‘In Darkness’ a gutsy portrait of courage in German-occupied Poland”
The worst of unbridled human evil is abundantly on view in the harrowing drama In Darkness. But it’s counterbalanced by an indelible portrait of human compassion and empathy in Polish filmmaker Agnieszka Holland’s World War II-era tale of the German occupation of the Polish city of Lvov.
It’s based on the true story of Leopold Socha, a Polish Catholic sewer worker who kept a handful of Jewish refugees hidden in the sewers until the liberation of Poland. While tough to sit through at times, it’s a gutsy film whose portrait of grassroots courage against alarming odds earned the film an Academy Award nomination.
Veteran filmmaker Holland started out as assistant to her mentor, Andrzej Wajda, more than 30 years ago. Throughout her career, in films like Angry Harvest and Europa, Europa, Holland has explored human nature under pressure in close encounters between Jews and Nazis during the war years. Working this time from the nonfiction book by Robert Marshall (adapted by scriptwriter David F. Shamoon), “In the Sewers of Lvov: A Heroic Story of Survival from the Holocaust,” Holland, as usual, achieves her dramatic effects not from sweeping, epic action, but in the accumulation of details as ordinary people make small daily choices about how to live their lives.
At the outset, there’s nothing especially heroic about the film’s Leopold Socha (well-played by Robert Wieckiewicz as a rumpled everyman). A sewer worker by day, he’s a part-time thief at night, dragging along his younger partner to burgle the homes of the wealthy citizens of Lvov. He sells the loot to the Jews—for whom he has no particular affection—on the other side of the fence in the Jewish ghetto, and takes home the profit to his earthy, vivacious wife, Wanda (Kinga Preis) and their little daughter.
Socha is an opportunist who never misses a chance to feather his own nest. When three or four Jewish men appear in the sewer, after digging a tunnel out of the ghetto, Socha offers them guidance through the sewer system and his silence—for a price. But when the Germans sweep through the ghetto, rounding up Jews for the camps and slaughtering the rest, and a couple dozen men, women, and small children suddenly take to the sewers, the stakes rise dramatically. Despite the danger to himself and his family, Socha agrees to hide 10 of them (they have to make the Sophie’s choice among themselves which 10) in a remote chamber of the sewer line.
It’s a business proposition at first, with the wealthiest Jew, Mr. Chiger (Herbert Knaup), in hiding with his wife and two small children, paying Socha by the week for their maintenance and supplies. When he runs out of cash, he directs Socha to the place where he’s hidden a box of jewelry, and Socha certainly considers keeping the booty for himself and abandoning the others. But as the atmosphere above ground grows more toxic, with the Germans murdering Jews and executing non-Jewish Poles alike, Socha is moved to ever more risky and dangerous choices (from small kindnesses, to sloshing through floodwaters, to murder) on behalf of the group he starts to think of as “my Jews.”
Meanwhile, tensions mount below ground. Socha and the tough Jew he calls “Pirate” (a terrific Benno Furmann) never trust each other. The air is foul, the stench unimaginable, the Jews bicker among themselves and fight over food, and even the children become adept at plucking up fat intrusive rats and tossing them aside. A young hothead goes stir crazy, but not before impregnating one of the women (a coupling that produces a chain reaction of sexual longing throughout the closely quartered group). Love even blooms unexpectedly for the loner Pirate, proving his worth to poised, compassionate Klara (Agnieszka Grochowska), who has lost her sister.
Holland leaves it to pragmatic Wanda to provide the film’s voice of reason and conscience. When Socha points out people are making money turning in Jews, she says, “God will punish the greedy,” and reminds him that “Jesus was Jewish.” When Socha points out that the priest says that Jews are sinners, she scoffs, “That’s just church politics.” It’s in these small personal exchanges—despite the larger picture of wholesale depravity—that Holland’s faith in human nature is restored.
With Robert Wieckiewicz, Benno Furmann, and Agnieszka Grochowska. Written by David F. Shamoon. From a book by Robert Marshall. Directed by Agnieszka Holland. A Sony Classics release. Rated R. 145 minutes. In Polish and German with English subtitles.