Apr 19, 2012|
(Poland) Directed by Agnieszka Holland. Starring Robert Wieckiewicz, Benno Furmann, Agnieszka Grochowska, Maria Schrader, Herbert Knaup. Category III.
Forget the term “Holocaust movie,” drop the comparisons to “Schindler’s List,” and simply relish this film as an earnest, gripping tale of desperate people in desperate times. It’s 1943 in the Nazi-occupied Polish city of Lvov (now Ukraine’s Lviv). Chubby, grubby sewage worker-slash-thief Leopold Socha (Robert Wieckiewicz) and colleague Szczepek (Krzysztof Skonieczny) have suddenly added a new chore to their daily line of duty (robbing homes, unblocking sewers and scavenging from dumps) to include hiding persecuted Jews in the sloshy underground labyrinths below the city streets—after one unexpected encounter. Socha and Szczepek are perfect for the task; they’re both knowledgeable enough to help the refugees navigate the dark, damp underworld, and also greedy enough to take such a fantastic risk in exchange for cash. But as the days wear on and the war continues, the returns for keeping the Jews safe diminish exponentially against the odds of Socha and Szczepek getting caught by the German forces. Eventually, only Socha is willing to continue with the near-thankless task of surreptitious food-fetching and care-giving, and soon even he begins to doubt his efforts. To make things worse, Socha’s relationship with his wife and daughter become increasingly strained, and Socha’s Ukrainian officer friend has caught whiff of the stowaways, all while some of the refugees under Socha’s care remain less than grateful for his services.
While Socha battles with his conscience and the very real threat of being discovered, the underground residents inevitably battle each other. Living under fetid, cramped conditions with rats as constant companions and darkness as their friend, sometimes there’s only so much the well-off Chiger family (led by Maria Schrader and Herbert Knaup), conman Mundek (Benno Fürmann), beautiful Klara (Agnieszka Grochowska), lovers Janek and Chaja and the rest of the personality-clashing safe-seekers can do to keep from clawing each others’ eyes out.
But at the same time, strong bonds start to bloom among the group as each one submits to the awful reality of being stuck indefinitely below ground. With nothing to do but wait, some of the residents develop strange routines to pass the day while others openly satisfy their sexual needs. The notions of dignity and shame slowly wither away with the endless passing of bleak, dark days.
“In Darkness” is based on a true account—Robert Marshall’s “In the Sewers of Lvov” is a collection of narrative from the survivors themselves—although Canadian screenwriter David Shamoon has had to make tweaks to suit the script. The Jewish enclave in the film was an assortment of real and fictional characters, while Socha’s personality had to be largely invented as so little is actually known about the man. Taking that into account, one can often guess where liberties had been taken to add suspense, drama and Hollywood appeal. (Hint: shower scene.)
Yet the storytelling is superb and the film intensely absorbing, holding the audience captive for an impressive two-and-a-half-hours. Polish director Agnieszka Holland is no stranger to the genre, having won acclaim for two previous Holocaust-related films, “Angry Harvest” and “Europa, Europa.” But what she really brings to the table with “In Darkness” is a far-reaching drama that pulls at your very heartstrings. There is no way around the heinous atrocities committed during the second world war, but Holland sees to it that none of the violence is gratuitous—the focus is never on the obscene acts alone. The macaronic dialogue—although easy to miss if you’re not acquainted with all of the Polish, German, Yiddish or Ukrainian tongues—gives an authenticity to the film and makes the characters relatable. There’s a clear hero in the story, and clear villains and victims, but the characters are hardly black and white. The refugees aren’t treated as one faceless, flawless group of martyrs and Socha is no saint. (“You give a finger and a Jew will take your arm!” Socha tells his hideaways at one point.) The dank and foul sewers—where much of the story takes place—are also anything but glamorous, and “In Darkness” captures this to a fault.
There isn’t a new angle or any particular enlightenment here—but the point is that the movie needs neither. When you have a story that captures the essence of human struggles with as keen an eye as “In Darkness,” the language is universal.