In Darkness Review By Adam
There are very few bad Holocaust films. Some may be heavy-handed, but almost every filmmaker treats the material with the utmost respect (I am yet to see the world’s worst director™ Uwe Boll’s Auschwitz). In most cases, handling this atrocity elevates even the finest film-makers (Steven Spielberg, Roman Polanski) to create their greatest works. Agnieszka Holland’s Oscar-nominated In Darkness is no exception to this rule. In Darkness is an emotionally tough, well made film that shows that, despite their inherent familiarity, there are still plenty of great stories to emerge from mankind’s darkest hour.
Set in 1943, In Darkness follows Polish sewer worker Leopold Socha (Robert Wieckiewicz), who is seemingly indifferent to the escalating atrocities being committed around him. Socha raids the abandoned houses of Jews and gives it little thought – this is not his war: he is Polish and Catholic. Socha sees a way to expand his opportunistic business when approached by a group of Jews that wish to be hidden in labyrinthine tunnels underneath the Lwów Ghetto. Socha sees this as a win-win situation as he can extort money off the Jews and then report them for a hefty reward once their funds run out. But Socha’s pla has problems that are twofold: the longer it goes on he not only increases the risk of getting caught, but also of seeing his ‘Jews’ as equal human beings.
Director Holland has chosen to tell a huge event from a single man’s perspective, and it works. The transformative arc is one of film’s most used conventions, but Holland and writer David F. Shamoon wring it for all it is worth. Socha is a bundle of contradictions — religious yet self-preserving, loving yet apathetic — and written in a complex, unsentimental manner that makes him hard to gauge. For long stretches in this film his inner-thought process is obscured. Is he doing this for money, or out of the kindness of his heart? Fascinating as the larger machinations of the war are, this film’s strong point is its protagonist.
One of the strongest aspects of Shamoon’s script (based on the novel by Robert Marshall) is his representation of Jews. True to life, Socha’s Jews are a hugely complex group of individuals. While not a unique treatment (if you haven’t read it, I highly recommend Art Spieglman’s Maus), Shamoon portrays the group as not only noble, enduring and courageous, but also as petty, feeble minded and adulterous. Making these victims unsympathetic significantly increases the dramatic tension (and realism) in Socha’s decisions. Shamoon also gives a level of ambiguity (though not as sympathetic, obviously) to the Germans. While there are some undeniable sadists (as there are in all Holocaust tales) who offer moments of pure provocation, Shamoon portrays the average German as a drunken opportunist who is simply following orders.
Holland’s portrayal of the sewers is truly harrowing and cinematically impressive. It becomes quickly apparent why one would choose certain death over these new quarters. Rat-infested, dank and overcrowded, the sewers are clearly an overt metaphor for the state of the Jews’ lives, and talented cinematographer Jolanta Dylewska captures them accordingly. One of the most amazing aspects of this story is the sheer amount of time these people spent under these circumstances, and it is hard to watch In Darkness and not have a pang of gratitude. Also, in a clever cinematic touch, Socha is almost always carrying some form of light, a nod to his role as reluctant saviour. Every aspect of this film is considered, intelligent filmmaking.
The acting in In Darkness is uniformly superb. The majority of the group get individual moments to shine, and even when you are dismayed at their behaviour or actions, you stay invested – in my book, that’s good acting. Benno Fürmann is a powerful presence as the headstrong leader of the group, Mundek. He is in the unenviable position of wanting to survive while retaining his dignity and Fürmann handles this duality well. Above all, this is Robert Wieckiewicz’s film. He has been given a great character in Socha and he rises to the occasion. Even when Socha’s actions are disagreeable, Wieckiewicz’s charisma and humanity keep us engaged. He makes us feel Socha’s journey.
While I imagine that people may be reluctant to rush out and see another Holocaust film (especially when you can buy a ticket to escapist fare like The Dark Knight Rises), I highly recommend In Darkness. It may not be as flat out entertaining as Paul Verhoeven’s Black Book (which is an awesome film, by the way) but Holland and Shamoon never forget to keep you entertained, even while telling such a harrowing tale. They have created a serious and intelligent film, but they also use the setting and tension to optimal effect. Long stretches of this film play like a thriller, albeit one with serious odds.