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Illumination: The Origins of In Darkness

Director Angieszka Holland on sewers, rats, and child actors in her latest film, nominated for Best Foreign Feature at the 2012 Academy Awards.

The Oscar nominated In Darkness, directed by Agnieszka Holland (Europe Europa, To Kill a Priest, Washington Square, Copying Beethoven), is based on the true story of Leopold Socha. This emotional and gripping film follows Socha’s progression from sewer worker to sometimes burglar to hero, as he gradually takes on the role of provider and protector for Jewish refugees who are hiding in the sewers of Lvov.


With a distinguished cast that includes Robert Wieckiewicz, Benno Furmann, Agnieszka Grochowska, Maria Schrader, and Hebert Knaup, In Darkness is up against films like Asghar Farhadi’s A Separation and Philippe Falardeau’s Monsieur Lazhar in the Best Foreign Feature category for the 2012 Oscars.  


Tribeca recently sat down with Holland to discuss how she got involved with her latest project, her extended post-production process, and her recent segue into directing acclaimed television series like The Wire, The Killing and Treme.



Benno Furmann and Agnieszka Holland

Credit: Jasmin Maria Dichant/Courtest of Sony Pictures Classics


Tribeca: How did you first get involved with In Darkness? 


Agnieszka Holland: The screenwriter, David Shamoon, wrote the script because he was fascinated by Robert Marshall’s book on Leopold Socha. When he finished, he contacted some Canadian producer friends that I had collaborated with previously, and they sent the script to me. I thought it was really good, but I didn’t really want to make another film about this time period. David and I met in Toronto around the time of the festival—I think when Copying Beethoven was showing there—but I initially turned him down. 


Tribeca: So this film had been in the works for quite a long time. 


Agnieszka Holland: That was almost 5 years ago. After I passed on In Darkness, it was almost like David was stalking me. [laughs] 


Tribeca: Well, that has to be flattering. 


Agnieszka Holland: Yes, it was. You know, when you first hear the story of In Darkness, you think, well that’s an interesting story, but it really starts to grow on you after you think about it for the 3rd or 4th time. So I had to come back to it. However, my conditions were that I didn’t want to make it in English because I think this kind of a story has to be as authentic as possible, even though it would have been easier to get financing if it had been in English. So it went back and forth like that when the German and the Polish producers got involved, and at some point they accepted my conditions, which cost us a major chunk of financing, but we decided to try and make the film anyway, and we did.  


Socha & wife

Credit: Jasmin Maria Dichant/Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics


Tribeca: So what drew you to the story of Socha, given that you were initially wary of making another film in this time period and with this setting? 


Agnieszka Holland: Socha was a simple man who had a divided personality—he was both good and bad. His story really touched me, I think, because he could have very easily become a bad guy. I was fascinated by his complex behavior. 


Tribeca: Even though this was an ensemble cast, the characters were so developed.  Because of the nuanced performances, the audience really got a feel for each person, including the group in the sewer. Did you have a rehearsal period? 


Agnieszka Holland: We did a bit, but not so long. They all are very strong actors, and everyone tried to find something for his or her character that was particular to that person. We were very open to the idea that all of the characters were complex. No one said, “Oh I want to be just a nice, angelic person.” They all were looking for the dark spots of their characters. 


Tribeca: Your wonderful ensemble cast included Robert Knaup and Benno Fuhrmann. Did you hold traditional casting sessions or had you already identified the actors you wanted to work with?  


Agnieszka Holland: I did the audition for the Jewish girls, because I wanted them to be very different from each other. I cast Benno without an audition. I always knew I wanted to work with Robert Wieckiewicz and Kinga Presis, who played Socha and his wife. They were already perfect, so I didn’t need to have a casting session with them.  


Tribeca: The film featured six languages, in addition to having a large international cast. How did you handle the challenges with language that you must have encountered? 


Agnieszka Holland: The actors were Polish and German, but they learned the languages. Some of the Polish actors knew Yiddish already. The set was almost like a language school.  


Kyrstyna & Socha

Credit: Jasmin Maria Dichant/Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics


Tribeca: One of the most impressive performances of the film was by the young girl who played Krystyna (Milla Bankowicz). She was so subtle and mature. You usually don’t expect that coming from a child. How did you approach directing her? 


Agnieszka Holland: I didn’t really change my approach. She read the script and she gave her comments, which were very believable to her character. She is quite the precious little thing. After our initial conversations, I just gave her little notes. She was instinctive. I wanted her to be in the moment and not act too much. That is why I think she’s so natural.  


Tribeca: I was particularly impressed with her composure in dealing with the sewer rats. What was it is like working with all those rats on the set? 


Agnieszka Holland: Well, they were pretty nice rats [laughs], not aggressive at all. They had a wrangler who loved them and on our second day of shooting, one of the rats accidentally drowned in the water. I didn’t know that rats could drown. I thought they could swim. Well, the wrangler tried to perform CPR on the rat and when it didn’t work, he started to cry. It was really sad, but it goes to show you that you can love a rat.  


