Agnieszka Holland

Internationally acclaimed Polish director Agnieszka Holland has made Baltimore her favorite U.S. location. (Krzysztof Opalinski, Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics / March 14, 2012)

Agnieszka Holland's Holocaust movies, like "Angry Harvest" and "Europa Europa," are a world away from concentration camp tear-jerkers like Robert Benigni's Oscar-winning smash "Life Is Beautiful."

Holland's films are uninhibited and sexual, gutsy and tough-minded. With "In Darkness" (opening at the Charles on Friday) she tells the fact-based story of Jews who survived the Nazi onslaught by hiding underground in sewers.

Set in large part beneath the Polish city of Lvov, this movie is an unremitting heart-stopper. Even its most sympathetic characters are capable of anything, from stupidity and cruelty to romance, gallantry and valor.

Not only are the victims often graceless under pressure — their savior, a gentile sewer inspector, Leopold Socha (Robert Wieckiewicz), becomes their guide because they pay him.

"The most important dramatic premise of the film is that the character of Socha is very ambiguous: For quite a long time, he can go in any direction," said Holland. "He is walking on the wall, and he can slip on both sides — to become the murderer and betray them, or to save them."

Holland's Jewish paternal grandparents perished in the Warsaw ghetto (Holland was born in 1948); her Catholic mother had belonged to the Polish Underground.

And Holland knows harsh, volatile circumstances firsthand. She studied at Czechoslovakia's famed film school, FAMU, during Prague Spring — and, because of her political dissidence, served time in a Prague prison, where she learned how to navigate social-political whirlpools. Her hard-knock instincts served her well decades later, when she became one of the canniest directors on "The Wire."

She dedicates "In Darkness" to a close friend, Marek Edelman, a commander of the Warsaw ghetto uprising and, after the war, a prominent spokesman for Polish Jewry and fearless political activist. Edelman capped his writing career with the memoir "And There Was Love in the Ghetto."

For years, he wanted Holland to shoot a movie that would show "people in the ghetto extremely active in their erotic practices — and also in the needs of love and loneliness." He told her about friends who'd been involved "in crazy relationships in the most incredible situations. In the bunkers, where the last fighters of the Warsaw ghetto were hiding, they were [making love] like crazy." Edelman cut against the cliched movie view of Eastern European Jews as "faceless, angelic victims."

When she decided to make "In Darkness," Holland resolved to depict her sewer-dwellers as complex individuals.

"Some are good, some are bad, some are impatient, some are hysterical, some are cruel, some are loving — just as people are, especially in those circumstances that are not the best to develop good character," she said.

Holland has always found nuances in brutal situations, whether in cable movies like "Shot in the Heart" — her rendering of Gary Gilmore's story from his brother Mikal's point of view — or her multiple episodes of "The Wire."

Holland first came to Baltimore for practical reasons: To film Henry James' "Washington Square," she required architecture that resembled 19th-century New York. She felt an immediate affinity for the city. She said she understood how past and present, despair and energy coexisted here.

Casting director Pat Moran met Holland in 1996 and spent time with her in Fells Point.

"For her, it was the opposite of LA," Moran said. "It had a European ambience." Moran admired Holland for entering the "man's world" of movie directing and showing "she was used to swinging back."

Producer Nina Noble worked closely with Holland on "Shot in the Heart" (2001). What impressed her most was Holland's cinematic instinct. "So many scenes took place in a jail cell, just between two guys," she said. Holland lit the scenes to suggest "sunny days and cloudy days — a subtle thing, but I think it added a lot visually," Noble said.

For "In Darkness," Holland lit underground scenes with the characters' lanterns and flashlights. The result is a visual tour de force as well as an emotional wringer.

"She is extremely passionate about the work," said Noble, who brought her into a couple of episodes of the David Simon series "Treme" as well as "The Wire." "Whatever world we put her in, she dove in head-first."

Holland didn't need a push. She thought "The Wire" was "the best American TV, with the best description of contemporary America — like the Great American Novel." And she found something "transcendent and sensual" in the post-Katrina New Orleans of "Treme."

"In Darkness" conjures a full existential spectrum in the sewers of Lvov.