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In Darkness (Agnieszka Holland, 2011)

March 30, 2012

Originally written for Reel Time, now at Sound on Sight

Better known in the last few years for directing episodes of such shows as The Wire, Treme, and the American version of The Killing, Agnieszka Holland returns to her native Poland for another film of hers concerning the plight of people during the Second World War. In Darkness bears many broad strokes from numerous Holocaust and wartime related dramas that have come before it: danger, atrocity, courage, family ties, and the conflict between self-preservation and benevolence are all present. While it does admittedly stray towards formulaic elements, it generally executes the formula quite effectively.

In the Nazi-occupied Lviv, Poland of 1943, a sewage worker named Leopold Socha (Robert Wieckiewicz) is allowed, as a gentile, to continue with his work relatively unbothered by the occupying forces. As a side means of profiteering, he breaks into the houses of Jewish residents, extorting them of belongings and money through the threat of exposing them to the Nazis. Upon encountering a group of Jewish men drilling a hole into the sewers from a ghetto home, he makes a monetary arrangement with them for his silence regarding their presence, keeping open the possibility that he can earn even more for reporting them. Following the liquidation of the ghetto, Socha suddenly finds himself a protector for far more people than he had anticipated, accepting regular payment from an upper-class member of the dozens of sewer refugees for his keeping their presence unknown and the supplying of food. At first motivated by pure self-gain, Socha’s better nature eventually prevails, though not after frequent sways back and forth regarding his assistance continuing. In addition to the dissolution of the little fortune he has accumulated, the custodian must also contend with increasing danger from the Nazis, a reward-hungry Ukrainian friend and soldier, and his even more reluctant wife; chiding her husband for his early inhumanity towards Jews, she is not keen on his aiding of them so long as it puts their family in the path of potential harm.

The details of the story, taken from real events chronicled in Krystyna Chiger’s memoir The Girl in the Green Sweater and Robert Marshall’s In the Sewers of Lvov, lend the familiar elements of In Darkness’ narrative a fresh potency. On an aesthetic level, this involves the cramped, lightless sewer surroundings that provide claustrophobia and numerous scenes of nerve-shaking intensity. Like its title suggests, the film is literally cloaked in darkness, aptly depicted through some fine cinematography work which is additionally impressive and harsh, in a good way, when it ventures out into the light above. Regarding its screenplay, the refugees are refreshingly not portrayed as noble saints. A quarrelsome, often selfish collection, members of the group are prone to adultery, assault and abandoning family members and pregnant partners. Many are ungrateful towards Socha even when examples of his genuine affection towards them become apparent, allowing for an admirable raise of the stakes regarding his inner conflict.

Also a positive regarding the man is a lack of cloying sentiment, Socha continuing to act the opportunist through milking the desperate survivors for every penny he possibly can until the narrative can no longer allow it during the last twenty five minutes or so. At nearly two and half hours, In Darkness is perhaps a bit too long, especially since its success in projecting the lapses of time during its span of fourteen months is not entirely well executed. It is baggy and lacking in entirely new revelations for material of its kind, but a superb realisation on a technical level of a particular Holocaust experience, as well as its finer details regarding the plight of the sewer-bound refugees, leave it in possession of much merit.

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