“In Darkness” is a Polish historical drama from director Agnieszka Holland and one of last year’s Oscar nominees for Best Foreign Language Film. It’s based on the novel “In the Sewers of Lvov” by Robert Marshall which tells the true story of Leopold Socha and his efforts to shelter Jews from the Nazis and Nazi sympathizers in occupied Poland. It’s a foreign film that looks at the war from a unique perspective and at times truly conveys the horrors of the Nazi occupation. It’s can be tense and heart-wrenching and you can’t help but be effected by what you’re seeing. But it’s also a movie that spins its wheels in a some places and features a few crude and jarring scenes that seem disconnected and pointless.
Robert Wieckiewicz plays Leopold Socha, a sewer worker in the city of Lvov. We first see Leopold as a gruff and self-serving individual who will even resort to stealing to make money. He’s a husband and father and we see early that he has no use for the Jews, even though he understands the horrors being inflicted by the Nazi occupiers. While in the sewers one day, Socha comes across three Jews who have dug a hole through the floor of their home to provide an escape route should they need it. A short time later the Nazi’s sweep through the Jewish ghetto killing and capturing the entire Jewish community. A small group escapes through the floor and into the sewers where Socha agrees to hide them for a fee.
Initially Socha’s service is all about money. The Jews pay him each day and even a local market owner notices his sudden increase in income. But Socha begins to see the Jews in a different light and his gradual transformation becomes the centerpiece of the story. The Jews don’t exactly trust him either and watching the relationship between them evolve in the midst of such a harsh and dangerous set of circumstances is enthralling. Add the pull of this being based on a true story and it makes it all the more effective. Socha can’t help but sympathize with the Jew’s especially after witnessing acts of Nazi brutality and helping them through several near-miss encounters in the sewers.
Holland also does a fine job creating a visual representation of a war-torn Polland. From the ravaged neighborhoods and amazing wardrobe design to the savage and often times disturbing depictions of Nazi violence. But most of the film takes place in the dark and dirty sewers. These scenes are filled with shadows and almost no light other than from candles and quick-moving beams from flashlights. It’s effective in creating a grimy and claustrophobic environment but at times it makes it hard to decipher what is going on. The movie contrasts the darkness with some bright daytime scenes outside the sewers that sometimes show a world darker that what’s under the streets.
“In Darkness” should be commended for it’s incredible acting. Wieckiewicz’s performance is grounded and believable and his ability to portray a conflicted man who watches his perspective change is easy to buy into. The film also does a pretty good job of developing an assortment of interesting people among the Jews in hiding. Each performance is well executed and even though several of the characters seem underwritten, the performances are nonetheless good.
David Shamoon’s script moves along pretty well but there were some bumps in the road. There are a handful of rather crude scenes that really felt completely out-of-the-blue. I couldn’t understand their purposes other than adding a different level of adult content to the film. They didn’t add anything to the bigger story and in fact pulled me out of the movie on each occasion. The scenes were pointless and that time could have been much better spent elsewhere.
While “In Darkness” does trip over itself in a couple of places and the lighting in the sewer scenes sometimes makes things hard to see, it still captures the notion that human goodness can persevere. It’s real-life groundwork grants the movie a genuine emotional pull that I was caught up in. “In Darkness” isn’t the best World War 2 period movie or the best movie dealing with the holocaust. But it does offer many tense scenes filled with suspense. It also celebrates the will to live even in the face of the worst adversities and reminds us that even a simple sewer worker can have a monumental effect on the lives of others.