Last night at the Academy Awards, the Iranian film, “A Separation,” won the best foreign film prize. The Polish film, “In Darkness,” did not win, even though it is an important film about the Holocaust. I imagine Malgorzata Bakalarz, a Polish art historian studying sociology in New York, is pleased. -Jeff
I remember the joke among my friends – photographers and filmmakers – repeated each time when someone would read a film review in a newspaper. “Why are all the film critics unemployed in Poland? – Because sociologists and historians write better film reviews. – And why’s that? – Because it’s all about important movies, not the good ones.”
Indeed, “important” is not a formal category for judging a film, and it should not be a category to discuss “In Darkness” by Agnieszka Holland, either. Holland depicts a true story about Leopold Socha, Polish sewage worker, who saved a group of Jews, hiding them in sewage in Lviv (now in Ukraine). And yet many reviewers were terrorized by the importance of the content and do not really address the form. Is it really so that to watch films touching on important issues one needs to become “a patriot,” “a pacifist,” or “anti-Fascist” instead of remaining simply “a viewer”? And why does a critique of a film on Holocaust seem to be anti-Semitic? The terror of “important movies” is truly a noteworthy phenomenon.
“In Darkness” is not a masterpiece, no matter how important its subject. In it, Holland, the distinguished Polish director, is guilty of the sin of excess (or indecisiveness): among many different angles of the story and many ways of telling it – she has chosen everything. The effect is a lot of unnecessary scenes that make the large picture (sic!) blurry. Should we fully recognize the main protagonist’s transformation, from a crook that wants to get rich on others’ tragedy into a righteous gentile? Or, rather, should we meditate on complex dynamics between the group of Jews – fled from the ghetto to be forced to select among themselves the ones who would die, the “selected” fleeing to sure death outside, unable to sustain dignity in the sewer? Should we, instead, focus on romantic elements, admitting that “love is as strong as death” (Song of Songs, 8.6)? Finally, should we follow the history and better understand the war times in a small town?
One thing is for sure: we can’t do everything at once and neither can the director: with average actors (with the exception of Socha’s character), a minor, conventional music score, challenging locations and not-so-great photography. What is really unforgivable is that Holland didn’t tell us the story.
The way it is told does not allow for “sinking in”: for getting angry, or scared, or sad, for sympathizing with Socha or “his” Jews, or of the Jews in Lviv. A few particular scenes are extremely powerful, but they do not contribute to the main story (whatever it is), remaining distinctive gems on their own and fragmenting the plot even more. There is an accumulation of scenes, rather than storytelling. Watching the film we are unable to focus, and pay enough attention to the moments crucial for the plot; it’s either “not enough” or “too much” to get the story.
The film’s formal fabric doesn’t help. Amber, Rembrandtian light flowing in Socha’s house, is supposed to stand in opposition to the dark wet sewer. But the sepia-like, over-estheticized hazy color palette of the ghetto apartment confuses. Just like the unbearably light and saturated last scene, with Socha’s wife to be at its center (yes, it was important to underline the home made cake waiting for the survivors – but why was it really the guest star?). Some shots in the sewer are, no doubt, quite extraordinary, but altogether pretty conventional and repetitive. Something just didn’t work in this movie, making me check my watch way too often.
It is a challenge to tell the story with a well-known ending. It’s a challenge to balance pathos with an “ordinary/intimate story” when talking about the Holocaust. This time the challenge was simply too large for Holland, accomplished and internationally renowned for her great “Europa, Europa,” “Total Eclipse,” “Olivier, Olivier,” “Angry Harvest” – known for her insightful way of intimately dripping stories, masterfully showing the complexity of emotions, conflicts of values, being at the crossroads. Sometimes even the greatest of artists fail, even, perhaps especially, when making important films.
Maybe the urge to make an important movie just paralyzed all the habitual intuitions. Maybe the consciousness of the depth of the story itself put the formal instinct to sleep. Whatever it was, it contributed to my disappointment.
I’m against important movies. Instead, I just want to watch some good ones.