WARSAW (Reuters) - Polish director Agnieszka Holland will take her third shot at an Academy Award with a dark film that dwells on the ambiguous attitudes of her countrymen towards the Nazi Holocaust.
Holland's "In Darkness" recounts the World War Two exploits of Leopold Socha, whose efforts to help Jews evade capture by the Nazi forces in Poland led Israel's Yad Vashem institute to place him with the Righteous Among the Nations.
"The story started to haunt me, I started to dream about it," Holland told Reuters in an interview. "You shoot a movie because you think a story is important, that you can artistically transform it to inspire people today, to tell them that it concerns them too, that they are also responsible."
Poland was home to Europe's largest Jewish community of some 3.3 million people before World War Two. Most of them perished in the Holocaust. Those who managed to survive were later oppressed by Poland's post-war communist authorities.
Socha is played by Robert Wieckiewicz in a film which depicts the former sewage worker and petty criminal's transformation from ruthless profiteer to selfless protector.
Socha helps a group of Jews survive the war by hiding them in the sewers of Lviv -- a city which is now in Ukraine, but was part of Poland before 1939.
Initially seeking to benefit from tragedy in the film, he abandons his efforts to bilk "his Jews," as he calls them, when they run out of money and begins risking his life to save them from being captured by the Gestapo and almost certain death.
Holland shot In Darkness in unlit and damp underground conditions and made her actors speak the languages of pre-war Lviv, believing only a realistic approach to the theme could engage the viewers emotionally.
The film's stark portrayal of life in the filthy conditions of the sewers is unstinting in its graphic depictions of birth, murder and sex - a theme rarely explored in Holocaust memoirs.
"I didn't want to show it in a theatrical, conventional way, which, for example, always shows the Jewish victims were only noble. Here they are sometimes also weak, or treacherous. My main hero is also ambiguous, because one can see a process in such a person, he is closer to the truth," she said.
Holland said her approach was encouraged by the late Marek Edelman, a leader of the wartime Jewish uprising against Nazi forces in the Warsaw ghetto.
"He convinced me to be explicit, respecting what these people have really gone through," Holland said. "I think he would be happy about this film."
The Holocaust theme has already won Holland two Oscar nominations, with "Europe Europe" for Best Adapted Screenplay and "Angry Harvest" for Best Foreign Language Film.
In Darkness faces an uphill battle with Iran's "A Separation" directed by Asghar Farhadi, which has already won a Golden Globe and been nominated for a British Academy of Film and Television Arts (BAFTA) award.
"My films on this theme find their way to people," Holland said.
Socha's character development speaks volumes about the bipolarity of Poles, who make up the largest single nationality among the list of names in the Righteous Among the Nations, but also have a history littered with anti-Semitism.
Following 1945, the country's communist regime provided an official Polish history that presented Poles solely as victims of the war and blocked open discussion of the Nazi occupation.
But a slow change began with the 1989 fall of communism and partly thanks to controversial books on Polish anti-Semitism by a U.S.-based Polish author, Jan Tomasz Gross.
His "Neighbours" dealt with a 1941 Jedwabne pogrom in which Poles burned alive several hundred of their Jewish neighbors locked in a barn, while the later "Golden Harvest" told how some Poles living near Nazi death camps enriched themselves by stealing from Jewish corpses.
Defenders of Poland's wartime record invoke the memory of the country's nearly six million victims and examples such as Socha, of Poles risking their own lives to save Jews.
"The demons do not go away, they are like a trauma in a family that spreads on to the next generations, that you can't hide under a sofa," Holland said.
Editing by Paul Casciato