World War II cinema often focuses on classic perpetrator-victim tropes, with the same classes of people occupying the same roles. Yet “The Innocents” focuses in on the fringes of Poland, spotlighting the story of the marginalized, the forgotten and the abused.
“The Innocents,” set in immediate post-World War II Poland, tells the story of Mathilde (Lou de Laâge, “The Wait”), a French nurse volunteering with the Red Cross, who discovers and aids a convent of nuns dealing with multiple pregnancies caused by rape at the hands of invading Russian soldiers. The film focuses on the impact of the Russian invasion — a widely overlooked and forgotten section of history — specifically the innocent bystanders in Poland who suffered their own atrocities during World War II. Even more so, the film offers a view into a realm rarely discussed — it is a piece exclusively centered around the female experience.
A cast of female characters allows us multiple perspectives on the situation of unwanted pregnancy in a chaste community, with complex emotions and questions of morality being discussed through characterization. De Laâge’s Mathilde is the skilled, determined and compassionate nurse who transitions from the invasive foreigner to the trusted savior through her tireless determination to help the nuns. Her altruism is only muddled by a perpetual mask of stoicism, which works to add complexity to her character. Agata Buzek (“Redemption”) plays Maria, the woman who enlisted Mathilde’s help and tries to hold together the falling pieces of the nuns’ lives. Maria embodies strength and perseverance, with an added layer of intrigue accorded to her with hints at a promiscuous former life. Finally, Agata Kulesza (“Ida”) plays the Abbess, a woman struggling to do what she believes is best for her convent while sacrificing herself in the process. The brilliance of the characterization is that no woman is one-dimensional in her motivations or actions; instead, each woman is individual and compelling. The acting is genuine and convincing, as each woman portrays her own fear in nuanced yet powerful ways.
The film is not entirely without men. The male voice is Samuel (Vincent Macaigne, “Sunday Lunch”), the head doctor at the Red Cross. While he helps deliver some of the babies, his male perspective seems superfluous, and he doesn’t do much besides mimic Mathilde’s work and try to get her into bed. As a film portraying the 1940s, it is important to keep in mind that while it focuses on the lives of women, it’s ultimately a film set in a male-dominated world (for example, Mathilde can only practice medicine as a doctor when in an environment absent of men). This calls into question the necessity of a male role in a film about the female experience: Is it necessary because it’s historically accurate, or does it undermine its feminist nature?
In regards to cinematography, the movie is dark, disturbing and raw. Director Anne Fontaine (“Adore”) makes brilliant aesthetic decisions; the shots are cold and dark, oscillating between barren winter landscapes and empty stone corridors. Devoid of color or comfort, the design enhances the emotional impact of the movie. In terms of its conflicts, the film deals with the issues of rape and unwanted pregnancy with austerity. One scene, in which Mathilde is almost raped herself by Russian soldiers, is bone-chilling and traumatizing, emphasizing the powerlessness of herself, the convent and women in general. Later, we see the Abbess leaving a newborn to die of exposure and the baby’s mother committing suicide soon after, highlighting questions of whether good intentions justify morally ambiguous acts. Religion works as a central motif, as the women’s faith in Christianity, and even humanity, is continually tested.
“The Innocents” is a movie about the female experience, the hardships endured by marginalized women of a desolate war-torn country, and the love and support they gave each other. While it rips you to shreds for two hours, the film ends on a satisfying, if fragile, note of hope. It is an important lesson on history and humanity.