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In the realm of Holocaust survival tales, In Darkness occupies a rather unusual position in that virtue and vice are attributed to Jews and non-Jews alike. This story of suffering and almost inadvertent humanitarianism is harrowing, engrossing, claustrophobic and sometimes literally hard to watch, since much of the action takes place in the dim sewers under Lvov (aka Lviv), where a roughly a dozen Polish Jews hid from the Nazis for more than a year, tenuously protected by a Catholic worker with no initial reason to help them other than gelt. Beginning its festival roll-out in Telluride and Toronto, Agnieszka Holland‘s robust, arduous drama is more ironic and multi-faceted than most such tales and should be well received by the considerable art house audience worldwide partial to the subject matter. Poland has already chosen the Sony Classics release as its submission for the foreign-language film Oscar derby.
Holland has ventured into related territory before, notably in Angry Harvest (1985) and Europa, Europa (1990), but has never before focused upon the Jewish ghetto experience. First-time screenwriter David F. Shamoon‘s dramatized true story, culled from information included in Robert Marshall‘s 1991 book In the Sewers of Lvov, is set in a Polish-dominated city in German collaborationist Ukrainian territory which in 1941 included about 200,000 Jews but four years later numbered no more than 300.
Of these, a few had a chance at survival due to the unlikely exertions of one Leopold Socha (Robewrt Wieckiewicz), a potato-faced sewer worker with no love of Jews who, at the behest of Ukrainian Nazi officer Bortnik (Michal Zurawski), is logically chosen to search for Jewish stragglers who may have eluded the sweeps that have sent most of them to concentration camps. Socha will be paid handsomely for every Jew he catches, but Jews he discovers in the putrid bowels of the city are in a position to make him a better offer. A former thief, Socha is easily tempted by lucre and, in one suspenseful early scene, stumbles upon some hiding Jews but reports back to his search partner that he he has seen no one.
In most respects a simple, corruptible guy, Socha becomes an almost unwitting accomplice in helping the Jews he meets underground. He certainly has no religious or ideological motivation for doing so; if discovered, he well knows that he, his wife and daughter will be killed. Socha is one of those classical unaffiliated heroes, a thoroughly unglamorous version of Rick in Casablanca, who, while not inclined to take sides, ends up doing the right thing. Unlike Schindler, he is no altruist and a bit of a mercenary, one who finds his inner mensch.
As for the Jews themselves, the dark sometimes makes them hard to identify. There are the wealthy Ignacy and Pauline Chiger (Herbert Knaup, Maria Schrader), as well as a couple of kids and the feisty young Klara Keller (Agniewszka Grochowska), for whom the most macho of the hidden, Mundek Margulies (Benno Furmann), once a criminal like Socha, risks sneaking into the Janowska camp in an attempt to rescue her sister. At another stage during the almost unendurable immersion in cramped, wet, frigid and stench-ridden circumstances, one woman becomes pregnant, resulting in a wrenching decision over what to do with a newborn whose cries will certainly give them all away.
Using a Red system camera and illuminating the underground scenes almost entirely by flashlight, Holland and cinematographer Jolanta Dylewska successfully create an oppressive, suffocating, terrifying subterranean world where everything could end in a second or go on indefinitely. Some interludes, particularly one in which the two children get lost in the maze of tunnels and a sudden underground flood is triggered by a rain storm, are particularly tense, but Holland generally resists the impulse to create trumped-up suspense for its own sake.
Some touches tilt toward the symbolic—the Jews at a certain point are right underneath a cathedral—and some of the action is disorienting or downright confusing, often because of the near-darkness. But the central dilemma could not be clearer and nuances of Socha’s personal movement from opportunist to committed one-man support system are credible and convincing, in no small measure due to Wieckiewicz’s excellent performance. The use of six languages (Polish, German, Yiddish, Ukranian, Hebrew and Russian) and one dialect (the Polish dialect Balak) amplifies the realistic feel set by Erwin Prib‘s outstanding production design and the lived-in costume designs by Katarzyna Lewinska and Jagna Janica.
Of course, there are those who argue against the attempt to dramatize the Holocaust at all, partly because it is too enormous and obscene to reduce down to play-acting, also because the formats employed for telling it tend to fit a similar pattern between massive death placed offscreen or in the background and specific cases of survival highlighted in the foreground. In Darkness fits squarely in the latter group, along with Schindler’s List and The Pianist, to name two of the best-known examples. It’s easy to sense the destination the film is headed in (although there are ironic twists in store) and it is a bit of a grind getting there, but the take Holland and Shamoon offer does provide enough that is unusual and interesting to make it worthwhile.
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