The Daily News spoke with the earthy, affable filmmaker in September at the Intercontinental Hotel during the Toronto International Film Festival.
Q: One of the themes of "In Darkness" is how it contrasts the petty thievery of the noble sewer workers who help the Jews with the overwhelming horror of the Nazi attempts at extermination. In your mind is there a trigger for when people go from good to bad to worse?
A: Except for psychopaths I think everyone is capable of both. And I think what is most interesting for me is to see the struggle between those two elements. . . . But it's also scary to see how easy it is to slip down to the terrible acts.
It is extremely easy. And we see it with nations and with individuals. . . . Sometimes people are driven by a "great" idea to do the most terrible things and sometimes it's out of anger or emptiness or frustration.
My judgment about humanity is pretty pessimistic.
Q: With 24-hour news coverage and the Internet, do you think the world is more prepared to stop a Hitler than in the 1930s?
A: No, I don't think so. I think people knew well enough who he was and still they supported him. . . . People are lazy and they're looking for easy solutions. . . . When the world is in better shape [those types of leaders have fewer followers] because the people are busy with their lives and quite happy. When the crisis comes it becomes really dangerous.
Q: How did you bring such humanity to people living in a sewer?
A: It was a challenge to me to show that you can live in this hell and laugh, f - - -, everything.
Q: You served a brief prison stint in the former Czechoslovakia due to your activism during the Prague Spring of 1968. How did prison inform your view of people?
A: It was a good lesson for me. I divided up people - I would like to be with him in prison or not or if she or he would have survived the camps or not.
Somebody who's supposed to be very strong and put-together and energetic breaks and someone who is fragile by appearances survives incredible things. Human strength and the reasons we want to live or die are so mysterioous.
Q: Did you shoot this film in actual sewers?
A: We mixed it. 80 percent is sets, about 20 percent is real sewers - in Berlin, Leipzig and Lodz. It was mostly water sewers but in Berlin it was sh - - sewers.
Q: Who wrangled all the rats?
A: It was one guy, who looked like Nosferatu actually. He was the rat man. On the first day a rat drowned, and I was like, 'How did a rat drown in a sewer' but he was crying as if it was a dead baby. But they did very good the rats. Very good.
Q: As in the film, did the children really play with the rats?
A: It was like that. The rats became their friends, the children's toys. Children get used to things very quickly.
Q: What keeps you coming back to stories of the Holocaust?
A: I think those stories have such dramatic, psychological and moral potential. They become almost mythical, like Greek tragedies. And I'm very knowledgable now, like a Holocaust scholar. Plus I feel like we've never really answered the question about how this happened, or what a human being can do.
So we keep asking.
Contact Howard Gensler at 215-854-5678 or firstname.lastname@example.org.