The following film review of In Darkness appeared in the Australian Jewish News on 2 August 2012.
Directed by Agnieszka Holland
Written by David F. Shamoon, based on the book In the Sewers of Lvov by Robert Marshall
In the Nazi-occupied Polish city of Lvov, Jews have been herded into the ghetto, which is set for extermination. Ukrainian fascist blackshirts willingly do much of the dirty work for the German occupiers, and local Jews are increasingly desperate. One small group, led in part by conman Mundek Margulies (Benno Fürmann) has worked out a hiding place: they have dug down to escape into the local sewers, although their plan goes no further, with no means of leaving the sewers or how to survive while there.
Local sewer worker and plumber Socha Leopold (Robert Wieckiewicz) is a petty thief with no love of either the Nazis or Ukrainians, and when he stumbles upon the group of twenty-plus Jews who have arrived in his sewers, he makes a financial deal to provide them with food, and works out the best hiding places. This is the set-up for In Darkness, a powerful new film based on real events of Jewish survival during the Holocaust. Directed by Agnieszka Holland, whose previous Holocaust dramas Angry Harvest and Europa, Europa have long marked her as one of the top European directors of Holocaust drama, In Darkness was one of the final shortlisted films in last year’s 2011 Best Foreign Film Academy Awards.
In Darkness is quite explicit: most of the film takes place underground “in darkness”. And there is a second meaning: in this world of moral and spiritual darkness, power, brutality and suspicion rule. Be forewarned: with its explicit scenes of Jewish degradation, murder and naked bodies, often shot in a hand-held “cinema verite” style, this is not a film for the squeamish. In Darkness also unfolds in a distinctly European style, without the explicit character set-ups favoured by most English language directors. As a result, we are thrust into immediate action, but this also means that we do not get to know most of the Jewish characters well; thus we cannot care for them sufficiently to make any of their deaths emotionally significant.
Ultimately, like Schindler’s List, In Darkness is not so much about the Jewish victims but about Socha, the Polish Righteous Gentile, and his moral choices. Like Oscar Schindler, Socha Leopold attempts to profit by the war’s chaos, and again like Schindler he is an initially reluctant but increasingly committed saviour to “his” Jews, risking his life and that of his wife and child for less and less, and ultimately no material gain. The beauty of this film is that we believe in Socha’s transformation from small time crook to moral righteousness.
In Darkness unfolds in scenes of grit, dirt, filth and mud. The few scenes which take place outside are shadowed by gray skies and dirty snow. The fourteen months of sewer living by the Jewish survivors is nothing short of horrific, with suspicious Nazis hovering aboveground, uncertainty who to trust, shortages of food and money running out. Rats run everywhere, aboveground personal tensions are exaggerated in the cramped spaces, and the claustrophobia proves too much for many of them. Some even flee to the Nazi concentration camp as a relief.
This is a tough film to watch. At almost two and a half hours, the emotional journey is a long one, and there is little reprieve from the tension. As director, Holland is unparalleled in capturing the chaos, and the senseless and random brutality of war. Watch for the short but extraordinary scene late in the film when Mundek survives purely by chance when one German officer decides he is a more worthy worker and another is killed in his place.
Born in Warsaw in 1948 to a Catholic mother who participated in the Warsaw Uprising and a Jewish father whose family was killed by the Nazis, Holland brings an extraordinary emotional depth to her Holocaust films, intuitively understanding how survival is often not heroic but simply a mixture good luck, emotional resilience and the right guesses. Like Roman Polanski, another Polish Jew whose life has been haunted by tragedy and loss, Holland has transcended her background of overshadowing death to produce a number of testaments – works of cinematic art – that celebrate life. This film is one of them.
A link to the cinema trailer for the film is below.