16 April 2013

The Holocaust in L'viv and 'European Memory'. The two levels of Agnieszka Holland's In Darkness

Agnieszka Holland’s choice of L'viv as the setting for In Darkness (2011) raises a number of important questions about the portrayal of the Holocaust. The film, which is based on a memoir, portrays the fate of a group of Jews who are hidden and kept alive in the city’s sewers by a Pole. The Pole initially helps the Jews purely for material gain, and shows little empathy for their predicament. Yet throughout the film he begins to grow attached to his charges, eventually stopping taking payment and risking himself and his family for their sake. Some reviewers have criticized the focus on the Polish rescuer, which takes centre stage against the backdrop of the plight of the Jewish characters, much in the same way that Schindler’s List, focuses principally on a German character.

It was precisely this focus on a Pole that, understandably, dominated Polish reaction to In Darkness. The film taps into what has become the most problematic area of Holocaust memory in Poland: the exact nature of Polish role in the Holocaust – as bystander, rescuer, exploiter, denouncer. All of these roles can be observed in the film. The central character, Leopold Socha, is presented initially as an unscrupulous criminal, but progresses to show courage and empathy towards the Jews he helps. The film explores the difficult dilemmas faced by non-Jews in the Holocaust in a nuanced way, showing the fine line between decisions to help or collaborate that often depended on pragmatism, circumstance and improvisation. The character is Socha is ably played by Robert Więckiewicz, who succeeds in being by turns brutal and empathetic, and even in his seeming conversion retains a degree of ambiguity. As he gleefully celebrates saving ‘my Jews’ (a phrase he repeats several times) at the end of the film, the viewer is left wondering whether it  is human courage and kindness that are at work here, or an expression of a kind of ownership and the obsessive desire to defy the Nazis.

It is difficult not to compare In Darkness with Holland’s other famous film about the war and the Holocaust,  Europa Europa (1990). There is a stark contrast. The latter film is by turns grotesque, fantastical, funny and tragic, encapsulating the horrors of the war in a carnivalesque spirit, and underpinned by skilful and elaborate plotting and baroque, deliberately overblown aesthetics. In Darkness has more in common with a Hollywood thriller, retaining a relentless and linear tension throughout, with almost no concessions to irony and certainly not to fantasy. It retains the bleakness of canonical Holocaust films like Schindler’s List and The Pianist, but without ever getting close to their pathos. Its claustrophobic, jerky camera work and settings have more in common with the type of thriller that Holland has directed recently (The Wire; The Killing).