With her new drama "In Darkness" Agnieszka Holland has returned to her native Poland to produce a haunting portrait of the Holocaust that could net the veteran director another Oscar nod.
The film, which had its world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival this week, tells the true story of a group of Jews that hid for 14 months in the sewers beneath the then-Polish city of Lvov during World War II.
Shot in Polish and German, Holland said that while a film made in English would likely reach a wider audience, she wanted to make a Holocaust movie that was as faithful to the truth as possible.
"I felt that if I have to, if I want to, if I must do another movie which touches this theme, it has to be more realistic," she said. "I felt this story, for some reason, called for truth."
Holland is best known for her English-language films "The Secret Garden" and "Washington Square", as well as her earlier holocaust drama, "Europa Europa", about a young boy who joins the Hitler Youth to avoid being outed as Jewish.
"In Darkness", which is Poland's official pick for the Academy Awards' foreign language film category, focuses on Leopold Socha, an opportunistic sewer worker who agrees to hide roughly a dozen Jews in return for hefty weekly payments.
The film charts Socha's path from a mildly anti-Semitic Catholic, to a man willing to risk his life and his family to protect his subterranean wards, and was brought to life by actor Robert Wieckiewicz.
"He's just wonderful," said Holland. "I thought that the mix of the subtlety and brutality in him is exactly what would be perfect for the character."
Remarkable about the 144-minute film is Holland's ability to bring life into the darkness of the sewers, which are perpetually flowing with dirty water, human excrement and rats. The film was shot in digital using minimal lighting.
"In Darkness" also treats the Nazi rule over Poland with brutal honesty. In one early scene, naked women are chased through the woods by gun-toting soldiers then shot en masse.
Despite the bleakness, there are moments of intense brightness. Couples make love on the floors of crowded ghetto homes and against grimy sewer walls.
Holland said she felt compelled to show that the basic human need for love and sex remained, despite the inhumane setting, an idea inspired by conversations she had with a survivor of a Jewish ghetto.
"He was always talking about how important the laughter, and the sex, and the closeness was in the ghetto," she said. "It was this force of nature which let them want to survive."
Critical momentum is building for the film, which was picked up earlier this year by Sony Pictures Classics and has received mostly positive reviews.
The Hollywood Reporter wrote: "Agnieszka Holland's robust, arduous drama is more ironic and multifaceted than most such tales and should be well received by the considerable art house audience worldwide partial to the subject matter", while Screen Daily calls "In Darkness" her best film since "Europa Europa".
Holland was nominated for a screenwriting Oscar in 1992 for that movie, which was also based on a true story and shot in Polish, German and Hebrew. She also directed "Bitter Harvest", which received an Oscar nomination for best foreign language film in 1986.
"In Darkness" will be released to theaters in February in time to capitalize on promotion that a possible Oscar nod would bring. The film awards ceremony takes place on February 26
But for the seasoned director, making movies is not about awards, but is about creating a story that touches audiences, no matter where they are in the world.
"Every time the audience laughs or gasps in the same moment, as a filmmaker I see that it is universal in some way," said Holland.