LVIV – “In Darkness,” the latest film by Poland’s prominent director Agnieszka Holland, saw its Ukrainian premiere in Lviv on Aug. 26. The movie, which was nominated for an academy award, recounts the story of Leopold Socha, a sewer worker in Nazi-occupied Lviv who uses his intricate knowledge of the city’s underground canals to hide a group of Jews.
The location for the screening could hardly have been better. Just opposite the cinema was the then home of Krystyna Chiger, the main protagonist of “The Girl in the Green Sweater: A Life in Holocaust’s Shadow,” on which the movie was based. Walking through the cobbled streets of Lviv after the screening, it was impossible not to picture a group of Jews hiding beneath.
Unfortunately, it seems unlikely Ukraine-based viewers will be able to watch the film in cinemas, as distributors accord little importance to European productions, said Liudmyla Gordeladze, director of independent Kyiv cinema Zhovten. The internationally acclaimed film and Oscar nominee is thus available for purchase on Blu-Ray at http://www.sonyclassics.com/indarkness/ or for download via iTunes.
Holland had covered the theme of the Holocaust twice already, notably in the stunning “Europa, Europa,” but “In Darkness” was an unlikely project. According to the Polish director, she had no intention of coming back to the lugubrious subject.
“I had already done it. I did not want to return to the ghetto for two or three years of my life, which is how long it takes to prepare such a film,” she told the audience.
As a result, Holland explained, she decided to give the insistent producers an ultimatum: “If I do the movie, I do it in the original languages.”
At first, this seemed to be a deal-breaker – a relief for Holland – but then the studios agreed and she had no choice but to go and start filming, albeit with the freedom of picking the languages to use.
The condition proved to be immensely fortunate, as the deft symphony of tongues of wartime Lviv is the single greatest aspect of the film. Not only do the characters speak a variety of languages, they also constantly move between tones, lexicons and dialects depending on their situation, reflecting subtle changes to status or power relations.
Thus, one of the Jews, Klara, moves from crystal clear Warsaw Polish to broken German or Yiddish in times of desperation or passion, while her fellow hideaway prides himself in speaking strict Hochdeutsch (high German). Depending on place and purpose, the main character Leopold shifts between gwara lwowska, the now defunct dialect of Polish Leopolitans, and Polish-Ukrainian surzhyk.
A tense scene in which Leopold demands the Jews not speak Yiddish, which he cannot understand, conveys both his fears of retribution and their concerns about betrayal.
Sadly, those unfamiliar with the languages used will miss out on much of the film’s depth, which does not exist in other areas. The scenario remains predictable, and raises no new issues or questions. Moreover, it does nothing to challenge the archetypes typical of Poland’s World War II cinema.
Despite his initial materialist streak, Leopold turns selfless hero as any good Pole should, while a cheating husband is the only thing adding nuance to the standard portrayal of Jews. The worst lot befalls Ukrainians, who are pictured as eager if at times troubled Nazi collaborators, with virtually no context to speak of.
Viewers in the crowded cinema room, where most seats went to invited members of Lviv’s Polish community while locals sat on the floor or stood in the back – an irony lost on the organizers – could thus be forgiven for feeling disappointed. Passing on the chance to explore Lviv’s multicultural past, the film somehow feels smaller than its lengthy 144 minutes would otherwise suggest.
A solid piece of cinematography, “In Darkness” nonetheless remains in the shadows of Holland’s previous work.
Kyiv Post editor Jakub Parusinski can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org