“Depressing” is a word I find myself using a lot this week, and in the weeks leading up to the holiday-season cornucopia of year-end movies. Don’t worry. War Horse, Steven Spielberg’s master blend of heartwarming artistry and entertainment, is on the way. Meanwhile, I fear too many people who cannot bear to endure one more film about the Holocaust will stay away from In Darkness, the esteemed Polish director Agnieszka Holland’s beautifully filmed, sensitively acted and expertly written account of the true story of an anti-Semitic Roman Catholic who saved the lives of a dozen Jews hiding in the sewers of Nazi-occupied Poland in 1943. It’s harrowing, sometimes difficult to watch and wrenchingly moving to the point of tears. It is also brilliant. Do not miss it.
The Nazis have begun their liquidation of Lvov, randomly murdering Jews for the sport of it and trucking away thousands to concentration camps. Here is a time and place of torture and death where everyone steals from everyone else to stay alive and nobody can be trusted—especially a sour and burly hamhock of a sewer worker and petty thief named Leopold Socha. Between robberies, he one day encountered some Polish Jews trying to escape from the ghetto before the Gestapo found them. For a price, he showed them how to climb down from a hole in the street into the murk and foul-smelling slime of the underground tunnels. Living with rats, eating a raw onion if they were lucky, separating from their families, giving birth to children surrounded by excrement, they miraculously survived for 14 months. When their money ran out, this accidental hero and his hardened, calloused wife above ground somehow discovered a conscience they didn’t know they had and protected their “children of war” from one near-fatal mishap after the next. In time, the lives of dependants and reluctant saviors alike intertwine with such inspired candor and force that the ensemble cast literally takes on the souls of the characters. They are so real that after a while you forget you are watching actors at all. This is especially true of Robert Wieckiewicz, an expressive and celebrated stage star in Poland who does wonders depicting the conflicting moral and religious instincts of Socha, a tough, emotionally detached sewer inspector and predatory crook whose criminal instinct for self-protection was betrayed by his new-found empathy for the disenfranchised. Only a handful of his Jews came through the ordeal alive, but the real Socha has since been honored for his humanitarian efforts, along with other brave Poles who altered human destiny by saving persecuted Jews from the gas chambers—specifically Oskar Schindler.
Warsaw-born director Holland, whose native epics about World War II, such as Europa, Europa, have always surpassed her more commercial English-speaking work (The Secret Garden, Washington Square), does such a thorough job depicting authenticity that the filth and degradation of the claustrophobic sewer eventually get to you. There’s an actual childbirth and the smothering of a baby I could not watch, as well as a deathly flood that proves to be an act of betrayal. It is to the credit of a sound screenplay by David Shamoon that the film carefully balances the fear and selfishness of the victims without sentimentality. Neither Socha nor the Jews are angels. Some of them are despicable on both sides of the equation. Without overdoing the atrocities, Ms. Holland attempts to illustrate the many cruel aspects of war’s effects on its victims as well as its perpetrators. The title is apropos, because most of the film submerges the viewer into a labyrinthine subterranean blackness that makes it difficult to share the experiences. We squint to watch them, and struggle to feel the sexual and emotional attractions that keep their minds from closing the bridge to insanity.
In Darkness is gloomy and hard to take for a running time of 145 minutes, but it’s an important film, related with deep conviction, and uncompromising in its understanding of the remarkable things members of the human race have done—to, for, and against each other—in the wilderness of war.
Running Time 145 minutes
Written by David F. Shamoon
Directed by Agnieszka Holland
Starring Robert Wieckiewicz, Benno Fürmann and Agnieszka Grochowska