When the Oscars are handed out on Feb. 26, Canadians will have plenty to root for, with Christopher Plummer favoured to win Best Supporting Actor and Philippe Falardeau’s Monsieur Lazhar vying for Foreign Language Film, not to mention nominations for two animated shorts from the NFB. But another Canadian triumph, the most unlikely of all, has almost been lost in the shuffle. Competing with Monsieur Lazhar for the foreign language award is In Darkness, a Holocaust drama co-produced by Poland, Germany—and Canada. Although it’s directed by Polish veteran Agnieszka Holland, and is Poland’s official Oscar entry, it was created by a Canadian writer and developed by Canadian producers before the Europeans came on board.
The film unearths an astonishing saga. Just when you thought there was no more Holocaust lore left to be mined, In Darkness dramatizes the true story of a group of Jews in Nazi-occupied Lvov who hide in rat-infested sewers for 14 months, protected by a Polish Catholic thief and sewer worker named Leopold Socha (Robert Wieckiewicz). This Schindler of the sewers is a reluctant saint. At first he’s the ultimate slum landlord, agreeing to hide the fugitives from the Nazis for cash. But as the war grinds on, he becomes fiercely protective of the people he calls “my Jews,” risking his life and family to save them. But the film is no fable. Like the exquisite cinematography, which draws light out of the darkness, the moral tone of this claustrophobic thriller is deeply shaded. Intolerance and opportunism infect both sides.
“The characters are very nuanced,” says its Toronto screenwriter, David F. Shamoon. “I didn’t want that typical division between good and evil, the good Jews versus the bad Nazis or Poles.” A former advertising man, Shamoon, 64, was born in India and moved to Canada at 23 after living in Iran and the U.S.—his Iraqi parents fled Baghdad to escape anti-Jewish persecution in 1941. In Darkness is his first script to reach the screen and he spent eight years getting it there. He first stumbled across the story in a local newspaper, which led him to Robert Marshall’s 1991 book In the Sewers of Lvov. Shamoon says he turned down an offer from a well-known American director, because “I just did not want the Hollywood treatment, even though I was thinking of having it in the English language.”
Picking up the project six years ago, Toronto producers Paul Stephens and Eric Jordan pitched it to Holland, who turned it down twice. The Polish director had already made two Oscar-nominated films about Nazis and Jews, Angry Harvest (1985) and Europa Europa (1990). “I wasn’t sure I wanted to go to those places again,” she said last week. “But David was extremely stubborn. It’s like he was stalking me. He was so eloquent and full of passion I couldn’t stop thinking about it.” Holland laid down a tough condition: she refused to shoot in English, which led Telefilm to withdraw financing because the federal agency accepts films only in English, French or Aboriginal tongues. In Darkness was finally shot in six languages—Polish, German, Hebrew, Yiddish, Ukrainian and Russian. “Agnieskza brought such authenticity to it,” says Shamoon. “What was I thinking to even consider doing it in English?”
The filmmakers built sets but also shot in real sewers. “We did the great Canadian sewer tour of Europe,” says Jordan. “Some were too clean, others too dirty.” Those in Lvov, where the story is set, were horrific, so the crew ended up working in the less hellish sewers of Lodz, yet still had to endure punishing conditions of damp, dark cold. Holland calls it the toughest shoot of her career.
As an Oscar nominee, In Darkness is a dark horse in a field led by Iran’s A Separation. (Last year Shamoon met its director, Asghar Farhadi, at the Telluride Film Festival, and ended up swapping childhood memories with Farhadi’s translator, who, as it turns out, attended the same school in Tehran.) It’s highly unlikely that In Darkness, or Monsieur Lazhar, will trump A Separation, which is heavily favoured to win. But Oscar is a capricious god, fond of upsets. To pick a Holocaust film out of the fray . . . stranger things have happened.