Much of In Darkness takes place in the dank, foul-smelling, and lightless sewer tunnels. Even when the action moves above ground, it is still overshadowed by an absence of light of the moral kind. Despite the serious subject matter, the film still stands a good chance of winning the Oscar for the Best Film in a Foreign Language because it is gripping and it reminds us there is light in the darkness.
Set during the Nazi horror of World War II, Leopold Socha (played by Polish actor Robert Wieckiewicz), is a part-time burglar and full-time sewer worker. When Socha encounters a group of Jews who have escaped into the sewers of the Polish city of Lvov to escape from the Nazi round-up of the ghetto, he is faced with a life and death decision. Anyone caught aiding Jews will be executed, while those who report them are given money. He decides to hide them out of harm’s way, but only after wondering if he should hand them in. Initially he is paid off by a wealthy member of the group, but when the money runs out he ends up risking his life for them.
The Nazis were so awful that it is easy to portray their victims purely as innocents. In Darkness however does not follow that route. Screenwriter David F. Shamoon has said that he was not interested in portraying the Jews as ‘holier than thou’, but wanted to illustrate their flawed characters. No one in this film is entirely guiltless. The principal Jewish character, Mundek Margulies (played by German actor Benno Fürmann) is a fraudster and early on they are joined by a proper crook. But fine grain of these personalities makes them all the more realistic and thus their fates more affecting.
It is not often we get to see films with sewer workers as heros and Wieckiewicz is believable in the role. He is not unattractive but doesn’t have the chiselled – and distracting – look of a Hollywood movie star. His acting is however first-rate: he makes his transition from streetwise chancer to man of principle almost imperceptible.
The performance may be subtle, but we are given a little clue that something is afoot with Socha when he is still considering if he should claim the money for the lives of the Jews and whether saving lives is worth the danger to his own and his family’s lives. The gradual change from opportunist to saviour is marked symbolically with a baptism. He takes a bath after work, helped by his wife, and the two discuss the Jews and their persecution at the hands of the Nazis. As his wife pours a jug of water over his head, she points out that “Jesus was a Jew” and “Jews are just like us”, Socha replies “Was he?” as the implications of the thought wash over him.
The film is not afraid to use a little symbolism elsewhere too. Later, one of the refugee men happens upon one of the women showering under the light of a drain and, like King David who spies Bathsheba bathing in the moonlight and falls for her, “her beauty in the moonlight overthrew” him too. Indeed, the darkness itself can be seen as allegorical. The director of photography, Jola Dylewska has said that part of her intention was to make the darkness ‘a metaphor of the Jewish lot during the Holocaust’.
Despite this intrusion of spiritual realms, the putrid rankness of the tunnels is never in doubt. The sewers were in fact recreated in a studio, and while this makes practical sense (it’s difficult to fit a film crew down narrow tunnels) it is also a bit of a surprise as the recreations are so vivid. Thank goodness they haven’t added smell to create 4D films yet.
This is the third film about the Holocaust made by director, Agnieszka Holland. Angry Harvest made in 1985 focused on the struggle between a Jewish woman and the Polish farmer who shelters her. Her 1991 film Europa Europa was based on the memoir of Jewish teenager Solomon Perel who survived the war by pretending to be a gentile. She has written that she believes that despite all the new Holocaust stories that keep appearing, “the main mystery [of those events] hasn’t been resolved. How was this crime possible?”
There is no final answer and she doesn’t give one, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t consider these questions. Holland leaves us with no doubt that despite the incredible bravery and resourcefulness of Socha and the Jews, their survival in the end is the most incredible piece of luck. And as with the religious imagery, these metaphysical matters don’t impede the action. For a film that is two hours and 23 minutes long, there is not a moment when it drags.
There can be few harder subjects than genocide for a filmmaker, and music in particular is hard to get right. Add too much emotion and it demeans the experience, but if you don’t add enough you’ve lost an important part in your arsenal of filmmaking techniques. Luckily, the composer Antoni Komasa-Lazarkarkiewicz handles this too with great deftness, employing subtle electronica and diegetic music heard in the street, through walls and in the camps.
It is restraint like this that makes In Darkness all the more affecting, (the full extent of the Nazis’ depravity is also more alluded to than spelled out). Agnieszka Holland skilfully combines harrowing truthfulness and fast-paced excitement to create an valuable testament to the memory of the holocaust. And if Leopold Socha is more fully realised than any of his charges, he has travelled further.
In Darkness is released in cinemas on 16 March, 2012.
Read our review of another Best Film in a Foreign Language entrant at the Oscars, A Separation (or Nader and Simin, A Separation).