Film Review: In Darkness

Agnieszka Holland’s epic true-life drama about a Catholic sewer worker who hid Jews in the tunnels beneath a small Polish town during the Nazi occupation is unsparing, unsentimental and unforgettable. Poland’s selection for this year’

In Darkness, Agnieszka Holland’s aptly named, harrowing new film, based on a true story, brings us back to the day-by-day horror of the Holocaust, as it was lived by a small group of Polish Jews and an unlikely hero. The Polish director, acclaimed for her earlier Holocaust drama Europa Europa, as well as for her English-language films (The Secret Garden, Washington Square), insisted this story be filmed in Polish, Yiddish, German and Ukrainian for authenticity, and in this, as in every other aspect of this hard-hitting film, she has made the right choice.

Holland starts by disorienting us: We see a moving train shot in soft focus, only to realize it is a toy train, lovingly held by a small boy living in a cramped apartment in the penned-in Jewish ghetto. Abrupt cut to two men robbing a Polish woman and killing her Nazi boyfriend, who then flee, hidden by trees, past a group of crying, naked women running before being gunned down by their Nazi pursuers. No date, no specific location. We see the thieves hide their loot deep in the sewer, then watch the older one, Leopold Socha, return home to his cheerful wife and daughter. Back in the ghetto, a Nazi points a gun at a haggard Jewish man to make him dance, while another forcibly shaves an Orthodox Jew’s beard, laughing as he takes a chunk of flesh with his razor. On the edge of this hell we meet Mundek Margulies (Benno Fürmann), a handsome con man wearing a Jewish armband and a knowing smirk, who gets socked in the jaw by Socha’s accomplice for selling him a fake ring.

Holland effectively keeps us off-balance, drawing us deeper into this specific heart of darkness before joining the fates of Socha, Mundek and a group of Jews led into the sewers of Lvov, Poland, in 1943 in the hopes of surviving the war. Socha, a petty thief and sewer worker, knows the local sewer system like the back of his hand. He also knows how to make a buck, so when Socha is approached by Ignacy Chiger (Herbert Knaup), a wealthy Jewish businessman, to hide his wife, two small children and friends, he takes them down, despite the risk to himself and his family. His resolve is tested by the menacing urging of a Ukrainian Nazi officer he knows to turn in any Jews he finds for a hefty reward. Played by the extraordinary Robert Wieckiewicz with reserves of power and subtlety, Socha is a complex character: canny, cocky, brutal and compassionate. As the story develops, he seems to disappoint himself by caring for the Jews he initially helped just for profit.

In an early scene, Socha is surprised when his Catholic wife expresses pity for the Jews. “Didn’t the Jews kill Jesus?” he asks. When she answers that Jesus was a Jew, it startles him. He expects Jews to be cowardly, greedy and suspicious, and certainly the Jews in his charge have every reason not to trust him. Holland maintains the tension in this long, wrenching film largely through keeping Socha’s commitment ambivalent. When we’re not fearing Socha giving up on the trapped Jews, we’re fearing the Nazis trapping Socha. Above the sewers, innocent Poles hang in the town square as warning, and anyone can be stopped and shot at a moment’s notice. The ghetto is deserted, all the Jews who lived there now dead or in concentration camps.

The characters in David F. Shamoon’s screenplay, based on Robert Marshall’s book In the Sewers of Lvov, are wisely presented with all their flaws, passions and virtues, not idealized as victims. One of the Jews fortunate enough to be hidden by Socha is earlier shown sleeping with his mistress in front of his wife and daughter. Eventually, he leaves his family behind, knowing they will perish, to be with her. In a startling scene in their tight sewer quarters, Klara Keller (a very fine Agnieszka Grochowska) is shown being aroused by the couple’s lovemaking, then unexpectedly meeting the terrified eyes of Mundek, who silently loves her. None of the sex or violence is gratuitous. Holland, with her gifted production team, miraculously finds the right tone, keeping us down in the sewers with all their stink, claustrophobia and vermin, suggesting what it might be like to live without light or fresh air for 14 months in constant fear of discovery and annihilation. It is not easy to watch, but it is impossible to turn away.