Feb 18, 2012
It took me a couple of days to be able to write about this movie by Agnieszka Holland, which, as many Holocaust movies tend to be, is nominated for a foreign picture Oscar. I still think A Separation is the undisputed winner, but you know how it is with Holocaust movies and Oscar voters. And this one is not bad. At least, it goes through great lengths to be honest: Poles are portrayed as the Church-encouraged Antisemites they mostly were, and Jews are not the saintly, passive victims they tend to be. Some are selfish and hysterical, others are duplicitous, others are civilized, but in these circumstances they all are reduced to bare bones human nature. Nazis are portrayed as what they were, sadistic monsters, abetted by criminal propaganda and safety in numbers.
This harrowing movie is based on the real story of a group of Polish Jews who were hidden in the sewers of Lvov by Leopold Socha, a Polish thief who knew the sewers like the back of his hand. At first he does it for the money only. One of the Jews is wealthy and gives him 500 zlotys a day to keep them safe in the sewers and bring them food. But Socha, the wonderful Robert Wieckiewicz, finds he has in him an unexplained human impulse to help these people, namely compassion or sheer human decency, even as his Ukrainian friend is offering, through the auspices of the Nazis, the same amount of money to rat out hiding Jews. He could have ratted the Jews out and be a hero to the Nazis, saving himself a whole lot of trouble. But he didn't and he reluctantly saved the lives of these Jews, including two children, one of whom wrote a memoir.
As she seems to remember it, or as Holland would have it, there was a lot of extramarital sex going on in the ghetto and the sewers. If you are suffering from scurvy and are living in a rat and shit infested sewer, I wonder how much libido you have. I can see sex as a representation of the will to live, but once would have made the point more powerfully.
I think Holland wanted to make a Holocaust movie that showed more of the personal impact, and in this she succeeds. The suffering is horrible and individualized: instead of your garden variety anonymous Jews being led to slaughter, we get individual characters having a really hard time because of who they are, and not only because they are starving. Mr. Socha also has to deal with risk and suspicion, and he also repeats tired chestnuts about Jews being greedy, etc. It's not black and white.
Holland is a very lucid, competent director, who gets great performances from all her actors, especially the two children, and the movie is extremely well made, with excellent cinematography by Jolanta Dylewska, and particularly strong editing. It's solid but too long. Just as it has some powerful scenes, as when the Jews emerge from the darkness in the middle of a sunny day, almost blinded, to the surprise of their Polish countrymen, here and there it goes into cheesy territory, like a ridiculous scene of a naked woman in the sewer bathing herself with rain water. After 14 months in there she has no reason to look like a pinup.
In his review of this film, A.O. Scott, who has written about the Holocaust "genre" before, complains that this is a feel good movie. Through three fourths of the film, in my view, it is definitely not. It is hard to sit through. It's tough minded, complicated and realistic. To the point that I wonder what compels audiences to voluntarily seek out the punishment of Holocaust movies, if not morbid curiosity, or a need for excruciating catharsis. At the end, after all Holland puts the audience through, you think there better be a happy ending, and there is one. The Jews were saved.
But in the postscript, where we learn the facts of the story through titles, life gets to break our heart. Socha finds a premature death and the titles explain that people in his town thought that this was God's punishment for saving the Jews. Plus ça change.
Socha and his wife are among the 6000 Polish citizens recognized as Righteous Among The Nations by Yad Vashem, the Holocaust memorial in Israel.