In cinemas from Friday is In Darkness, a Polish Holocaust drama that was nominated for Best Foreign Film at this year’s Oscars - narrowly losing out to A Separation. It’s directed by Agnieszka Holland, an acclaimed filmmaker in her native Poland but also well regarded in The West having directed several episodes of The Wire (including the Moral Midgetry episode which had that electric finale where Avon and Stringer come to blows).
The film tells the true story of Leopold Socha (Robert Wieckiewicz), a Polish sewer worker and petty thief in the Nazi-occupied city of Lvov who helped hide a group of Jews underground for nearly 14 months, saving them from the concentration camps. It’s essentially a film about redemption. At first Socha is indifferent to the plight of his Jewish neighbors; he detests the German occupiers but still buys into their anti-Semitic ideology. When he runs into a group of Jews who’ve escaped into the sewers beneath the ghetto, he agrees to help them hide in his labyrinthine maze of tunnels – but only for an extortionate price (while secretly planning to sell them out to the Germans once he’s bled them dry). However, over the course of the film, Socha gradually softens his attitude and ultimately finds redemption as he risks everything to protect his new friends. For the next 14 months the sewer dwellers eke out a desperate existence; contending with hunger, disease, rats and the constant threat of detection. Through it all though, Socha keeps them safe – even leading a daring raid into the nearby Janowska concentration camp to try to rescue one of their relatives.
So basically, it’s like a massively depressing version of The Fantastic Mr Fox. Or Schlindler’s List meets Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. (Yeah, probably best I wasn’t involved in the publicity campaign for this to be honest…)
In Darkness is an enormously powerful film; horrifying and uplifting in equal measure and beautifully shot in the half-light of the sewer system. I liked how the Jewish characters aren’t ghettoized – as they so often are in Holocaust dramas – as archetypal tragic victims. Instead Holland bravely insists on portraying their fallible humanity. One of them is actually a bit of a bastard, who brings his mistress into the sewers with him, makes love to her in front of his wife and child, and then abandons them all once she gets pregnant. (This, incidentally, leads to the film’s most harrowing scene when she gives birth to a screaming child they all know will eventually give them away). It would be an interesting companion piece to Stefan Ruzowitzky’s 2007 film The Counterfeiters, which was similarly unafraid to explore themes of moral ambiguity in the face of unarguable evil.
It also shines a light into the wretched reality of life under Nazi occupation. It was a world where the weak preyed upon the weaker and many locals – despite hating the Nazis – saw the persecution of the Jews as an opportunity for petty profiteering. The rats, it seems, weren’t only to be found in the sewers.