Dir. Agnieszka Holland, Poland/Germany/Canada, 2011, 144 mins, Polish/Yiddish/German/Ukrainian with English subtitles
Cast: Robert Więckiewicz, Benno Fürmann, Herbert Knaup, Kinga Preis, Agnieszka Grochowska
Review by Eva Moravetz
Nominated for an Oscar in the foreign film category at this year’s Academy Awards (but losing out to Iran’s A Separation), Agnieszka Holland’s harrowing new film is based on real events. It is set in Nazi-occupied Poland, 1943 and the liquidation of Lvov’s Jewish ghetto is underway. Polish Catholic sewer worker and petty thief, Leopold Socha (Robert Więckiewicz) comes across a group of Jews, led by wealthy businessman Ignacy Chiger (Herbert Knaup), trying to hide in the sewers and he agrees to help them for a price. Socha knows the complicated sewer system like the back of his hand and he is motivated by simple personal gain in order to support his family. He keeps the group safe and brings them food but, without displaying any signs of guilt, he plans to hand over ‘his’ Jews to the Nazis for another quick reward, as soon as Chiger runs out of his savings. When the money does run out however, Socha continues to care for these unfortunate souls, despite the ever growing risks to his own life and those of his family.
We tend to think that our knowledge of the Holocaust is somehow complete. But in fact all we learnt at school and read in books, all the documentaries and films with which we are familiar, just scratch the surface of the truth. New and astonishing stories are coming to light all the time, thanks to the memories of survivors. One director, who is a staunch supporter of recording and preserving survivors’ testimonies, is Steven Spielberg, who set up the Shoah Foundation after the success of Schindler’s List (1993) for exactly this purpose. Through veteran film maker Agnieszka Holland (The Secret Garden, Washington Square, Europa Europa, Total Eclipse), another astonishing story has now been transformed into a cinematic vision of endurance, danger and sacrifice.
Socha, just like his Jewish escapees, is a complex character. He is canny and selfish but also caring and compassionate. Although he hates the occupying Nazis, he thinks this war has nothing to do with him and he even harbours some anti-Semitic feelings. He doesn’t have much of an opinion about his protégés and when his wife Wanda (Kinga Preis) expresses some compassion towards the Jews, Socha snaps back ‘Didn’t the Jews kill Jesus?’ When Wanda answers that Jesus was a Jew, Socha is both startled and caught off balance. Similarly, the refugees in the sewer are a complex group of people. Far from being flawless, they fight and bicker with each other. These clashes are personal, cultural and class-related.
There is a strong line of contrasts in the film. The barbarities of the occupation happening above ground are intercut with the unspeakable circumstances in the sewers underground. Socha alternates between these two worlds of light and dark, as he is compelled to take on more and more personal risks. As he spends more time down in the darkness, the danger seems to intensify for him. At one point his daughter nearly gives him away. On another occasion he arouses the suspicion of his Ukranian friend and Nazi collaborator, Bortnik (Michal Zurawski).
The screenplay, written by David F. Shamoon, was based on the book ‘In the Sewers of Lvov’ by Robert Marshall. Shamoon was intrigued by the question of moral obligation; not only taking risks for others’ lives but going through a complete change of heart in order to do so. Holland manages to remain detached throughout the story, avoiding pitfalls of sentimentality and giving the film a chilly realism. Her choice to film the story in the original Polish, Yiddish, German and Ukrainian spoken by the real life characters as opposed to making it in English (like in Schindler’s List or The Pianist) lends a great deal of authenticity to the story telling. The language choice also highlights the turbulent historical and cultural complexity not only of Poland but of the whole Eastern European region. It’s not an easy movie to watch but one that must be seen and will stay with the audience for a long time.