When the Sun Was His Smile

In Darkness -- one of this year's nominees for Best Foreign Language Film -- opens February 10.  It is a remarkable film, and an extraordinary accomplishment.

The title is both metaphorical and literal: the film takes place during the great darkness that descended on Europe during World War II, and the story unfolds mostly in the pitch-black sewers of Lvov.  In the pervasive darkness, Leopold Socha -- a Polish Catholic sewer worker and a thief -- hid Jews for 14 months in the same place he hid his stolen goods.

The film is the result of an eight-year effort that began when Canadian David Shamoon read about Socha in a review of Martin Gilbert's 2003 book on righteous gentiles.  It made him want to learn why a criminal -- or anyone -- would risk his life and his family's lives to help strangers.  Shamoon contacted Gilbert, who told him about Robert Marshall's 1991 book In the Sewers of Lvov.  Shamoon bought the last copy of Marshall's book on Amazon and, after reading it, was moved to write his first screenplay:

[A]s the son of parents who had to flee Baghdad to escape Iraq's persecution of Jews, [the story] also spoke to me on a very deep level. So I personally optioned the film rights to the book and spent the next year researching the era and writing the script 'on spec'. Early on, I made two very critical choices: I would not sugar-coat any of the Jewish characters -- they were all deeply flawed[.] ... The second choice was to limit the depiction of the atrocities [since] audiences are already aware of the extent of the horror[.]

After finishing the script, Shamoon spent a half-decade trying to get the film made.  He approached the great Polish director Agnieska Holland (whose Oscar® nominations include Europa, Europa and Angry Harvest and who directed The Secret Garden).  She turned it down, and eventually agreed only if the story were told in its original languages -- Polish, German, Yiddish, and Ukranian, rather than English.

The resulting film has an authenticity it would have lacked in the language of Hollywood.  It is also a truly extraordinary piece of filmmaking, because it is able to convey the horror of the time in a single scene lasting less than a minute, tell a story that is gripping and complex, and leave viewers with a new understanding of both darkness and light.

Holland says her biggest challenge as a filmmaker was the darkness: "We wanted the audience to have the sensual feeling of being there."  The director of photography, Jolanta Dylewska, tried to create a "dramaturgy of lighting by which the spectator will be 'touched' by the darkness."  The film's music is powerful, including Henry Purcell's haunting 17th-century aria "When I Am Laid in Earth," which includes these lyrics (unspoken in the film):

[D]arkness shades me, on thy bosom let me rest. ... When I am laid, am laid in earth, may my wrongs create no trouble, no trouble in thy breast. Remember me, remember me, but, ah, forget my fate.

The people portrayed in Gilbert's book had various reasons for saving Jews.  Some believed that God was testing their Christian faith by sending them Jews in distress.  Some saw sheltering Jews as a form of political resistance.  Some felt that their actions were the only thing a decent person could do.  Socha (played by Robert Wieckiewicz in an extraordinary performance) is different.

At the beginning of the movie, he is stealing goods from empty Jewish homes as the Jewish community in Lvov is liquidated; he is motivated by money.  He agrees to hide Jews since it is easier than getting money from turning them in.  Both he and the Jews are ambiguous characters, with multiple motivations, thrown together in an unbearable situation in which some find depths of character they did not know were there and others come up empty.  All of them are changed by the experience, and viewers may be as well.

Today there is one remaining Jews from the Lvov sewers -- Krystyna Chiger, who was an eight-year-old child then and is a 76-year-old woman now.  She was interviewed in 1947 at age 11, and was interviewed again last month by the Wall Street Journal, recounting that the producers of the film asked her to watch it to gauge its veracity.  She said, "The whole time I was shaking and tears were coming to my eyes," and she told the producers, "I don't see any mistakes.  It was really what happened."

The Journal asked how she still remembers Socha so well, so many decades later:

Him I remembered vividly because he was like an angel. We were sitting in the basement in the darkness, you see someone climbing from a hole with such a bright smile. It's like I always compare it to the sun coming out.

In the Hebrew Bible, the ninth plague in Exodus 10:21 is a three-day darkness that covers the land -- a darkness the Bible says could be "felt" or "touched."  The darkness in In Darkness is virtually a character in the film; it can be felt and touched.  The light is a character that can be felt and touched as well, but it would spoil the ending of the film to describe how.  Suffice it to say that the light in the film comes from both above and within.

Director Agnieszka Holland said during the production of the film that she wanted to create a film that would last.  Most of her father's family died in the Warsaw Ghetto; her mother helped save people there and is listed in the Righteous Among the Nations.  Those who see their daughter's film will likely emerge from the darkened theater with an experience that will endure.

