The Holocaust/WWII film genre has given birth to cinematic masterpieces (The Pianist, Schindler’s List, Sophie Scholl), maudlin excursions into fantasy (Life Is Beautiful) and serious-minded films that reach a bit too far (Black Book). To even think that such events could be recreated again and again within the confines of a film genre, which is inherently subject to its own clichés and devices, is a bit cringe-inducing. But from great horror often springs great art, and there are important stories of courage and survival, as well as the most base human depravity, that have yet to be told. Famed Polish filmmaker Agnieszka Holland tells one such story that combines all three elements in her latest film, In Darkness. At two and a half hours, it could have used some trimming, but perhaps Holland’s most recent excursions into the hour-long TV format, directing episodes of The Wire and Treme, left her wanting to stretch a bit.
In Darkness tells the engrossing tale of Leopold Socha (played by the burly Robert Wieckiewicz), a Polish sewer worker who scours the drainage pipes underneath the city of Lvov. Above ground, the Jews are living in squalor in the Nazi-enforced ghetto, until a group of men and women manage to break through the floor of their flat, gaining access to the sewer. They are immediately confronted by Socha, a character with questionable morals at best. While he holds no ill feelings towards the Jewish people, he sees an opportunity for extortion and demands payment in return for not alerting the authorities (who would reward him handsomely for such information). The Jews, led by Mundek Margulies (Benno Furmann), agree to pay him, which ultimately leads to a peculiar arrangement where they become totally reliant on Socha. He becomes their lifeline, bringing them food, clothing, and water, until ultimately their money runs out and he is faced with a moral dilemma—should he continue to help, risking the life of his entire family, or should he abandon the Jews?
Holland is a master storyteller, and she effortlessly introduces a multitude of characters, allowing little confusion even while Polish, German, Yiddish, and Ukrainian are all spoken. Much of the story takes place in dimly lit sewers where the only illumination comes from flashlights and candles. When the action follows Socha above ground, the effect is jarring as bright winter light fills the screen, allowing the viewer to feel what it must have been like to emerge from the depths of the sewers. Holland opens the film by jumping right into the action, with a theft, violence against an accused Nazi collaborator, the slaughter of naked Jewish women in the woods, and sex, all occurring within the first few minutes. Even during Nazi occupation, life did not always boil down to purely good or evil, and Holland makes this clear as she shows the bartering and conniving that the Jews were forced into in order to survive life in the ghetto. With very few exceptions, the Nazis only appear in the film as a nameless, anonymous threat. Instead, the most menacing figure is the Ukrainian officer, Bortnik (Michal Zurawski), an old friend of Socha’s who begins to suspect that he might be harboring Jews in the sewers.
In Darkness is based on a true story—Leopold Socha was subsequently recognized as one of The Righteous Among the Nations by Israel for his deeds during WWII. But much as Spielberg handled Arthur Schindler, Holland portrays Socha as a conflicted hero. His actions are initially motivated by greed, not humanity. By the end (and this is not revealing any surprises), when the Russians have driven the Nazis out of Lvov, he urges them to come into the sunlight and tearfully embraces and kisses the group which he now calls “my Jews.” It seems that even at this life-changing moment of salvation, the ego takes precedence. Nevertheless, Socha saved ten lives (out of the 21 who originally entered the sewers), and for that he is a hero. In Darkness smartly tells his story even as it relays the nearly unbearable misery the Jewish people of Lvov endured.
Director: Agnieszka Holland
Writer: Robert Marshall (book), David F. Shamoon
Starring: Robert Wieckiewicz, Benno Furmann, Agnieszka Grochowska & Maria Schrader
Release Date: Feb. 10, 2012