Modern Foreign Languages - Survival in a sewer

A Second World War film is made special by its use of languages

Jerome Monahan

It was a wise choice by director Agnieszka Holland to make language a key factor in the Oscar-nominated In Darkness, her film about a small group of Polish Jews who took refuge for 14 months in the sewers beneath the ghetto in Lvov.

Despite being under pressure to script it in English, Holland recognised that the patchwork of Polish and the local dialect, together with German, Yiddish and Ukrainian - spoken in that part of occupied Poland in the last years of the war - was the perfect metaphor for the cultural mix that the Nazis' Final Solution sought to eradicate.

To have the cast speak English would have removed one of the film's most subtle moments, when, after several months below ground, one of the group becomes incensed at hearing a member of a wealthy family speaking German. The man defends himself by pointing out that while Hitler's Nazis are trying to eradicate Jews, German is also the language of 19th-century lyric poet and radical Heinrich Heine: a Jew who converted to Christianity in the 1820s.

This perfectly highlights the blurring of boundaries and the broader polyglot community, and is reflective of the depth and sophistication of the film. Unlike in many Hollywood movies, the Jews depicted are not one-dimensional. They are shown in the full range of their humanity: they are people - and flawed.

We see their selfishness, cruelty and snobbery in the range of responses when it is suggested that they flee to the safety of the sewers. And nothing is more revealing of the breakdown of moral values than the scene in which a man copulates with his girlfriend in a bed adjacent to his wide-awake wife and young daughter. There are no graphic special effects. But nor does the film shy away from depicting the enormity of the crimes committed.

In Darkness provides a masterclass in film-making, but is also an example of the importance of the use of multiple languages to depict a varied community. A powerful foreign language film, In Darkness could also easily find a place in history, English and RE classrooms.

Jerome Monahan is a freelance teacher and journalist. He taught full-time in South London and now provides Inset and pupil enrichment workshops both nationally and internationally. In Darkness (15) is in cinemas now

What else?

The charity Film Education has a short legacy resource designed to support the use of the film in the classroom. Check out its profile on TES Resources.

Get students to review their favourite film in German with lighthouse_keeper's lesson.

Find all links and resources at

From the forums

In the TES MFL forum, teachers are musing on who is the MFL equivalent of Professor Brian Cox. Suggestions include David Crystal, Steven Pinker and Eddie Izzard.

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Jerome Monahan

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