Rating:As insensitive as this is going to sound, the very existence of a film like In Darkness elicits an important artistic question: do we need another film about the Holocaust? Obviously I don’t want to discount the event of the 20th Century that showed us how cruel and fucked up people can be, but as a topic for serious-minded filmmaking, the Holocaust is like a cinematic cheat code. Press totalitarian cruelty + human suffering + the depths of the human condition + ultimately uplifting coda + A + B + Start for critic-proof invincibility mode. Rarely does a director handle the material in a way that isn’t offensively manipulative.
And, to be honest, I didn’t expect much of Polish director Agnieszka Holland, who’s delved into the “narrowly escaping the Holocaust” subgenre before with her international breakthrough Europa Europa. I love some of her earlier works such as Provincial Actors and A Lonely Woman, but a lot of her post-Europa films have been elegantly empty critic bait. Except the Sid & Nancy style French poet film Total Eclipse – that one’s badass. Either way, her murky filmography suggested that In Darkness would be another entry in an ongoing bid to become one of those forgettable lower-profile Best Picture nominees.
Don’t worry, the irony that In Darkness got nominated for Best Foreign Language Film is not lost on me.
Still, our director is from Poland, a country with a rich tradition of filmmakers who bring a real, dark, ugly humanity to their movies. Holland is no exception and she reminds us of such through this true story of Jewish would-be refugees in the city of Lvov who must hide in the sewers to survive, which would be a brilliant metaphor if it weren’t so painfully true. Anyone who’s read Night has an idea of the dehumanizing experience of the Holocaust – not just through the propaganda and the living conditions, but in the total breakdown of basic human decency and what people were willing to go through just to stay alive. These people are literally in the shit.
Grudgingly keeping these survivors safe is the schlubby sewer worker who stumbled upon them during his daily routine. Notice I said “grudgingly” and not, say, “nobly” or “selflessly.” Our hero, Leopold Socha (Robert Wieckiewicz) is no Oskar Schindler by any means; he’s just a guy receiving pay in exchange for keeping Jews safe in the smelly tunnels below the city. Socha is, at first, contemptible – he keeps the number of people he can harbor at a low, safe number as if he were adopting puppies and openly regards his chosen group with disdainful prejudice. Soon, however, Socha warms up to them, and we warm up to Socha. He’s not a bad person, especially considering all he’s risking to keep these people alive and what we find out Socha has been doing with his payments.
Still, it’s the conflict between the two parties of protector and protected that makes In Darkness a valuable film in the genre. Neither side is completely innocent; in different scenes we favor one group over the other. At times it becomes incredibly tempting to resent the escapees, which is an astonishing move on the film’s part. Some of them are unaware of the true gravity of the situation, some ask for more when Socha has seemingly done all he can – in a way that resembles the demands of a self-centered teenager, albeit in a more empathetic capacity. A lesser man would have stormed up the nearest manhole and announced “they’re in here,” but Socha, while rough around the edges, comes to love these people and goes to surprising lengths to protect them while others hide behind well-meaning but empty rhetoric, proving that action is required to truly do good.
In Darkness evokes horror and humanity equally, but rarely in a manipulative way. Holland, aware of the banality of both evil and good and that a sense of reality can be more horrifying than some contrived “cinematic approach,” keeps the proceedings tangible and ground-level with the help of cinematographer Jolanta Dylewska. When Socha comes across a mass-hanging, the camera doesn’t sweep around or crane above – it just shows bodies hanging from a wooden post. When we take a brief interlude into a nearby concentration camp, the building isn’t a haunting structure but a collection of wood and metal. It’s what happens within its confines that affects; when an army officer shoots a prisoner in the head just so another hatless prisoner can get a hat, the film perfectly conveys the senseless inscrutability of the whole situation.
I was dreading watching In Darkness; I expected it to be a tedious experience. It’s certainly trying for an audience, but it’s ultimately rewarding to those willing to take the plunge by leveling with the audience all the way to its unexpectedly flippant, sarcastic coda. As for the question about the need for another movie about the Holocaust, I suppose the answer is yes, there’s always room for one more, provided it’s as real and sincere as In Darkness.