“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.

REVIEW: “The Boy in the Striped Pajamas”


Obviously there have been several powerful films that have dealt directly with the Holocaust. “The Boy in the Striped Pajamas” is a unique look at this murderous and genocidal scar on world history. It’s based on John Boyne’s 2006 novel of the same name and looks at the subject through the eyes of an 8-year-old boy. It’s a tender but crushing tale of the loss of innocence as we watch this young boy discover the truth about the world around him. Some critics have said it exploits or trivializes the Holocaust with others going as far as to call it offensive. I found it to be a careful yet devastating drama that ultimately succeeds in the end.

Asa Butterfield, better known for his more recent starring role in “Hugo”, plays Bruno. His father Ralf (David Thewlis) is a Nazi SS officer who gets a new assignment requiring him to move with his family from Berlin to the countryside. Bruno’s mother Elsa (Vera Farmiga) supports her husband’s decision. But Bruno finds himself alone and missing his friends back in Berlin. His loneliness and boredom spurs his curiosity and he begins noticing several interesting things about his new location. One is a mysterious “farm” in the distance that he sees from his bedroom window but is forbidden to visit or ask about. He’s also intrigued by a house servant who he notices is wearing what looks like striped pajamas. Of course we know the servant is Jewish and a captive, but through young Bruno’s eyes things are more confusing.


One of the most engaging things about the movie is that writer and director Mark Herman is able to keep us inside of Bruno’s head even though we know exactly what’s going on outside of his knowledge. I found the film to be very effective at conveying the feeling of discovery as Bruno learns more. Perhaps his biggest lessons come not from his twice-a-week tutor who bombards him with all sorts of Nazi propaganda and revisionist history, but from a young Jewish boy. Bruno encounters the boy after sneaking away from his house and stumbling across the “farm”. Of course it’s actually a Nazi execution camp and the boy, named Shmuel (Jack Scanlon), sits on the other side of an electrified fence. The two quickly develop a friendship. It is Shmuel who begins to shed light on what this “farm” really is and causes Bruno to question both his father and his cause.

The movie never loses sight of the fact that Bruno is only 8-years-old. He struggles with what he’s seeing and his attempts to reconcile certain things with his desire to see his father as a good man is heartbreaking. Even when his mother finds out why they’ve moved to the country and furiously confronts Ralf, we still witness these things through Bruno’s child-like reasoning. But there is an emotional balance. While we spend most of our time with Bruno, we know of the atrocities that are taking place almost entirely off-screen. Yet these atrocities are relayed to us very well in often subtle ways.


The performances throughout the film are fantastic. Farmiga is one Hollywood’s better actresses and she shows that here. I also appreciated Thewlis’ portrayal of a man who often times puts his role of father in complete subjection to his duties as a Nazi soldier. But it’s young Butterfield who gets the vast majority of the screen time and he is quite good. He draws a lot of sympathy and emotion  and it’s always great to see a young actor able to pull that off. I also enjoyed his scenes with young Scanlon. While Butterfield is better in their scenes, they both handle the material nicely.

I can see where “The Boy in the Striped Pajamas” may put off some people. It’s hard to watch especially as everything comes to a head at the end of the film. In fact, it’s a movie I’m in no rush to see again. That isn’t due to any major shortcomings with the picture. It’s due to the film’s intense emotional punch that stuck with me for several days. I was incredibly moved and while there are some legitimate questions that could be asked about the story, the movie’s main point resonated with me. “The Boy in the Striped Pajamas” asks several powerful questions about war, family, and morality. It also gives us a glimpse into a part of our world’s history that is still hard to look at but should be reckoned with.