Benno Furmann

Credit: Jasmin Maria Dichant/Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics


Tribeca: In Darkness has a running time of over two hours. However, the film is so well-paced and engaging that I had no idea had much time had passed. Were you conscious of pacing during the editing process?


Agnieszka Holland: You are right. Most people don’t notice the length of the film because it moves very fast, so much so that it surprised me. The first edit was close to four hours, but all of the basic sequences were there in much elaborated form. The challenge was to keep the sequences together while trying to squeeze them into two hours. Finally, I realized that such a radical compression just didn’t work. The film had to be two hours and twenty minutes.  


Tribeca: If the original cut was almost four hours, were there scenes you regret leaving on the cutting room floor? 


Agnieszka Holland: Yes, unfortunately. However, I don’t regret any of it now. I think the substance is there. Actually, when I watched this four-hour rough cut for the first time, it wasn’t boring. It was quite good [laughs].  


Tribeca: In total, how long were you in post-production? 


Agnieszka Holland: A long time. While I was working on other projects, my editor was editing along for probably a month and a half. After that, we spent two months together making the final edit, principally because we were really trying to make the film shorter. The sound post-production process was lengthy too, because it was happening in Poland, Germany and Canada. Along the way, the producers ran out of money, and we had to wait a while to get the print made. It was a pretty long time.  


Tribeca: The film had a really unique look. You managed to film scenes in dark sewers without losing clarity. Can you talk about your collaboration with your director of photography, Jolanta Dylewska? 


Chiger and Family

Credit: Jasmin Maria Dichant/Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics


Agnieszka Holland: I wanted it really dark and gritty. If you put the lights in the depths of the sewers with some sort of counter light, it looks a like a gothic cathedral and something very spectacular. That was Jolanta’s first idea, but I said no. She was a little afraid to make it that dark on set; she wanted to make it dark in the lab. It was important to me to have the set really dark for the actors. The darkness had to be real because I didn’t want them to pretend. It was very challenging.


The first day we shot the sewers, it looked like it wasn’t going to work, so it was very tense. Finally Jolanta found a way to get the effect I was looking for, in part by using the real lights of the flashlights. Her biggest task was how to make it dark and at the same time, see everything you needed to see. That was the biggest challenge. You can make it dark, but you have to follow the story and the emotional connection to the characters. You have to see what is important.  


Tribeca: In addition to your film career, I also wanted to talk about your interesting transition to directing for American television shows like The Wire and Treme. Can you talk about that segue in your career?


Agnieszka Holland: The first work of my professional life was directing television in Poland. It was really interesting because in Poland we have what is known as “the theater of the television,” which is usually a musical play or an adaptation of a really good book. Polish television shows are shot on stage mostly. I also did some television movies in Poland.


For me, television is just a medium. It isn’t radically different from film, though it has different stylistic possibilities and limitations, but it is also something new. I started to see that in the States, well-written and well-produced television shows were becoming far more interesting than the cinema. With challenging materials from HBO, Showtime, and now, AMC, it was very natural for me to want to work on their projects.


But I’m very particular. I only do one or two episodes a year, because it gives me some kind of energy, you know? I like being able to explore the realities of people and places that are not like mine, like the inner city of Baltimore or New Orleans after Katrina.  


Tribeca: Do you find it difficult jumping in to direct an episode with an already established crew and cast? 


Agnieszka Holland: Of course, I have to do more of research than a regular American director would because I don’t have the same cultural identity. I’m pretty up to date on America culture and history, but there are things in the language that are not always obvious to me. I have to work a little harder on this level. It’s quite interesting to serve somebody’s vision and jump into an already established style and try to make it slightly better.  


Tribeca: I’m a big fan of Treme, and I was not surprised that you were nominated for an Emmy for directing the pilot episode. Can you talk about working on the show? Was it the producers’ intention to have you direct the first and last episode of the first season? 


Agnieszka Holland: I don’t know what their intention was, but they offered me the pilot at a time when we were not sure whether the pilot was going to be picked up. David Simon had a very strong relationship with HBO, but nothing was guaranteed; they didn’t understand the show very well from the script. So it was really important to make the pilot right. I think my input in the pilot was somewhat important because of the way we were able to use music to portray life in New Orleans from the inside. It was difficult to incorporate the music into the story at all times, but I wanted the viewers to get the feeling that they were actually part of the setting and the action, not looking at events from the outside. I think some of the later directors didn’t do the greatest job. Treme was more difficult than The Wire, because it was much more subtle and it just felt right to me. After they picked up the show, they offered me the finale, so of course I took it. I felt it was my baby.  



In Darkness opens on Friday, February 10, in NY at Lincoln Plaza Cinema and the Angelika Film Center and in LA at the Landmark on Pico


Watch the trailer:



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