Directed by Agnieszka Holland
Starring Robert Wieckiewicz, Benno Furmann, Krzysztof Skonieczny, Maria Schrader, Herbert Knaup, Michał Żurawski
After several years working in American cable television – she directed, amongst other things, episodes of The Wire – acclaimed Polish director Agnieszka Holland (best known for Europa, Europa) returns to both fiction feature filmmaking and her native country to bring us this harrowing, but ultimately uplifting, World War II Holocaust drama.
Based on a true story, In Darkness charts the wartime exploits of an unlikely hero, Leopold Socha (Robert Wieckiewicz), a lowly sewer inspector in the Polish city of Lvov. When the city is occupied by the Germans, Socha initially seizes the opportunity to make a profit through a little light looting and black market manoeuvring, but his life begins to change when he finds a group of Jews hiding from the Nazis in the ancient sewers he knows so well. At first, Socha only helps the refugees in exchange for money and valuables, but gradually he comes to realise that his own inherent humanity will not allow him to give up his charges.
We’ve seen the Holocaust portrayed on the big screen so many times that you could be forgiven for wondering if there’s anything new to be said about the subject, but what sets Holland’s film apart is its odd and engrossing mix of the humane and the starkly unsentimental. In Darkness portrays the atrocities of the Nazi regime – the camps, the torture, the exterminations – with an unblinking eye, but it also takes the time to demonstrate that, even in the midst of death and horror, humanity keeps on keeping on. Children still play, people still laugh, argue, fight, and have sex, and the foibles that make us so fallible and real are, if anything, even more foregrounded.
Wieckiewicz, an actor largely unknown outside o Europe, is excellent as the complex, clay-footed Socha, a man who finds himself trying to do the right thing in spite of himself, but he is not alone in that regard, being supported by an impressive ensemble who almost all manage to imbue their characters with a sense of individuality and completeness. The Jews of In Darkness are not saintly ciphers, but real, complex human beings, with their own concerns, ideals, and deeply held grudges and rivalries. Benno Furmann stands out as the mistrustful Mundek, who is sure that Socha will betray his people, and plans to pay him back with a cut throat; and so too is Michal Zurawski as Bortnik, Socha’s Ukrainian friend who has found a niche for himself enforcing the Nazis’ harsh rule.
Feeling like a reaction to Steven Spielberg’s heartfelt but histrionic Schindler’s List, In Darkness manages to rise above the overly familiar conventions of the Holocaust movie subgenre by focusing on character instead of carnage, and in doing so manages to reinforce the horrors of the period without descending into gratuitousness. While by no means for the faint of heart, still it remains a rewarding experience.
(First publsihed in X-Press issue 1328, 25/07/2012)