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Callous as it may sound, when it comes to Holocaust movies, there can be a sense of viewer fatigue. The Nazi atrocities of World War II have been mined in so many movies over the years, from the very good (Schindler’s List, Life is Beautiful) to the not so good (Jakob the Liar), that it’s easy for moviegoers to shrug off the latest effort. That’s not to say that no one should be making movies about those terrible events any longer — it’s more to say that if you’re going to make one, you’d better make it special.
So it’s with an exhale of relief that I can tell you that In Darkness, Polish director Agnieszka Holland’s new film about a heroic sewer worker who sheltered Jewish refugees in his subterranean workplace during the Nazi occupation of her homeland, is indeed special.
The movie tells the gripping true story of Leopold Socha (Robert Wieckiewicz), who as we meet him is supplementing his income working the sewers in the town of Lvov, Poland with petty thievery, stashing his wares underground. Down in the sewers one day, he comes upon a group of Jews who have tunneled into the sewers from the ghetto above. When he threatens to turn them over to the Nazis, they offer a deal: they’ll pay him 500 zlotys a day to keep their secret and, when the inevitable liquidation of the ghetto happens, to help them take refuge in the sewers.
Socha takes the money, and when the horrible liquidation day arrives, there he is, waiting in the sewers as the refugees clamber down to dank, stench-filled safety. He takes in a group of about 15 Jews, including two young children. Is he just in it for the money? Perhaps at first. But as he shuttles the group through and around the pitch-black sewers, illuminated only by flashlight, his mission transforms — and so does he.
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.