Directed by Agnieszka Holland. Starring Robert Wieckiewicz, Benno Fürmann, Agnieszka Grochowska, Maria Schrader, Herbert Knaup, Kinga Preis, Krzysztof Skonieczny, Julia Kijowska, Marcin Bosak, Jerzy Walczak, Michal Zurawski. (2011, R, 140 min.)
REVIEWED By Marc Savlov, Fri., March 16, 2012
Based on actual events, this claustrophobic epic is as emotional as they come: a Holocaust story shot through with a layer of darkness both literal and figurative. Set mainly beneath the streets of Lvov, Poland, In Darkness uses the dank, horrific, funereal sewers beneath the city to great and terrible effect. Not since Carol Reed's The Third Man and Andrzej Wajda’s Kanal has the underground been freighted with so much dramatic peril. This is an emotionally devastating portrayal of lives lived in terror, perpetual night, and constant fear of discovery. As nightmarish as it is, however, there's a remarkable core of wounded (possibly dying) humanity that runs throughout the doom-laden, phantasmagorically photographed cris de coeur et mort.
It's 1941 and the Germans are hunting for the few remaining Jews in Lvov. To assist in their efforts, Bortnik (Zurawski), a Nazi officer, conscripts a local sewer worker to help track their quarry. Leopold Socha (Wieckiewisz), aka Poldek, is presented as no friend of the Jews – he's a rough character, a corrupt thief, and looks as though he's been living all along beneath the blighted earth with the rats. When he encounters a band of Jews hiding in the labyrinthine sewer system, his first inclination is to turn them over to the Nazis and collect his fee. But the Jews, who together form a cross section of what was once prewar normalcy above, make him a better deal, and cynically calculating the odds, he figures he stands to gain more by helping them elude the Germans.
Comparisons between Poldek and Oskar Schindler (who similarly risked his life to save Jewish lives even though it put him and his family in direct personal danger) are to be expected – they're both historical figures – but Poldek the survivor-thief feels the more real of the two. Poldek is amoral, filthy, conniving, and deeply cynical, but as In Darkness progresses and the threats to both him and his untermenschen become graver by the day, he finds himself wanting to help, needing to help. Despite protestations from his wife and the ever-present suspense generated by his interactions with the Germans and Nazi sympathizers (particularly from the weaselly Bortnik, an old prison buddy turned Nazi thug), Poldek, a historical antihero, finds his moral compass pointing toward some semblance of a conscience. He is transformed by his actions totally.
Shooting the film with flashlights and a RED camera in natural unlight, cinematographer Jolanta Dylewska has done a masterful job in uncompromising conditions. The Jews – among them Schrader and Knaup's formerly well-to-do married couple – a pregnant woman, children, and several other types are, notably shown as being ruthless and potentially amoral in their own right, but given the fact that their only chance for survival is hanging by a thread held by an opportunistic goon, their actions make sense in context.
Darker than even the sewers it uses as its milieu, Holland's film is unrelenting in its exploration of the limits of cruelty and the birth pangs of humanity. It's a sorrowful film, to be sure, but it's also like nothing you've ever seen before (including Holland’s own masterful Holocaust movie, Europa Europa.