Posts Tagged ‘Schindler’s List’

Turning the Holocaust into filmic material forces one to confront the never-ending debate about the responsibilities and limitations of cinema when it comes to depicting historical atrocities. In 1961 Jacques Rivette wrote a brutal review of Gillo Pontecorvo’s Kapò, criticising the way the Italian director had shown the death of an inmate through a tracking shot which called attention to her dead hand. The review did not declare the Holocaust off-limits to artists, but warned against the danger of fetishizing a horror as unthinkable as the Shoah’s.

A few decades after Rivette’s review, Andrei Konchalovsky arrives at Venice’s 73rd International Film Festival to present Paradise, a moving portrait of the horrors of the Holocaust that is both visually stunning and yet does not aestheticize the Shoah.

Conceived in a way that mirrors a chamber play, Paradise concentrates on the way the Holocaust changes the lives of Olga (Julia Vysotskaya), a Russian aristocrat imprisoned for hiding Jewish kids in Nazi-occupied Paris, Jules (Philippe Duquesne), a French-Nazi collaborator who promises not to execute Olga in exchange for sexual favours, and Helmut (Christian Clauß), an SS officer and a former lover of Olga’s who tries to set her free from the concentration camp she is eventually sent to.

Konchalovsky does not depict the Holocaust using the crowded, large-scale violence scenes which had formed the repertoire of other works on the Shoah (arguably the most notable case being Schindler’s List) nor does he take the viewer straight into the lager’s hell the way László Nemes did with his magnificent and revolutionary Son of Saul. Yet he depicts the Shoah in a way that is no less unsettling and thought-provoking. He juxtaposes the idyllic paradises which the three characters long for with the horrors of the Holocaust, so that the full scale of the Shoah’s terror is not depicted through its explicit visual representation but through the way it gradually shatters the characters’ dreams.

Like Son of Saul, Paradise uses a 4:3 screen format, but unlike Nemes’s work, the camera stands still and does not follow the characters around the camp. Konchalovsky’s film opens, ends and is staggered with three monologues which the characters give sitting in front of the camera. It is a brilliant narrative device through which Olga, Helmut and Jules can speak of their lives before and after the war broke out and thus open up to the viewer, and it strengthens the empathy the audience feels for their stories.

Alexander Simonov’s mesmerising photography mimics the aesthetic of the black and white movies of the forties, and the attention to the geometry, symmetries and lights one perceives in each scene makes for some visually spectacular shots. Even so, Paradise never quite turns into a beautiful and yet somewhat cold painting, nor does Konchalovsky’s directing slips into the gratuitous fetishisation of the Shoah’s horror Rivette saw in Pontecorvo’s Kapò. Brilliantly photographed, written and directed, Paradise manages to depict the Holocaust in a way that both moves the audience and honours the victims of an unthinkable tragedy.

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With Polish Holocaust film In Darkness director Agnieszka Holland shows she is not afraid to test her audience. With a run time of almost two and a half hours and a cinematic style reminiscent of The Third Man if it were shot with the grungy modernity of Anthony Dod Mantle, this film is a dark, lengthy and unrelentingly unsentimental experience. In spite of its steeliness however In Darkness tells a true tale that is still utterly moving upon conclusion.

In Darkness focuses on Leopold Socha (Robert Wieckiewicz), a sewer worker (and petit thief) in WWII Poland. The film tells of how he risked everything by hiding a group of Jewish people in the sewer network during the Nazi invasion of Lvov. While jaded viewers might feel we have seen enough of the Holocaust on the big screen (with Schindler’s List and The Pianist still reasonably fresh in our minds) Socha’s story resonates with enough moral dilemma and reluctant courage to make the trip worthwhile.

Robert Wieckiewicz as Socha makes for a robust leading man, holding the film with an earthy charisma. His character brushes death numerous times and Wieckiewicz carries his character through the proverbial minefield of Nazi occupation with a directness that gradually makes him endearing. His home life offers something of a relief from the oppressive occupied world, with his wife Wanda (Kinga Preis) and daughter Stefcia (Zofia Pieczynska) offering some stability. Holland stages family scenes inside, lit with Rembrandtesque warmth by cinematographer Jolanta Dylewska.

This warmth is in direct contrast to the milieu inhabited by the Jewish characters. For the majority of the film they live, quite literally, in darkness in the sewers. Somewhat inevitably not all of these characters are given an entirely rounded character treatment. A number of them exist as cyphers to create drama, yet Holland does not allow them all to become victims. The tough Mundek Margulies (played by German actor Benno Fürmann) becomes an important motivator for the cause of the Jews as he forfeits cover, attempting to reunite missing members of their group. This leads to a number of tense scenes where he encounters the singular brutality of the Nazi characters.

Tensions between the Jewish characters however, are where some of the most intense drama originates. Yanek Grossmann (Marcin Bosak) leaves his wife Szona (Etl Szyc) for younger woman Chaja (Julia Kijowska), whom he impregnates in the sewers. The scenes of these events feel sordid, particularly as Szona witnesses them and attempts to prevent her daughter Rachela (Ida Lozinska) from seeing her father’s primal betrayal. While they are strong scenes, a problem emerges. Due to underdevelopment, characters like Yanek and Chaja remain one-dimensional, sucking some of the authenticity from an otherwise realistic scenario.

But at its heart In Darkness is Socha’s story. It is a film about a morally ambiguous man whose instincts ultimately guide him to do something remarkably ethical, in the face of depravity. Holland gives Socha’s story clarity and, with her impassive style, allows us to consider critically how we would react in similar circumstances. Only during the last scene does she step close to the melodramatic. The strongest emotional punch however, comes with the information we are given in text form, when the film has ended. We discover the fate of each character outside the context of war, reminding us of the fragility of life, even in times of peace.

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