With Polish Holocaust film In Darkness director Agnieszka Holland shows she is not afraid to test her audience. With a run time of almost two and a half hours and a cinematic style reminiscent of The Third Man if it were shot with the grungy modernity of Anthony Dod Mantle, this film is a dark, lengthy and unrelentingly unsentimental experience. In spite of its steeliness however In Darkness tells a true tale that is still utterly moving upon conclusion.
In Darkness focuses on Leopold Socha (Robert Wieckiewicz), a sewer worker (and petit thief) in WWII Poland. The film tells of how he risked everything by hiding a group of Jewish people in the sewer network during the Nazi invasion of Lvov. While jaded viewers might feel we have seen enough of the Holocaust on the big screen (with Schindler’s List and The Pianist still reasonably fresh in our minds) Socha’s story resonates with enough moral dilemma and reluctant courage to make the trip worthwhile.
Robert Wieckiewicz as Socha makes for a robust leading man, holding the film with an earthy charisma. His character brushes death numerous times and Wieckiewicz carries his character through the proverbial minefield of Nazi occupation with a directness that gradually makes him endearing. His home life offers something of a relief from the oppressive occupied world, with his wife Wanda (Kinga Preis) and daughter Stefcia (Zofia Pieczynska) offering some stability. Holland stages family scenes inside, lit with Rembrandtesque warmth by cinematographer Jolanta Dylewska.
This warmth is in direct contrast to the milieu inhabited by the Jewish characters. For the majority of the film they live, quite literally, in darkness in the sewers. Somewhat inevitably not all of these characters are given an entirely rounded character treatment. A number of them exist as cyphers to create drama, yet Holland does not allow them all to become victims. The tough Mundek Margulies (played by German actor Benno Fürmann) becomes an important motivator for the cause of the Jews as he forfeits cover, attempting to reunite missing members of their group. This leads to a number of tense scenes where he encounters the singular brutality of the Nazi characters.
Tensions between the Jewish characters however, are where some of the most intense drama originates. Yanek Grossmann (Marcin Bosak) leaves his wife Szona (Etl Szyc) for younger woman Chaja (Julia Kijowska), whom he impregnates in the sewers. The scenes of these events feel sordid, particularly as Szona witnesses them and attempts to prevent her daughter Rachela (Ida Lozinska) from seeing her father’s primal betrayal. While they are strong scenes, a problem emerges. Due to underdevelopment, characters like Yanek and Chaja remain one-dimensional, sucking some of the authenticity from an otherwise realistic scenario.
But at its heart In Darkness is Socha’s story. It is a film about a morally ambiguous man whose instincts ultimately guide him to do something remarkably ethical, in the face of depravity. Holland gives Socha’s story clarity and, with her impassive style, allows us to consider critically how we would react in similar circumstances. Only during the last scene does she step close to the melodramatic. The strongest emotional punch however, comes with the information we are given in text form, when the film has ended. We discover the fate of each character outside the context of war, reminding us of the fragility of life, even in times of peace.