Arts and Culture

Polish Jews fight to survive harrowing ‘Darkness’

(L-R): Milla Bańkowicz as Krystyna Chiger and Robert Więckiewicz as Leopold Socha (Jasmin Marla Dichant/Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics)

In the last few decades, German and French filmmakers — reflecting and, in some cases, bravely advancing national attitudes — have examined the Holocaust with both blunt candidness and shades-of-gray maturity.

Polish director Agnieszka Holland’s profoundly responsible and beautifully made “In Darkness” represents a rare cinematic attempt to address the Poles’ unhappy participation in World War II.

Based on the actual experiences of Polish Jews, like her mentor Andrzej Wajda’s “Korczak” and Roman Polanski’s “The Pianist,” Holland’s film traces the evolving arrangement between an amoral Polish sewer worker and the dozen or so Jews he agrees to hide underground and feed — for a price — after the liquidation of the Lvov ghetto.

Its enormous historical value and exceptional artistic merits aside, “In Darkness” represents an opportunity to acknowledge and reduce the tension between Poles and Jews surrounding the Holocaust.

“There was a lot of hidden guilt [among the Poles], and from the Jewish side a feeling of deep betrayal,” Holland said in a recent phone interview. “So [the Jews] were much angrier with the Poles than they were with the Germans.”

The lingering and unresolved ill will on both sides stemmed from a fundamental difference in perception: The Poles saw themselves as victims of Nazi brutality, and as occasional rescuers of the Jews. To most Jews, the Poles were collaborators or, at best, opportunists.

At some point in “In Darkness,” the compromised, erstwhile hero — sewer worker and thief Leopold Socha — fulfills every one of those roles.

“I cannot heal the relationship, but I can open people’s hearts and minds,” Holland continued. “The moment when the anti-Semitism stops is when you see the human being in the Jew, and when the Jew can see the human being in the Pole. It’s a step forward.”

“In Darkness,” an Academy Award nominee for Best Foreign Language Film (Poland), opens Friday, March 30 at the Loft Cinema. There will be a special screening on Sunday, April 1 at 6 p.m., co-presented by the Tucson International Jewish Film Festival.

Holland’s father was Jewish, and she previously explored anti-Semitism, morality and survival in her amazing, epic 1990 film “Europa, Europa.” So the 60-something director, whose resume includes episodes of various HBO series, was well aware that she was re-entering dark, challenging territory.

“Anytime you go deep into this subject — I read a lot of documents new to me, because I wasn’t so familiar with this situation in Lvov — it’s a painful process,” she confided. “It’s in your dreams. It makes you depressed. Doing a movie like that influences your entire system.”

“In Darkness” opened in Poland in January to ticket sales that surprised Holland and her producers. Moreover, she reports, the audience was mostly young.

“For a long time the Poles didn’t want to face the truth about some parts of the truth, but in the last 10 years it changed quite quickly with [the publication of] some books,” Holland explained. “Some younger Polish historians are extremely honest about the subject. It worked out a lot of very painful emotions.”

The effect is most noticeable among the next generation, Holland says.

“When you are speaking to young Polish people today, they are really interested in the truth,” she declares. “Another side effect is many more of them see the Righteous Among the Nations as heroes. There was a time when they had to hide.”

An earnest, generally unsmiling woman, Holland allows that “In Darkness” offers a glimmer of light.

“I’m not an optimist generally [but] some type of healing in this relationship is possible,” she says. “Poland is one of Israel’s closest allies now.”

Michael Fox is a movie critic in San Francisco.