By Anne Thompson | Thompson on Hollywood February 11, 2012 at 7:22AM
Agnieszka Holland ("The Secret Garden") is no stranger to the Holocaust: she won Oscar nominations for both 1985's "Angry Harvest" and 1990's "Europa, Europa." Eight years ago, David Shamoon's script based on Robert Marshall's "The Sewers of Lvov" lured her back to that period in Polish history; she couldn't let it go.
The creative and technical challenge for this movie was how to keep an audience engaged while subjecting them to the horrors of claustrophobic, dank survival in the lightless, rat-infested sewers below Lvov, Poland. Charismatic actor Robert Wieckiewicz, playing a sewer scavenger who surprises himself by heroically struggling to keep a group of survivors alive, helps a great deal. And, apparently, these folks kept themselves amused by having lots of sex. Holland masterfully shows us yet again what human beings are capable of when faced with the unimaginable. "It's the borderline human experience," says Holland, who is a favorite of HBO, directing multiple episodes of "The Wire" and "Treme." "Humanity went to places where it was possible to see the worst of who we are. And sometimes also the best of who we are."
Anne Thompson: When you first read the script, did you see the images in some of these scenes in your mind?
Agnieszka Holland: No. I was really afraid to go there. Because when I read the script for the first time, I understood that it's quite special, even if I knew a lot of Holocaust stories. Some of them had been even more traumatic and more incredible. But I didn't want to go to those places. I did two movies connected to the subject before, and I knew that it's always difficult and in some way painful, so I didn't want to let my imagination work too quickly. I didn't want to get attached to that. And at first I was refusing it. [David Shamoon] kept coming back, two or three times, and I understood after a while that it was calling me. So only after that, I started to imagine it, to visualize it. It was a big challenge and I think it attracted me also that so much of it is in darkness. Filmmakers are ambitious people and they want to go to the places they've never been before. I've never had the chance to shoot 80 percent of my movie in the dark.
AT: Well, a basic element of filming is that light is beautiful, and it's very difficult to shoot in the dark. And you had to calibrate how much was going to be too much and how much was going to be too little, and how you were going to execute those sewers. How did you create and shoot them?
AH: We'd be discussing with our talented, sensitive cinematographer (Jolanta Dylewska). She's an artist and she does everything like paint craft. Everything is done in a very special way. Which sometimes actually irritated me, because I wanted it to be faster or to be louder, or to do something in a more efficient way. But she's talented and also has a very special relationship to the subject. Also, she's made two very original documentaries about the Holocaust, so she wasn't just a technician or even a creative technician. She was a partner in terms of thinking about how to express the things which are so difficult to express. In terms of the darkness, I told her that I wanted it to be really dark—not only to feel dark on the screen but on the set, I also wanted the actors to be in the darkness. And to them it was really a technical difficulty, and not a very good means to do that, because we shot it on the RED.
AT: Which is not light sensitive.
AH: Right. I was angry when I realized that it's not sensitive but I thought she would have told me, and afterwards I told her, 'listen, we have to push it.' And she said, 'the technicians say that it's impossible to push.' And I said, 'no, nothing is impossible. We have to push it.' So we pushed it. And actually it worked.
AH: Yeah. It's cheaper. Also it has beautiful picture to it. It's very cinematic. But it was half as sensitive as the 35 was. But actually, it appears to be possible to make it more sensitive. But it was a technical challenge, and a lot of time to shoot. And another thing which I didn't want was to shoot the sewers like in "The Third Man," where the cinematographer is putting the big light in the bottom of the tunnels, and it looks beautiful like a cathedral. When we went together to several sewers, it doesn't have this kind of beauty. It is very claustrophobic and depressing. I wanted to have this feeling—that you really feel like you are in this place, that you feel claustrophobia, that you feel that you can smell it in some way. Which of course you cannot, fortunately for you, but it wakes up the imagination.
AT: So you actually built the sewers on a stage?
AH: We mixed it. We shot in the real sewers, maybe 30 percent, and the main scenes where we have most of the acting we shot on the stage. The production designer constructed a little maze of tunnels. It was relatively small but it was possible to shoot in one shot for quite a long time, because it was very complex. And it was done in such a way that you don't recognize when we cut from the real sewers to our sewers.
AT: So you shot it in Babelsberg Studio, in Germany?
AH: We were shooting in Leipzig. It was not the real studio, it was some primitive space that was connected to the studio. And Leipzig is a very strange place. We felt like being on a different planet. It was difficult and it was helpful. And it was a very, very cold winter, and suddenly we ran out of money. It was a very extreme experience, I have to tell you. And I had mostly a Polish crew, and some were from a German crew, and after two days instead of being friends and collaborating, a kind of German-Polish war started with some truce involved. And it was strange. It was full of tension, which probably is good for the film. But it wasn't a very happy experience.
