Above the surface, Socha uses his relationship with a high-level Ukrainian officer who’s in deep with the Germans to pass false information and shield his charges. Down below, he brings food and drink, and moves the refugees whenever he knows the Nazis are sweeping the sewers. Socha is no saint — he keeps taking their money every day, and when the money runs out, he takes their jewelry and other valuables.
But he does keep them safe — and to director Holland’s credit, never paints the Jewish refugees as saints either. They are a flawed, feuding lot. It’s a surprisingly realistic portrayal of how people might act toward each other under such unbearable conditions, and it’s not one we see often in these types of films. Adding to the authenticity, all the characters in the film speak in their native languages, which range from Polish to German to Yiddish to Ukrainian, with English subtitles.
In Darkness, which is one of this year’s Oscar nominees as best foreign language film, features a number of wonderful performances, led by Wieckiewicz. But it’s Holland’s remarkable achievement to tell a story set almost entirely underground and in the dark that really resonates. It’s a long film, at nearly 2 and a half hours, but it never lags, and an appropriate sense of claustrophobia creeps in watching these people maneuver such a small, decrepit space — where they spent 14 harrowing months.
I’d say more than three-quarters of the movie takes place in the sewers, but every so often Holland pulls the camera up, up, up through the earth to show the scorched remains of the ghetto, and German soldiers marching internees toward the death camps. After so much time underground, the light at the surface feels almost blinding. But, as Holland’s astonishing movie well knows, that’s where the true darkness dwells.