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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

The Academy Awards are next Sunday, and one of this year's contenders tells a remarkable true story of survival underneath the streets of a Polish city during World War II. The film is called, "In Darkness," and it's Poland's official entry in the Oscar race. It comes from one of that country's most esteemed filmmakers, Agnieszka Holland.

And, as Pat Dowell reports, Holland knows the subject and the setting personally.

PAT DOWELL, BYLINE: Director Agnieszka Holland decided long ago not to revisit the Holocaust in her films. So she rejected twice a script she liked called "In Darkness."

AGNIESZKA HOLLAND: I said exactly that I cannot spend another three years of my life in the Holocaust time, and that it's too painful and that I know how costly it is psychologically.

DOWELL: Holland knew the pain personally. Her father's family perished in the Holocaust. And professionally, she's already made two films on the subject. Her 1985 drama "Angry Harvest," portrays an intimate struggle between an escaped Jewish woman and the rough Polish farmer who shelters her. And "Europa Europa," from 1990, is a black comedy about a Jewish teenager passing as a Nazi in the Hitler Youth. His teacher declares the nervous boy unmistakably Aryan.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "EUROPA EUROPA")

DOWELL: Agnieszka Holland has been criticized for using comedy and sexuality in dealing with the Holocaust. But her unconventional approach is exactly what made screenwriter David F. Shamoon keep after her until she finally agreed to direct his script. Shamoon is himself the son of Iraqi Jews who fled a 1941 pogrom in that country.

DAVID F. SHAMOON: I never looked at "In Darkness" as being a so-called Holocaust film. In many stories like this, the Jews are portrayed as victims, as very holier-than-thou. And that really did not interest me. I wanted to know of them as human beings, which of course they were. They had their foibles, they had their weaknesses. They had, you know, their evil impulses as much as anyone else.

One of the characters leaves his wife in the ghetto and runs off with his mistress into the sewers, to save himself and her. Another one is a con man.

DOWELL: But the character who most interested both Shamoon and Holland was Leopold Socha, the sewer worker and thief, who first sees an opportunity in the plight of the Jews. When he discovers they've broken into the sewers, from a ghetto apartment, he debates with his co-worker whether to help them for a price or turn them in for the Nazi bounty.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "IN DARKNESS")

DOWELL: A few feet away Jews discuss whether to trust Socha and his pal, or kill them.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "IN DARKNESS")

DOWELL: Eventually Socha helps them, even after their money runs out. But Holland says she wanted to depict him not as a guardian angel but a conflicted human being.

HOLLAND: Who can at any moment make the totally different decision and turn them down or betray them. And why he does the good deed by the end is mysterious to himself.

DOWELL: Again, Agnieszka Holland understood the contradictions personally. Her mother was not Jewish; she worked with the Polish resistance.

HOLLAND: And my mother was a very young girl in Warsaw in this. She was in the Polish underground and she helped several Jewish people. So in some way, you know, those two sides of the stories are part of my identity.

DOWELL: In Holland's film, the main character grows fond of the children of the Chiger family, who the director depicted quite accurately, says Krystyna Chiger. She was seven in 1943, when she went to live in the sewers underneath the city of Lvov. Now 76, she says Holland showed her the film just before it was finished.

KRYSTYNA CHIGER: I was so moved. And all the time I was shaking because you can see in front of you the part of your life coming back.

DOWELL: Chiger wrote a memoir of that part of her life in 2008, too late to be a source for "In Darkness," which drew on a 1991 book called "In the Sewers of Lvov" by Robert Marshall. But Chiger says Holland is the only director who could make this film.

CHIGER: Because always when people heard my story and they said, oh, it should be a movie made, I always had in back of my head that the director should be Agnieszka Holland. Years already, after I saw her movie "Europa Europa," I made my mind that she should do it.

DOWELL: Krystyna Chiger's book is called "The Girl in the Green Sweater," because she wore a wool sweater knitted by her grandmother through all 14 months in the sewer. It's depicted in the movie. And she took good care of the original. It now resides in the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C.

For NPR News, this is Pat Dowell.

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