Sunday, March 4, 2012

Remembering the righteous

Agnieszka Holland’s In Darkness is set in the Nazi-occupied Polish city of Lvov in 1943, built around Leopold Socha, a Polish sewer inspector and opportunistic looter. He discovers a group of Jews tunneling underground, as a desperate escape route from an anticipated assault on the ghetto, and forces them to buy his silence about their plan; after the attack comes, he helps them hide, supplying them over fourteen months with provisions and lying to the Nazis about what he’s seen down there, gradually becoming motivated by altruism rather than money. It’s based on a true story: the Yad Vashem Holocaust museum commemorates Socha and his wife as members of the “Righteous Among the Nations.”

Agnieszka Holland

Holland is a survivor, a respected filmmaker for almost thirty years, her name connoting a general sense of solidity and class, without ever being cited as a truly great director. Three of her pictures, including this one, have been nominated for the foreign film Oscar; she’s also made a string of largely forgotten English-language movies (it seems to sum up something about her that she’s worked several times with Ed Harris). In recent years she’s directed episodes of classy TV shows like The Wire, The Killing and Treme. It’s an enviable career by any standard except the very highest one. Still, In Darkness doesn’t show Holland at her sharpest. Jaime Christley on the Slant website called her “a reliably terrible filmmaker” and said of the new film, “shot after shot demonstrates that Holland has absolutely no idea where to put the camera, is completely indifferent to lighting, and almost certainly must believe that authenticity can be attained by giving her makeup artists and art directors carte blanche to pile on as much dust and muck onto the actors and sets as possible.” I wouldn’t put it that strongly myself, but sad to say, I do know what he means: the film’s a generally lacklustre and monotonous viewing experience, often unnecessarily confusing or murky about what’s actually happening, never feeling like much more than one academically written and executed scene after another.

With some films, you register flaws and quibbles, but the overall power and acuity of the vision makes them incidental. Sadly, and a bit surprisingly, In Darkness never acquires any existential momentum, so that after a while it’s hard not to start mentally chipping away at the thing, something Holland makes shockingly easy (unfortunately, based even on cursory research, it’s obvious that the movie deviates far from the historical record). Sometimes it seems manipulative to the point of callousness: for example, from the initial large group that descends into the sewer, Socha only allows eleven of them to continue on with him; the conversation about who goes and who stays has all the urgency of organizing a shopping trip, and Holland demonstrates a complete lack of interest in the reactions and subsequent experiences of those who stay behind.

Shampoo commercial

It’s full of only-in-the-movie contrivances, of grim fates narrowly avoided by sheer coincidence or last-minute interventions. For example (not even the most egregious example), when Socha unexpectedly receives Nazi visitors, his young daughter is sufficiently innocent and unaware to blurt out that the food he’s serving them is meant to be for the Jews (a moment that induced a widespread gasp in the audience when I saw the film), but then sufficiently shrewd and resourceful to instantly improvise her way out of it. Perhaps most jarringly, in a scene of one of the women taking a shower, the movie momentarily seems to turn into a shampoo commercial.

As I said, these and many other deficiencies wouldn’t seem so prominent if the film were drawing on something broader: in the circumstances, its failure to do so is rather shocking (the closing credits offer the observation that we don’t need to draw on God in order to punish one another, but it seems trite and tacked on). I actually don’t agree with Christley about the surfeit of dirt and muck on the actors and sets – Holland isn’t very successful at conveying the surely nightmarish conditions down there. In this regard, several writers have inevitably linked the film to Andrzej Wajda’s 1957 film Kanal, another film set predominantly in sewers, this one depicting a group of resistance fighters beneath Warsaw. Wajda really is an acclaimed director – he won a special Oscar in 2000 for his body of work – but I think sitting through it all now would be a bit of a slog. Kanal is one of his best though – a viscerally powerful expression of the limitless degradation of war. It informs us at the start that the people it depicts will die that night, and many of them argue bitterly against descending into the sewer like rats, rather than standing and fighting; the film proves them right, covering them in filth, blurring their perceptions, closing off all possibilities, choking off what remains of their brave humanity. But the film also intermittently contains a much more vivid sense of tragic beauty than anything in In Darkness, and frequently grips you with the stark power of its imagery.

Holocaust cinema

You’d think we’d have evolved to a point where concepts like military intervention and invasion finally carried the weight they warrant, but we never get there; every new leader, reluctantly or not, whether because of perceived national interests or some selective sense of our broader duty, turns into an armchair general, extolling the courage of the troops and their sacrifices while shielding us from any vague sense of the blood and the butchery. It’s obviously a compelling and worthy subject for cinema – without wanting to pontificate about it, I do think films like Kanal enhance the viewer’s humanity (I’ve always believed it would be hard to absorb the best of cinema history without becoming progressively more liberal). But at the same time of course, war has long become a genre, with its well-established sub-genres and conventions; whether or not the genre glorifies war, it certainly contributes little to understanding it.

There’s a growing sense that the Holocaust in cinema has become such a genre in itself, with so many precedents and cinematic reference points that any new film can’t hope to transcend them. Liam Lacey asked in a recent Globe and Mail article whether “popular Holocaust dramas really ensure that people never forget the extermination of Jews in World War Two, or do they cloud history with sentimental distortions?” As far as I could tell, he didn’t take a stab at an answer, and I wouldn’t like to either (beyond noting that any film focusing on the “Righteous,” rather than on the far greater number of those who died far from righteous intervention, will always be a distortion of sorts). But certainly In Darkness doesn’t constitute very strong testimony for the “never forget” aspect of the argument. On the contrary, it’s the kind of Holocaust drama that would be made by well-meaning people who’d nevertheless forgotten far too much.

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