Ukrainian Stereotypes in Holland’s In Darkness

Alexander J. Motyl


Go see Agnieszka Holland’s In Darkness, both because it’s an excellent film about the Holocaust in wartime Lviv and because it demonstrates just how deeply rooted some ethnic stereotypes can be.

The story is simple: an antisemitic Polish sewer worker and part-time crook, Poldek Socha, finds himself in the unexpected position of hiding a group of Jews in Lviv’s sewers. At first, he does so only for money. In time, he abandons his antisemitism and acts with altruism. The film ends with the liberation of Lviv by the Soviets and the emergence of the surviving Jews from the sewers. ‘These are my Jews!’ Socha beams. ‘These are my Jews!’

In an interview, Holland emphasized in an interview with the New York Times on 3 February 2012 what she thought was one of the film’s strong points: its avoidance of one-dimensional characterizations. Here’s what she says about Socha:

First of all, the main character, this Polish guy, was ambiguous, both hero and not hero, and a very simple, ordinary man, not very good. What was always interesting for me was not the mystery that people can be terrible. I think humanity has a tendency to be terrible. What always surprises and intrigues me is that in those circumstances somebody acts in a good way, especially somebody who doesn’t have deep reasons or preparation to do so.

Socha doesn’t think about what will happen, what he will do. He just acts. What I thought was an interesting, dramatic part of the story was that you don’t know what he will do. Even to himself he doesn’t know. It’s like walking on a wire, and at any moment he can slip to one side or the other.

And here’s what she says about the Jews hiding in the sewer:

The Jewish characters aren’t one-dimensional angelic, they are full-bodied human beings with anger, sex, weakness, and selfishness, and generosity and love as well. That was another thing that irritates me in English-language Holocaust movies: that in most of them the Jews are turned into some kind of non-living, positive stereotypes. I think that in doing so, in some way you are killing them again. They become unreal.

Holland is right to state that multi-dimensional portrayals can only enhance our experience and understanding of the Holocaust. Unfortunately, she restricts multidimensionality to Poles and Jews and resorts to straightforward stereotyping when it comes to Ukrainians. That she does so unwittingly just goes to show how ‘taken for granted’ some stereotypes are.

There are three Ukrainian characters in the film. By far the most domineering is a Ukrainian policeman by the name of Bortnyk. He’s fanatically pro-German, fanatically antisemitic, and fanatically pro-Ukrainian. His eyes glisten when he speaks of hunting down Jews and, naturally, he loves to drink. He appears for minutes on end, arguably being the second most important character in the film. He identifies himself—and is identified as—Ukrainian. And, lest the point escape you that the external appearance of Ukrainians shouldn’t mislead you about their internal brutishness, he is, unlike the dumpy Socha, tall, dark, and handsome. Indeed, Bortnyk even comes across as worse than the Germans, who are portrayed only as background brutes. The Ukrainian is a living, breathing embodiment of evil, whereas the Nazis have no personality whatsoever. Not surprisingly, Bortnyk becomes stereotypically ‘unreal,’ and the film suffers aesthetically as a result.

Two other Ukrainians make bit appearances lasting a few seconds apiece. One is a peasant woman selling vegetables who expresses regret over the killing of Poles. The other is a worker who helps one of the Jews get through town. Neither of these two characters is identified as Ukrainian, and the only way you’d know they are is if you understand the language. If you don’t, you’re liable to think they’re two of the many more or less nuanced, multi-dimensional Polish characters. And besides, the two Ukrainians appear on screen for a total of about 30 seconds.

Here’s how Yale historian Timothy Snyder describes Holland’s portrayal of Ukrainians:

Poldek has a Ukrainian friend, Bortnik, who serves as a chief of the local police. This friendship saves Poldek once, but has its risks, since among the tasks of the police are the discovery and murder of Jews. Bortnik comes to Poldek’s house late at night drunk and demands sustenance; Poldek’s little daughter, rubbing her eyes in bed, reminds her father that they were saving food for ‘the Jews.’ She then realizes what she has done, and convinces Bortnik that by ‘Jews’ she meant her dolls, which, she says, came from the ghetto. In a story of interaction between Poles and Jews, the natural tendency would be to export local evil as much as possible to the third nationality: the Ukrainians. Without at all disguising the horrible local politics of occupation, Holland carefully balances Ukrainian villains with sympathetic Ukrainian characters. One of the Jews in hiding smuggles himself into a concentration camp to see if the younger sister of the woman he loves is still alive. This heroism is enabled by a Ukrainian, who performs the indispensible [sic] logistical work and refuses payment.

Carefully balances, indeed! Imagine a German-language film with multi-dimensional German characters and three Jews. Two speak Yiddish (which sounds awfully like German to the untrained ear), are never identified as Jewish, and come off positively for all of 30 seconds. The third identifies himself as Jewish, is a fanatical Zionist, is depicted as a blood-sucking banker, and is on screen for 10 to 15 minutes.

I don’t doubt that both Holland and Snyder would find the film aesthetically flawed and anti-Semitic. 


First published in a blog in World Affairs Journal on 6 April 2012. Reproduced by permission of Professor Alexander Motyl