneath the Nazi-occupied city of Lvov, Poland. The film’s power derives in part from Robert Wieckiewicz’s brilliant, unsentimentalized performance as Socha, whose empathy is complexly formed and tenuously maintained until the very last moment when it overrides his conflicts, and in part from Holland’s underplayed directing, which includes deft contextual touches that bring the larger brutality taking place outside the netherworld of the sewers acutely home.
The Monday after the screening I arranged to meet with Holland at the bar of the Regency Hotel, at 4 in the afternoon. The place was thronged with people who looked pleased with themselves in that way that successful people often do; at the table next to mine I spotted the literary agent Ed Victor, holding forth to an audience of one. Holland, who was born in 1948 in Warsaw, wore glasses, had a short haircut, and was simply dressed. She had been interviewed by Forward columnist Masha Leon right before me and looked a bit weary of the whole process, although she put on a welcoming smile.
Having read in the press notes that Holland had turned down the movie twice before the writer and co-producers, who had initially insisted that the film be in English, agreed to let her shoot it in the original languages (Polish, German, Yiddish, and others), I asked her what drew her so strongly to the story. “What interested me is that the Pole is not so good,” she said in heavily accented but excellent English. “This tension is my aim as a storyteller. You don’t know what he’ll do; he is walking on the wire. It’s not a struggle between good and bad—he isn’t conscious enough for that. This guy doesn’t know what he’ll do next. Everything is in the present. I tried to be behavioristic, not psychological. There is no moralistic issue or sentimental building up.” Holland went on to say that another impetus for her making the film at this moment was her irritation with many of the Holocaust movies that have emerged. “I’ve seen an incredible amount of bad Holocaust movies. Kitschy ones. Life Is Beautiful made me angry. It said, ‘If you really love your child you will save him.’ To try and take a moral lesson from the Holocaust is wrong.”
We moved on to talk of other things. Holland, who has directed episodes of television series like David Simon’s The Wire and Treme, is set to direct the premiere episode of the second season of the much-acclaimed detective drama series The Killing. She told me she divided her time between Los Angeles, France, and Poland. Inevitably, though, we returned to In Darkness and the subject of the Holocaust. Holland wanted the film to be seen by “as many people as possible” although she admitted it was not as “entertaining” as Europa, Europa. “Not everyone can go to such a painful place,” she said. She noted that the last 10 years had brought “unpleasant facts about Polish history post-Holocaust” to light that had shattered the Poles’ image of themselves as innocent victims of the Germans and “allowed Poles to grow up.” She thought Americans, on the other hand, had adopted the Holocaust as part of their history “because of movies and TV” but that they “haven’t done their homework yet, haven’t accepted their own guilt for doing nothing.” Holland attributed the growing power of anti-Semitism in Europe to Israeli politics, which “angers leftist intellectuals” and “allows them to feel that the burden of guilt can be thrown away.” Holland was also convinced that if ever there were a lesson to be learned from the Holocaust, its moment has all but passed: “We are at the point where people forgot it.”
Actually, the feelings might be even more negative. As Holland spoke, I thought back to the aftermath of the screening I had attended at Sony. On my way down in the elevator a Jewish literary agent I knew said to her husband and the couple with her: “Now, that was relentless.” I turned to her and asked her what other people—those who had nothing at stake—were going to think if this was her response. I felt like a schoolteacher, especially since no one had solicited my opinion, but I nevertheless added that I had found the film compelling and moving. The two couples looked dutifully abashed, but I had the feeling they couldn’t wait to get out of the elevator and leave me and my reprimanding tone behind them.
That night, I kept thinking of the last scene in the film, when the Jews make it out of the sewers, looking dazed in the light of the day as around them Polish passersby laugh uneasily to see these strange, forlorn apparitions suddenly appear in the middle of their street. “These are my Jews,” Socha says delightedly. “My Jews,” finally taking credit for his own unsung acts of heroism. There are no brass bands, no memorials, just an extraordinary Polish man who could not bring himself to see Jews as repugnantly Other. It is a deeply stirring moment that closes the human circle of warmth—bringing into focus the surprising sense of kinship that motivated otherwise ordinary people such as Socha—but I found myself wondering how many people will ever get to see it, or be receptive to it after two and a half hours spent in a dimly lit sewer.
For this is the hard (or maybe too-easy) truth: At some point, there will be no more old Nazis, and no more Holocaust films. Until then, I suggest that, come January, you elect to spend some time with Leopold Socha and his Jews, down in the darkness, with the rats, the stench, and the internecine bickering. At the end of the tunnel is a dazzling burst of daylight that is worth the wait.
Daphne Merkin, a contributing writer at the New York Times Magazine and a contributor to the TLS, The Times Book Review, Bookforum, and Departures, teaches writing at Columbia University. Her latest novel, Twenty-Two Minutes of Unconditional Love, will be out in June, 2020.
Daphne Merkin, a contributing writer at the New York Times Magazine and a contributor to the TLS, The Times Book Review, Bookforum, and Departures, teaches writing at Columbia University. Her latest novel,Twenty-Two Minutes of Unconditional Love, will be out in June, 2020.