Reviewed by GREG KING
Director: Agnieszka Holland
Stars: Robert Wieckiewicz, Benno Furmann, Marcin Bosak, Herbert Knaup, Kysztof Skonieczwy, Agnieszka Grochowska, Maria Schader, Kinga Preis, Michal Zurawski.
With her latest film, Polish director Agnieszka Holland returns to the horrors and atrocities of World War Two and the Holocaust which have driven her best work (Europa, Europa, etc). Holland has moved easily between her native Poland and television work in the US, where she has directed episodes of the gritty drama The Wire. In Darkness is a gripping and tense story of survival, based on a true story of a handful of Jewish citizens from the ghetto who survived by hiding out in the sewers beneath the city of Lvov for 14 months.
In Darkness is a story of courage and endurance and deals with big themes. It was nominated for the Foreign Language Film Oscar, but lost to the Iranian drama A Separation.
The reluctant saviour here is Leopold Socha (played by Robert Wieckiewicz), a sewer worker who also moonlights as a thief robbing houses left vacant by the Jews who have been relocated to the ghettos or concentration camps. When Leopold is approached by Mundek Marguilies (Benno Furmann), the de facto leader of a group of concerned Jewish citizens, and asked to help them hide in the labyrinthine sewer system he reluctantly agrees. With the help of his friend Szczepak (Kysztof Skonieczwy), Leopold leads them into the sewers. He also brings them food and supplies on a regular basis, but charges 500 lotys a day them for his efforts.
At first Leopold plans to take their money, and then betray them to the Nazis when it runs out. But he comes to sympathise with them and their plight as he becomes increasingly aware of the atrocities committed by the Nazis and their sympathisers. At great personal risk, he continues to conceal their presence. The Jews live in terrible surroundings, in dark, claustrophobic, putrid conditions and face the threat of starvation, disease, and flooding when rainwaters rush through the sewers. There are also internal conflicts within the small group, and always hanging over their heads is the threat of betrayal and discovery.
Wieckiewicz is superb as the flawed Socha, a Polish Oskar Schindler, who goes from biased, anti-Semitic mercenary to reluctant but compassionate saviour. The solid cast also includes Marcin Bosak as the womanising, brutish Yanek, and Herbert Knaup as the cultured, once wealthy businessman Ignacy Chiger, whose daughter wrote the memoir detailing her experiences of hiding in the sewers for 14 months.
Written by David F Shamoon, In Darkness is a story of the triumph of the human spirit. The script is based on real events during the Nazi occupation of Poland as documented in Robert Marshall’s book In The Sewers Of Lvov, which was inspired by the memoirs of one survivor. The film is honest in depicting the plight of their plight. Much of the action takes place underground in the dark and confined spaces. Production designer Erwin Prib has recreated the claustrophobic tunnels, and the setting reeks of authenticity. You can almost smell the fetid water and the foul stench emanating from the sewers. Polish cinematographer Jolanta Dylewska (Tulpan, etc) has shot the film using natural lighting from torches and gas lamps for much of the time, which adds to the oppressive atmosphere.
Holland directs the material with great sensitivity and understanding, and doesn’t shy away from depicting the occasional horror. An early disturbing scene sees Socha moving through the forest outside Lvov when he sees a group of terrified naked women being herded by Nazis, and then executed.
The title not only refers to the darkness of the sewer tunnels but also the darkness of the human soul. In Darkness is a powerful, harrowing, moving, emotionally draining but ultimately uplifting tale of survival, and is a worthy addition to the canon of Holocaust movies.