AT: And you had six different languages being spoken?
AH: Yeah. I decided that I wanted it really real, that I had to use all the languages which were being used in that time. So the group of the Jews, the educated characters are speaking normal Polish, and Ukrainian, German and Yiddish, but our main characters, Socha and his wife and this young guy who's helping him, they speak this very special kind of Polish which no one is speaking today, but in the time it was the normal language for this class, something, if you translated it to English, like Cockney.
AT: Where did you find your actors? Were they famous in Poland?
AH: Robert Wieckiewicz, who plays Socha, is fairly well-known. He's 42 to 45 maybe, but his real career started seven or eight years ago. And when I saw him for the first time on the screen, I realized that he's an extremely original, very powerful actor, who is very brave also, not afraid to go to a very complicated place. And then the actress who plays his wife, I'd never worked with her, but I always wanted to work with her. She's wonderful. And she's been in many, many movies, and she's a theater actress also. Most of the Polish actors are playing both in the theater and in the movies and television. And the other people from the group, I knew all of them, but I let the casting people decide if they were right for the part. The German actors, three of them, Mundek, the young handsome guy and the parents of the children, they are German, and they learned Polish. They speak half German, half Polish. There was some tension between Socha and Mundek which you have on the screen—in reality they were kind of cocky pants.
AT: And you put lots of sex in this movie.
AH: I dedicated this movie to an old friend who died three years ago, Marek Edelman. He was brave and courageous in the way that he made statements about his experience. One of the most important Jewish figures not only in Poland but, I think, in the world. The last living, surviving commander of the ghetto uprising in Warsaw. And after the war, he became a famous cardiologist and also a political dissident, and he decided that he would never leave Poland because he has a duty to his fellows who died to be there and to remind him of them. Every year, he made a lonely pilgrimage on the day of the anniversary of the ghetto uprising to the monument of the ghetto. He gave a lot of interviews and wrote some books, and the last one was called "And There Was Love in the Ghetto." And he absolutely wanted me to do something with it, and he said, 'what really irritates me in all fields about the Holocaust is that it's not shown that we were making love all the time. That I never was so sexually active than this time, and that in the bunkers, during the uprising, we were loving each other all the time, physically and erotically. Just to be close to each other, just to have each other. It was something that was so strong. And it helped us to feel alive, and it helped us to survive and to die.'
AT: What struck me is that you were putting a lot of life in this movie. That it wasn't just about death—there were babies and viscous fluid and real blood coursing through these people's veins.
AH: What is forgotten, most incredibly, is that in the bottom of hell, you can have life. Everyday, ordinary life. Cooking, making love, playing with your children, praying, talking, arguing, fighting. You are able in some way to accept it as your life. And the person who is still alive, Krystyna Chiger, who's a little girl in the movie, wrote a wonderful book about her experience called "The Girl in the Green Sweater." If you have a chance you can read it. It's really beautiful. She's very matter of fact and honest about everything she went through, and she told me—which for me was shocking, and helped me understood that it was like that—that the happiest time of her childhood was during the war, those 14 months in the sewer. Because before, the children had been deported first. So most of the children in the ghettos had been taken to the gas chambers in the first round. And the parents knew about it, and her parents, who were very intelligent—her father was a very powerful man—he created hiding places for them. So during the days, they had to be in these small hiding places in the dark, she and her little brother, when the parents would come back from work. And sometimes they would listen to the steps and the shouts of Germans and it was hell. It was lonely, scary and terrible. So when they finally found themselves in the sewer, they felt safe finally, and they spent all their time with their parents. Their parents could talk to them and play with them, and the little boys became very friendly with the rats, as pets. It was terrible but it was in some way better than other places.
AT: Were you able to show the movie to her?
AH: Yes, Krystyna, who is the last survivor, she's seen the movie twice. Once was with the screenwriter and the Canadian producer, we screened it for her in New York. It was a work in progress, not completely finished, but I wanted her to see it before finished it, to have the possibility to change something. But she didn't want any changes. She was so emotional that she practically cried through the whole movie. She wasn't very critical.
AT: How old is she?
