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Beacons of hope and inspiration light even the darkest pits of despond

by Roger Pulvers

Special To The Japan Times

The renowned Polish-born film and television director and screenwriter Agnieszka Holland has created a stunning work about life and death in the Lviv ghetto during the closing months of World War II.

Her film, titled “In Darkness,” stands as a metaphor of hope for all people terrorized by the brutalities of occupation and ethnic cleansing. It depicts the life of a group of Jews who lived for 14 months in the sewers of the city, determined, against all odds, to survive.

Before the war, Lviv, which is now in Ukraine, was a city in Poland with a large Jewish population. After Germany’s blitzkrieg invasion of Poland in September 1939, tens of thousands of Jewish refugees fled east, and many poured into Lviv.

By the time the city fell to the Germans in early July 1941, there were some 200,000 Jews there. About half fled further east, into the far reaches of the Soviet Union, but in November and December the remaining 100,000 were herded into a ghetto located in the poorest sector of the city.

The Ukrainian population, having suffered the ravages of Stalin’s so-called Holodomor, or “famine genocide,” in the early 1930s, largely welcomed the Nazi troops with open arms. Many were also eager to assist the occupiers in carrying out the Final Solution.

But then, as German troops and Ukrainian police began to transport Lviv’s Jews to concentration camps, small groups of Jews took to the tunnels of the sewage system. In June 1943, the occupiers — bent on the total extermination of Jews — burned their houses and began summarily executing them. The best estimate of the number of Lviv’s Jews who survived the ghetto is a bit over 800.

“In Darkness” takes us to two worlds: that of the Jews hiding in the sewers and that of two Polish maintenance workers who discover them and agree to provide them with food — at a price.

In the beginning, the chief maintenance worker, Socha, is no more than a szmalcownik — the Polish word for blackmailers who milked Jews, or Poles who hid Jews for their money before turning them in. But gradually he realizes that life has presented him with a choice that he must make. And, though an ordinary man in every way, he makes an extraordinary choice.

Socha’s old buddy, Bortnik, a vicious Ukrainian officer, keeps a close eye on him, suspecting him of harboring Jews. He represents all oppressors who couch their foul greed in cliches of piety or ideology. Living in a big house confiscated from a Jewish family, he gloats, “Life for me is like a fairy tale.”

The unrelenting fear of discovery links the two worlds, above and below ground, and the relationship between Socha and the leader of the Jewish group, Mundek, forms the link between those worlds. Both must muster an immense courage to keep their heads above water, both literally and metaphorically, in a world where a human’s life was little different from that of the rats whose subterranean world they share.

At one point, Janek, one of the Jews, pulls a pistol on a pious fellow who, in his tallis (prayer shawl), is praying against the putrid wall of the sewer. “There is no god here!” he screams, about to blow off the man’s head.

Indeed, the conspicuous absence of a god, despite invocation of the word above and below ground, raises the question at the very core of “In Darkness”: Why doesn’t god show his hand?

The dominant Roman Catholic Church in Poland openly supported the Nazi occupation of the country, hoping it would free Europe from the yoke of atheistic communism. Yet the ignorance among ordinary Poles regarding Jewish people, their largest minority, was astounding. Socha’s young sidekick in the sewers asks, in all innocence, “What? Was Jesus Jewish?!”

The final hiding place for the Jews is the sewer below a church. Chanting can be heard coming from above as the Jews light the candles of a menorah.

Nonetheless, some Catholics are seen to be true to their faith. A Ukrainian who risks his life to aid Mundek refuses payment. “God will repay me,” he says.

Holland was assistant director to the famed director Andrzej Wajda on “Man of Marble,” his 1977 film that delved into the lies underpinning the postwar Stalinization of Poland. She worked with Wajda on other films as well, and his 1957 film “Kanal,” about partisans in the sewers during the Warsaw Uprising of 1944, clearly provided inspiration for “In Darkness.”

She also collaborated with two other major Polish directors, Krzysztof Zanussi and Krzysztof Kieslowski. Three of her own films, “Angry Harvest,” “Olivier, Olivier” and “Europa Europa” take up the plight of ordinary people whose lives are thrown into disarray by circumstances of war far beyond their control.

The filmic aspects of “In Darkness,” shot as it was in the gloom of the sewers, are remarkable. Director of photography Jolanta Dylewska and editor Michal Czarnecki provide a brilliantly filmed and perfectly timed narrative that cuts sentimentality down to a taut wire.

Meanwhile, Janusz Kaleja’s makeup is just about the best I have seen for a war movie in its necessary blending of heightened drama and realism, while that sense of realism is grounded in a superbly crafted script by Canadian writer David Shamoon, which is reinforced by the use of Polish, Yiddish, Ukrainian and German.

There are not enough stars in the critic’s constellation to give to the actors, particularly Robert Wieckiewicz as Socha, who beautifully courses his character from a crude man into a savior. Wieckiewicz also plays Lech Walesa in “Walesa,” Wajda’s upcoming film about the Solidarity trade union leader who served as president of Poland from 1990-95.

Holland was studying filmmaking in Prague at the time of the Prague Spring uprising against Soviet occupation in 1968, and her ties with the Czech Republic run deep. “When the Soviets invaded, I went up to the tanks and pounded on them,” she told me when we met in Tokyo in June.

She has now just completed filming a three-part series for HBO Czech Republic about Jan Palach, the 21-year-old student who committed suicide by self-immolation in Prague’s central square in January 1969 in protest against the Soviet occupation of his country and the suppression of freedom it imposed.

“In Darkness,” which opens later this month in Tokyo, Osaka and Nagoya prior to showings in other cities, is a masterpiece that transcends its time and context. However, what brought home to me even more its significance to us today is the film’s dedication to Marek Edelman.

Edelman, the last survivor of the Warsaw Ghetto, didn’t leave Poland after the war. He became one of the country’s foremost cardiologists, took part in the Solidarity movement — for which he was incarcerated — and, in his later years, openly supported the Palestinians’ cause for freedom from Israeli occupation of their lands.

Edelman, one of history’s most courageous resistance fighters against forces of anti-Semitism, a man who was awarded Poland’s highest decoration, the Order of the White Eagle, among other honors, never received official recognition from the Israeli government. He passed away in Warsaw on Oct. 2, 2009. I was introduced to him there briefly in March 2006, but was too overcome to do more than bow to him.

Agnieszka Holland has expressed all that can be said about the crushing black of the underworld, the blinding white of the world above — and the harrowing world of gray, where the conscience of most of us, in good times and bad, all too often takes refuge.