In Darkness -- one of this year's nominees for Best Foreign Language Film -- opens February 10.  It is a remarkable film, and an extraordinary accomplishment.

The title is both metaphorical and literal: the film takes place during the great darkness that descended on Europe during World War II, and the story unfolds mostly in the pitch-black sewers of Lvov.  In the pervasive darkness, Leopold Socha -- a Polish Catholic sewer worker and a thief -- hid Jews for 14 months in the same place he hid his stolen goods.

The film is the result of an eight-year effort that began when Canadian David Shamoon read about Socha in a review of Martin Gilbert's 2003 book on righteous gentiles.  It made him want to learn why a criminal -- or anyone -- would risk his life and his family's lives to help strangers.  Shamoon contacted Gilbert, who told him about Robert Marshall's 1991 book In the Sewers of Lvov.  Shamoon bought the last copy of Marshall's book on Amazon and, after reading it, was moved to write his first screenplay:

[A]s the son of parents who had to flee Baghdad to escape Iraq's persecution of Jews, [the story] also spoke to me on a very deep level. So I personally optioned the film rights to the book and spent the next year researching the era and writing the script 'on spec'. Early on, I made two very critical choices: I would not sugar-coat any of the Jewish characters -- they were all deeply flawed[.] ... The second choice was to limit the depiction of the atrocities [since] audiences are already aware of the extent of the horror[.]

After finishing the script, Shamoon spent a half-decade trying to get the film made.  He approached the great Polish director Agnieska Holland (whose Oscar® nominations include Europa, Europa and Angry Harvest and who directed The Secret Garden).  She turned it down, and eventually agreed only if the story were told in its original languages -- Polish, German, Yiddish, and Ukranian, rather than English.

The resulting film has an authenticity it would have lacked in the language of Hollywood.  It is also a truly extraordinary piece of filmmaking, because it is able to convey the horror of the time in a single scene lasting less than a minute, tell a story that is gripping and complex, and leave viewers with a new understanding of both darkness and light.

Holland says her biggest challenge as a filmmaker was the darkness: "We wanted the audience to have the sensual feeling of being there."  The director of photography, Jolanta Dylewska, tried to create a "dramaturgy of lighting by which the spectator will be 'touched' by the darkness."  The film's music is powerful, including Henry Purcell's haunting 17th-century aria "When I Am Laid in Earth," which includes these lyrics (unspoken in the film):

[D]arkness shades me, on thy bosom let me rest. ... When I am laid, am laid in earth, may my wrongs create no trouble, no trouble in thy breast. Remember me, remember me, but, ah, forget my fate.

The people portrayed in Gilbert's book had various reasons for saving Jews.  Some believed that God was testing their Christian faith by sending them Jews in distress.  Some saw sheltering Jews as a form of political resistance.  Some felt that their actions were the only thing a decent person could do.  Socha (played by Robert Wieckiewicz in an extraordinary performance) is different.

At the beginning of the movie, he is stealing goods from empty Jewish homes as the Jewish community in Lvov is liquidated; he is motivated by money.  He agrees to hide Jews since it is easier than getting money from turning them in.  Both he and the Jews are ambiguous characters, with multiple motivations, thrown together in an unbearable situation in which some find depths of character they did not know were there and others come up empty.  All of them are changed by the experience, and viewers may be as well.

Today there is one remaining Jews from the Lvov sewers -- Krystyna Chiger, who was an eight-year-old child then and is a 76-year-old woman now.  She was interviewed in 1947 at age 11, and was interviewed again last month by the Wall Street Journal, recounting that the producers of the film asked her to watch it to gauge its veracity.  She said, "The whole time I was shaking and tears were coming to my eyes," and she told the producers, "I don't see any mistakes.  It was really what happened."

The Journal asked how she still remembers Socha so well, so many decades later:

Him I remembered vividly because he was like an angel. We were sitting in the basement in the darkness, you see someone climbing from a hole with such a bright smile. It's like I always compare it to the sun coming out.

In the Hebrew Bible, the ninth plague in Exodus 10:21 is a three-day darkness that covers the land -- a darkness the Bible says could be "felt" or "touched."  The darkness in In Darkness is virtually a character in the film; it can be felt and touched.  The light is a character that can be felt and touched as well, but it would spoil the ending of the film to describe how.  Suffice it to say that the light in the film comes from both above and within.

Director Agnieszka Holland said during the production of the film that she wanted to create a film that would last.  Most of her father's family died in the Warsaw Ghetto; her mother helped save people there and is listed in the Righteous Among the Nations.  Those who see their daughter's film will likely emerge from the darkened theater with an experience that will endure.

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