Director : Agnieszka Holland
Screenplay : David F. Shamoon (based on the book In the Sewers of Lvov A Heroic Story of Survival from the Holocaust by Robert Marshall)
MPAA Rating : R
Year of Release : 2011 / 2012
Stars : Robert Wieckiewicz (Leopold Socha), Benno Fürmann (Mundek Margulies), Agnieszka Grochowska (Klara Keller), Maria Schrader (Paulina Chiger), Herbert Knaup (Ignacy Chiger), Marcin Bosak (Yanek Grossmann), Krzysztof Skonieczny (Stefek Wroblewski), Milla Bankowicz (Krystyna Chiger), Oliwer Stanczak (Pawel Chiger), Kinga Preis (Wanda Socha), Weronika Rosati (Woman with child), Alexandre Levit (Kovalev), Frank-Michael Köbe (Wilhaus), Joachim Paul Assböck (Nowak)
Set largely in the dank sewers of the Polish city of Lvov during the Nazi occupation, Agnieszka Holland’s In Darkness is aptly titled both literally and metaphorically. It tells the true story of a dozen of so Polish Jews who hid in the sewers for more than a year with the aid of Leopold Socha (Robert Wieckiewicz), a Polish Catholic sewer worker who, as he put it, knew the tunnels better than his own wife and was able to steer the Nazis and their Ukrainian collaborators away from the Jews’ hiding place while sneaking them food and supplies.
According to the film, Socha was no saint, at least not at first. His initial impulse to help the Jews was not out of Christian charity for fellow human beings, but rather an opportunity to make money. When we first meet Socha, he and a fellow sewer worker (Krzysztof Skonieczny) are ransacking deserted homes and stashing the stolen valuables in the sewer tunnels for later sale on the black market. It is while engaging in these illicit, war-profiteering pursuits that he first comes across a group of Jews who, sensing the encroaching liquidation of the Jewish ghetto, have hacked their way through the floor of their apartment to create an escape route. Despite the risk that Socha might turn them in, the Jewish group’s leader, a reasonable older man named Pawel Chiger (Oliwer Stanczak), promises to pay Socha to hide them, and when he runs out of cash, he gives him the family heirlooms.
As Socha gets to know the individuals he is protecting and witnesses more and more of the Nazi atrocities taking place around him, his outlook changes and he begins to see the dozen men, women, and children as “his Jews” who he must protect at all costs, even at the risk of his own life and that of his wife Wanda (Kinga Preis) and his adolescent daughter. If the general thrust of the narrative sounds familiar, it is because In Darkness treads virtually the same arc as Schindler’s List (1993), although it does not touch Spielberg’s complex interweaving of gut-churching atrocity and grand humanism.
First-time screenwriter David F. Shamoon, working from Robert Marshall’s book In the Sewers of Lvov, is intent on sanctifying neither savior nor saved, which allows the film to sidestep mucky sentimentality. Robert Wieckiewicz’s portrayal of Socha, who was eventually named one of the 6,000 Righteous Among the Nations by the State of Israel in 1978, provides a compelling portrait of beady opportunism slowly eroding beneath the tug of fundamental human decency. He remains something of a cad, but a likeable cad whose shaggy-dog exterior is really just a lot of bluster (when Chiger runs out of money, Socha he insists on giving him cash to pay him in front of the others so they don’t think him a fool for risking his life for “nothing”). The Jewish survivors are guaranteed a certain level of nobility for simply surviving the kind of extreme conditions that most of us couldn’t imagine, much less endure for months on end, although the film gives us a broad spectrum that ranges from Mundek Margulies (Benno Fürmann), who is constant emblem of both cunning and bravery, to Yanek (Marcin Bosak), a self-absorbed jerk who deserts his wife and teen daughter in order to save his mistress and then deserts her while she is pregnant in the sewer.
At times, In Darkness achieves a harrowing intensity, and its narrow focus on a handful of survivors successfully emphasizes the will to live over the Nazis’ compulsion to slaughter. Like any Holocaust film, it is but one of millions of potential stories that puts a human face on a historical horror so enormous that it threatens abstraction. While its intentions are certainly good, the film falters at times, and some of Holland’s decisions are downright baffling. The film’s sexuality is oddly foregrounded in ways that don’t really work; perhaps the goal was to convey some sense of earthy sensuality, the human desire for contact that can never be completely snuffed out, but the film’s numerous sex scenes feel mostly out of place and unnecessary (especially a playful early-morning romp between Socha and Wanda that immediately cuts to the film’s despairing title card). The gravity of the material also lures Holland into making the film much longer than it needs to be; the lengthy sequences in the dark sewers certainly convey the monotonousness of the survivors’ ordeal, but they come at the expense of narrative flow, weighing down the film in ways that are not necessarily productive. Her early flirtations with surreal imagery, particularly a sequence where Socha witnesses a group of naked women with almost glowing blue-white skin being herded thrown a primeval forest by Nazi soldiers, suggests a daring kind of grim fairy tale approach to the horrors of the Holocaust, but this approach is quickly discarded in favor of a more conventional, handheld aesthetic of desaturated colors and, well, lots of darkness.
Especially with its setting in the sewers, In Darkness is clearly indebted to Kanal (1957), a truly great and devastating film about the Polish resistance by Andrzej Wajda, who served as Holland’s filmmaking mentor in the late 1970s and early ’80s. In that film, Wajda was able to convey his tragic heroes’ desperate plight with both economy and an overwhelming sense of expressive power. In its best moments In Darkness comes close to touching that kind of emotional, existential experience, but it ultimately drags on too long, which gives one the impression of a film of diminishing returns, rather than one that builds in intensity and emotional investment.
Copyright ©2012 James Kendrick
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