July 2012

Arts & Letters

Tales of Ordinary Madness

By Luke Davies
Agnieszka Holland’s 'In Darkness' and Nikolaj Arcel’s 'A Royal Affair'

A sewer worker, who is also a thief by night, ransacks a country house, stabbing a feather-down pillow in the search for hidden loot. He’s surprised in the act by the temporary tenant, the Hitler youth whose parents have apparently appropriated the house. After a struggle, the thief escapes into the woods where he sees in passing a group of naked and terrified Jewish women, spectral in the pre-dawn light, hunted down for sport by German soldiers. At home in the early morning, he takes off his cap and feathers fall from his head. “Where have you been?” asks his sleepy wife. “There was a blocked pipe,” he explains. “Was it blocked with chickens?” she snaps back.

In her gripping, gruelling and intimate In Darkness (in national release 26 July), Polish-born, France-based director Agnieszka Holland does with the film as a whole what she does in miniature with that sequence, allowing the darkest and most ominous of terrors to play fleetingly, glancingly, at the periphery of our focus, while detailing human relationships carrying on as if the world were not in fact falling apart. At times there is humour in the minutiae, just as at times there are sudden bursts of colour in Jolanta Dyleska’s sombre cinematography – a tin toy, an item of clothing – that detonate like tiny bombs. But the humour is never overt, in large part because the sense of rising dread that pervades the film is.

Robert Wieckiewicz plays Leopold ‘Poldek’ Socha, the thief, a Polish Catholic who discovers a group of Jews in the sewers where he both works and occasionally hides his loot. It’s 1943; the ghetto of Lvov is being savagely depopulated as the Germans round up its Jews and send them to the Janowska concentration camp. The small band offer Poldek money to hide them and bring them food. Though to be caught would mean death to him and his family, times are tough and he agrees to the deal. It’s purely a business decision.

The Germans pay Polish informers 500 zlotys for every Jew they turn in. Poldek charges his dozen Jews 500 zlotys a day, of which he has only 70 left after buying their food. Therefore it takes him approximately one week to earn what he would be paid for giving up one Jew; after three months he would go into profit. And yet, when they can no longer pay him, he continues to protect them and preserve their lives. (In Darkness is based on a true story; in actuality Socha hid and sheltered the small group of Jews for 14 months.) The film tracks Poldek’s journey, through complex and shifting motivations, to a moral awareness of sorts. Early on, testing the ethical waters with his wife, he says, “They’re offering rewards for turning in Jews. Some people are making a pile.” “God will punish the greedy,” she replies.

Holland twice refused entreaties to direct In Darkness, since the producers’ intention was to shoot in English, while Holland believed the story had to be told in its original languages. That she eventually prevailed is a good thing: the film isn’t unbalanced by the presence of a Hollywood star and the concomitant changes to script and structure. As it is, a cast of little-known European actors deliver the film in Polish, Yiddish, German, Hebrew, Ukrainian and Russian.

Ignacy Chiger (Herbert Knaup) is the nominal leader of the raggedy group, and sees himself as its intellectual authority. Mundek Margulies (Benno Fürmann) dislikes Poldek intensely, perhaps because, as a scrapper and hustler, he sees something of the mercenary Pole in himself. While Ignacy buries his head in books and never leaves the (relative) safety of the underworld, Mundek actually steals into the Janowska camp to convince his girlfriend’s sister to return to the sewers she was previously unable to bear; tragically, she would rather take her chances in Janowska.

Most of In Darkness takes place in the sewers. The hectic tensions of existence above ground, and of Poldek’s increasingly frantic double life, play off against the Jews’ claustrophobic ordeal of subterranean exile. As in Wolfgang Petersen’s great Das Boot (1981), it’s the narrative of diminishing time yoked to a cinematography of enclosed spaces. But in Das Boot the submariners sought action, in the name of glory. In Darkness is perhaps more akin to Polanski’s brilliant Holocaust film, The Pianist (2002), in that it creates near unbearable anxiety out of the drama of waiting, and hiding, and enduring: of making oneself small.

In a heartwrenching scene, the film’s smallest characters, Ignacy’s young daughters, put on a concert. Breathlessly, almost inaudibly, they sing an old folk song:


If I earn two hundred zlotys

I will buy you a beautiful house

Then you will sleep like a princess

On a bed of white roses.

Good night. Now close your eyes

And this house will have a garden

And a choir of singing birds

They will sing you secret fairy tales till dawn


In the sewers of Lvov, a white rose is unimaginable. But when the worst kind of tale plays out in the streets above, the sewer itself – by the survival it makes possible – becomes a beautiful house indeed.


“Don’t steal my light,” says the mad Danish King Christian VII (Mikkel Boe Følsgaard) to his young Queen Caroline Mathilde (Alicia Vikander) in Nikolaj Arcel’s A Royal Affair (in national release), a crisp, intelligent, old-fashioned period drama also based on historical events. The beautiful Caroline, an English princess being brought into an arranged marriage, has arrived in oppressive Denmark with a sunny disposition, a willingness to be a good queen and wife, and a trunk full of books which need to be screened to see whether any contain “dangerous” ideas.

“Christian was said to be charming,” she writes to her children, in the posthumous letter that is the framing device for the film. In fact, as she will learn, what charm he has makes only the briefest of appearances in the turbulence and tempests of his mental illness, which includes an element of grandiose narcissism. (Følsgaard, who took time out of his studies at the Danish National School of Theatre to shoot A Royal Affair, is a brilliant study of the erratic in full florid flight.)

Into this world of a king unfit to rule and a queen unable to breathe strides Mads Mikkelsen, who in recent years seems to belong to that category of actors (it includes the likes of Sam Shepard and Viggo Mortensen) I would describe as ‘sensitive, broody but very alpha-male outsiders who all my cinema-going women friends would willingly and wildly bed’. Mikkelsen plays Johann Struensee, the German doctor who became King Christian’s personal physician in 1768. Struensee is a “man of the Enlightenment”, a freethinker with a reputation. As Christian’s proto-shrink and companion, the court tolerates him, not least because he genuinely brings something good, and calm, out of the tormented Christian.

But Struensee’s influence on Christian grows until the court is more than alarmed. When they try to remove Struensee and exile him from Denmark, Christian replaces the council with a cabinet consisting of only himself and the good doctor. With Christian largely absent from matters of state due to his mental illness, Struensee in practice becomes the regent of the country. And the country is not happy.

Parallel to and intertwined with the court tale of treachery and political intrigue, there’s the little matter of the sparks flying between Struensee and Queen Caroline. At first they bond over Rousseau, Locke and Voltaire, but we know where this is going, and we know it can’t end well. “The world is full of princesses,” complains Christian to Struensee, “and I got stuck with the grumpy one.” This may be the best proof Struensee has that Christian is mad, because clearly, as anyone can see, he got stuck with the sexy one.

Struensee starts out as a man of principles, interested in reducing the suffering and inégalité of the world. He befriends Christian, helps him move Denmark out of its mediaeval mindset, and offers him something he’s never had: warmth, and understanding. And yet he also plans the seduction of this ill, vulnerable friend’s wife. He’s a dark character, in other words. He lets power go to his head, and perhaps goes a little mad himself. If character is destiny, the tremendous darkening of the film’s third act is that destiny’s manifestation.

Luke Davies

Luke Davies is a novelist, screenplay writer and poet. He is the author of Candy, God of Speed, Totem (the winner of the Age Book of the Year in 2004) and Interferon Psalms (winner of the Prime Minister’s Literary Award in 2012). 

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