What propels some people to intervene when they see a crime, while others opt to look away and pretend nothing is happening? In Darkness uses the Holocaust to explore that question. The film opens in Nazi-occupied Poland in 1943. On the streets, Jews are being summarily executed, rounded into ghettos and being shipped off to concentration camps.
But beneath the ground, in the city’s labyrinth sewer system, among the rats and filth and waste and rancid water, a group of Jews have holed up, praying the apocalypse raging above them will somehow abate. To survive, they pay a Polish sewer worker, Leopold (Robert Wieckiewicz), to keep their secret and bring them food and other supplies. At the same time, Leopold’s friend Bortnik (Michal Zurawski), an officer in the Ukrainian army, is counting on his pal to help flush out any stragglers who may be hiding in the sewers.
In Darkness, which was directed by Agnieszka Holland (Europa Europa) and was one of the five nominees for this year’s Best Foreign Language Film Oscar, is far more complex than that scenario implies. Leopold is a hustler and thief: He has no qualms about looting abandoned apartments in order to provide for his family, even when, in the forest nearby, he sees a group of pale, naked women screaming as they run toward the clearing where they will be executed.
Leopold helps the Jews find their hiding place strictly for the money: He has been immersed in Nazi propaganda and doesn’t really see them as people, because it’s easier not to. Ironically, as the months drag on and the possibility grows that they will be discovered, the more precarious his arrangement gets — and the more obsessed Leopold becomes with protecting them.
Adapted from Robert Marshall’s book In the Sewers of Lvov by screenwriter David F. Shamoon, In Darkness is a punishing but hopeful drama that argues human nature is, at its core, is good — easily corruptible by greed and power and fear, but noble and pure in its essence.
Some critics have argued that Schindler’s List has rendered all future Holocaust films redundant, and that anyone who makes another one is edging into torture-porn territory, exploiting unspeakable atrocities for cheap shocks and programmed reactions. Besides, the character of Leopold comes to resemble Oskar Schindler, another gentile who was motivated to help Jews at great personal risk. But Holland isn’t trying to make a definitive statement on the Holocaust, nor is she using horrific sights simply to wring gasps from her audience. The movie delves deep into the large cast of characters, all of whom must continue to deal with the everyday situations of life even while under the duress of their unthinkable situation.
Among them: A woman inconsolable that her sister has opted to try her luck at the camps rather than live in the sewers with her; a mother trying to raise her two small children, who have forgotten what the sun looked like; a husband who must decide between his beautiful young mistress or his older wife, condemning one to a certain death; a pregnant woman must decide what to do with her impending baby. If the film doesn’t break any new thematic ground, then it certainly provides fresh and grave perspectives on a well-known subject. More than half of In Darkness takes place underground, shrouded in rank, oppressive shadows. But the movie also glows bright with life and hope, celebrating the innate human instinct to push onward and persevere, even in the face of incomprehensible evil.
Cast: Robert Wieckiewicz, Benno Furmann, Agnieszka Grochowska, Michal Zurawski, Maria Schrader, Herbert Knaup.
Director: Agnieszka Holland.
Screenwriter: David F. Shamoon. Based on the book “In the Sewers of Lvov” by Robert Marshall.
Producers: Leander Carell, Marc-Daniel Dichant, Eric Jordan.
A Sony Pictures Classics release. Running time: 145 minutes. In Polish, German, Yiddish and Ukrainian with English subtitles. Vulgar language, nudity, violence, gore, sexual situations, strong adult themes. Opens Friday March 9 in Miami-Dade: Regal South Beach; in Palm Beach: Shadowood, Delray.
Follow Herald Movie Critic Rene Rodriguez on Twitter at @ReneMiamiHerald.