Mentored and influenced by two of Poland's greatest filmmakers—Andrzej Wajda and Krzysztof Kieślowski—it's not surprising that Agnieszka Holland would also become known not just as one of her nation's finest, but one of the world's best.
Holland, 63, recently received even further critical acclaim when her latest project, In Darkness, was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Foreign Language film. The film opens in limited release this week, and will go wider in the coming weeks.
It is not Holland's first Oscar nomination; she was nominated for Best Adapted Screenplay for 1992's Europa Europa, which she also directed. (She lost out to Ted Tally, writer of The Silence of the Lambs, that year.) The veteran filmmaker is also known for such movies as Copying Beethoven (2006) and The Secret Garden (1993), and numerous TV series, including episodes of The Killing, The Wire, and Cold Case.
Christianity Today recently interviewed Holland in Los Angeles to discuss her career in general, and In Darkness in particular. She is diminutive, but has presence. Her wise gaze, her stolid demeanor and her salt-and-pepper, bobbed hair testify to a fierce intellect, strong personality, and deep wisdom.
In Darkness centers on sewer worker and petty thief Leopold Socha, who hides his stolen loot in the sewers beneath the Polish city of Łódź during World War II. When the Nazis invade, Socha stumbles upon some Jews who are hiding in the sewer. Will he turn them over to the Germans, or will he take their own offers of money to keep them hidden?
Socha tells his wife he is tempted to turn in the Jews, justifying himself with the statement that Jews killed Jesus. When his wife informs him that in fact Jesus himself was Jewish, Socha is surprised. Holland says the scene reminds her of a childhood memory of an illiterate nanny who told her "in secret that Jesus was a Jew." Holland tells the story with smiling eyes, mimicking her nanny by putting her hand up to her mouth, not wanting the scandal of Jesus' true ethnicity to reach the wrong ears.
In the film, one character says that God will punish Socha for hiding the Jews, but Holland gets the last word as the end credits roll, beginning with this phrase: "As if we need God to punish each other." Fade to black.
Holland reminds us how the 20th century showed that even without God we can wreak as much havoc, destruction and death as we did (and still do) when burning with religious passion. But instead of thinking about God as peripheral to this story, his absence from the dialogue puts the audience in the shoes of the characters, who hear only God's silence, and who may have felt that God had abandoned them.
"This is much more a people's story than the ones I have told with the metaphysical direction," Holland says. "It has to more do with chance or fate. What was interesting to me was to describe how thin the line is between good and evil, represented by Socha. He can slip either way at any moment. I don't know if you can look at this in religious terms. People survive by caprice in my films—the caprice of God, if you believe in God. But chance plays such a big part that you must ask yourself if it has meaning or is meaningless."
Holland believes the Holocaust holds many more untold stories that can still teach us today. "The biggest challenge to humanity is the fact that the Holocaust is meaningless," she says. "Some recent movies and books try to give the Holocaust meaning, a moral. I do not agree with this. This is why it is such an important experience to explore, because you cannot give it meaning."