AH: 72, 73? She looks very good and she's in great shape, physically and mentally. She's very strong and very healthy, which surprised me. Because I know a lot of Holocaust survivors, and you can feel this kind of sadness. She doesn't have that. She told me that she and her family, after the war, they talked about it all the time. I think part of what was worst for the survivors is that they did not talk about it for years. Her family did their own therapy and it made her very healthy. After she came to Toronto, because when we screened the film at Toronto, we had a gala with a lot of people, and she was there with her husband and son and her two granddaughters. I presented my actors and crew to the audience, and after I asked the audience if they could stay after the credits because I wanted to present somebody else. And people gave it a standing ovation, it was very emotional, and I asked Krystyna to come on the stage. It was difficult for her but she put herself together—she's a very strong girl—and she came and talked to the audience. It was so incredibly passionate, for everybody. We were all crying. I didn't cry during the production of course—sometimes I did from anger, if I was angry at the producers or something—but not emotionally. And now in this moment, I suddenly felt that it was like a sense of closure. The past and the present came together and it all made some kind of sense. It was very beautiful. And you never know—it's much easier to make movies about people who are dead. Because you never know how they're going to react.
AT: You've come back to the Holocaust, as you say. What is it about this material that keeps nourishing you?
AH: There's several reasons. The personal reason—my father's family died there, so in some way I feel the connection and a deep curiosity about their fate and what they felt, what they'd been through. The second reason is that I think it's very revealing of their culture—it's the borderline human experience. Humanity went to places where it was possible to see the worst of who we are. And sometimes also the best of who we are. And the third reason is that, especially the stories of survivors, are so incredibly adventurous, dramatic and surprising that they are such a rich pool for the storyteller. They're like Greek myths—they have biblical dimensions. Any story of a survivor can be a movie.
AT: Your central character Socha is a flawed man. You establish him right at the beginning as a criminal, yet he rises to something that he could never imagine in himself.
AH: Yes, I don't think he knows that he's able to go to this place. And it's what attracted me to this character. In some ways, he's intellectually primitive, he doesn't have an appearance of very strong principles, and at any moment—this is what created the real dramatic tension in the story—he can slip on both sides. He can become their murderer, or their saviour. And he doesn't know himself what he will do. At some point, suddenly, he comes to the point of no return, when they become for him so important that he's able to sacrifice his own family in order to save them. And that's a very subtle and unpredictable process. Robert played it in this way. He said afterwards when someone asked him about his method in this film that he tried to forget what he knew about the script. He tried every time to react only to the immediate, actual situation, and act by reaction, not to construct his role. And I think you can feel it—that he's in this moment.
AT: He's extremely real. Also, you use music in a restrained yet effective way. In the same way that the characters are not sentimentalized or idealized, the music is not manipulative.
AH: We had been afraid of the music. I've worked several times before with the composer (Antoni Komsa-Lazarkiewicz) and he's very smart. Of course, any composer, especially with such emotional material, would like to put in as much music as possible. But when I edit a film, normally I put in some kind of temp music for myself to get an idea of what will work and to give guidance to the composer, but when we were editing this film, I tried hundreds of pieces of music, and nothing really worked. I felt that the reality of the movie pushes it away, and the type of music was usually narrative and emotional. So I told him, 'I'm afraid we cannot use music,' and he said, 'let me try.' In the first moment, he came with this aria, and he told me that when he read the script, he had this music in his ear. And I tried to put it on, and it worked. Suddenly, it gave a sense of pathos without being sentimental. Most of the music is mixed with real noises and the sound design, and it comes out of the sound design. After we mixed it, we put it away to see if it was better with no music at all, but it wasn't.
AT: The costumes were also tricky to do under these conditions, to get it right in terms of continuity?
AH: Yes, because it was 14 months for those people and they didn't have changes of clothes, so the costume designer had to create different versions of the degradation, and we didn't do it in shooting order. And we didn't have time, so the costumes were wet and dirty all the time. So it was kind of a nightmare. We had two costume designers, and they didn't sleep for those two months that we worked.
AT: You made a movie that was fairly lengthy—four hours long at some point?
AH: Well, when we put the first cut together, which was pretty well shaped already, it was four hours. And actually it wasn't bad.
AT: You wanted us to settle into this darkness?
AH: I wanted it to be short. I wanted it to be two hours. Two hours is the magical length which distributors will take. But we were unable to shorten it that much. Anytime when we went down from two hours and twenty minutes, it felt longer. It was an interesting experience. The reaction was much better with this longer version. It was worse when we tried to cut some things to make them shorter. So in some way, I understood at some point that the scenes in the sewers have to last, they have to take time. If not they become informational. You have to feel something similar to what the people there felt. It's not just like a montage. Montages are boring, mostly. So I told myself (and the producers), they've been in the sewers for 14 months, you can stay two hours and twenty minutes.
AT: Did Sony Pictures Classics say fine, that's ok?
AH: At some point, in a production like that, where money's coming from different sources—we had ten producers at some points, and some I never met—but here it was probably eight.