“In Hiding” presents a problematic view of lesbianism in WWII Poland

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So, Nazi-era Poland is probably not the best setting for a lesbian love story. Certainly it doesn’t bode well for a happy one. Yet, if you’re like me, you can’t help but be intrigued when these themes overlap, which, admittedly, is not that often. Anyway, I recently came across a relatively new addition to this club–the Polish film In Hiding. And let me tell you, despite its static title, this movie is a trip.

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It’s spring 1944 in Poland. If you know your basic WWII history, you know that means the end is in sight. But of course our characters don’t know this, which is why it’s not surprising that Janka (Magdalena Boczarska) freaks out when she comes home to the apartment she shares with her dad and discovers a stranger bathing. That stranger is Ester (Julia Pogrebinska), the Jewish daughter of Janka’s dad’s friend. Janka’s father has agreed to hide her under their living room floor out of “decency” given the Nazi regime in town. To that line of reasoning, Janka wonders out loud if “decency” or a “Jewish girl” are reason enough to die. Ah, an early serving of anti-Semitism. You know, for context.

Fortunately Janka’s father is firm on Ester staying. Janka has no choice but to accept his decision, though it doesn’t mean she has to play nice. And she doesn’t. At first, she doesn’t say a word to Ester, bringing her meals down silently and generally just treating her coldly. But ever so slowly, Janka’s conscience kicks in. It’s she who suggests they leave the trapdoor open at night so Ester can walk around. Eventually she even begins speaking to her. Progress!

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This change couldn’t have come at a more pivotal time. When Janka’s dad disappears during a street roundup, the two women must cooperate to make this dangerous arrangement work.

Despite her initial reluctance, Janka takes their shared secret very seriously. So much so that she effectively dumps her boyfriend after he suggests he move in now that she has the place to herself. This may seem like it should have been a hard choice, but after repeatedly witnessing how indifferent Janka acts after having sex with him, it’s clear this is actually a blessing of sorts.

If that threw you off, here’s some more: Ester has a boyfriend, too–David. The difference, however, is she appears to be genuinely in love with him. The war ripped them apart, but she holds out hope they’ll reunite. That becomes apparent when she asks Janka to try and find him in one of the nearby ghettos so she can give him a letter. Janka agrees to the favor (and gets a peck in gratitude for it), but when she returns she says she couldn’t find him and instead gave the letter to someone that knows him. In reality, she kept and read the letter. This is only the beginning of many more lies to come.

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Naturally, Janka and Ester grow ever more closer in their isolated states. Janka’s feelings for Ester are especially obvious. But their bubble bursts when a mysterious neighbor moves in. Sound travels, and he knows Janka doesn’t live alone. One night he barges in, blackmailing her for money. When she plays dumb, he pulls open the trapdoor and the secret is out.

Major spoiler alert! Spoilers ahead.

 Nazi-era blackmail where life and death hangs in the balance for a Jewish woman and a Polish traitor? Well, Janka and Ester chose the death of the blackmailer. They killed him, and it was gruesome. While this is the kind of major plot point I would usually try to leave out of a review, there are so many more to come that I think I get a pass on this one. More than that, this is the turning point in Janka and Ester’s relationship, and we need to note that.

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Following the disposal of the body, they take a shower together, so as to wash off the blood. Janka is understandably in a state of shock, but Ester breaks her out of it. In a culmination of fear, gratitude, and lust, Ester fucks her in the shower. And that’s what that was. Which is not to say it wasn’t hot, because it was. Circumstances be damned.

It’s interesting that it’s Ester who initiates things. There had been some hints of attraction on her part up until that point, but nothing like Janka’s clear infatuation. By the way, the shower sex was more than just a fast fuck. They cuddle in bed afterwards, and there’s room to suggest they continued their shower activities.

So now there’s this new element to their relationship. And yeah it’s nice on the eyes, but it doesn’t feel real. Ester still holds a flame for David, and Janka is increasingly paranoid about someone figuring out she’s hiding her. Or perhaps worse, that Ester will find out about the secrets she’s been keeping and leave.

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Wait, she can leave? Yeah, because the war is over! Who lies about that?! Morals and ethics are real messy throughout this movie, but Janka’s selfish choice to withhold this information really strikes a nerve. Her acts to preserve this relationship seem to know no limit, and no amount of self-sacrifice in the end makes up for this.

In Hiding’s depiction of Janka is incredibly problematic. You have here someone the audience is supposed to identify as a lesbian, this based on her disinterest in her boyfriend and her clear interest in Ester. That’s at least how it feels watching the movie–that the film guides you to this conclusion. It then shows her to be somewhat anti-Semitic, as lying to a vulnerable woman, and being willing to kill to protect and to continue to be with that woman. It only gets worse when she takes advantage of her privileged position of power in the relationship, keeping Ester in the dark about her freedom and other matters, this while continuing to sleep with her. You could argue that she’s just a character, but filmmakers have a special responsibility towards queer characters, whether they want to own this or not. When you portray your lesbian protagonist as a villain, you’re saying something about the psychology of queer individuals, even if inadvertently.

I can accept the basic premise of the movie, that being, I think, that things were complicated in Poland during WWII and comfort was something to latch onto. Had it not been for the war, Ester would’ve probably happily married David. With that said, her relationship with Janka appears to have been about comfort and familiarity on her part. Their love wasn’t a genuine one like I was hoping to discover, but given the circumstances I can understand Ester’s need for that kind of connection. That’s not to say she’s by any means an angel–she took advantage of Janka’s feelings on more than one occasion. Of course then there’s Janka, whose misguided sense of love becomes an obsession. What more can I say about her? These two are bad together. As in they produce bad things.

Yet In Hiding is not all bad. The performances from the leads are great, the production values are right up there, and there’s never actually a dull moment. You may just find it worth a watch for the honest instances of affection between Janka and Ester, because those are some golden moments. It’s your call. Just proceed with caution, okay?

Check in with your local film festival to find out when In Hiding will be screening near you.