'In Darkness': An Underground Look at the Holocaust
James Rocchi, Special to MSN Movies
Selected as Poland's submission for the Best Foreign Film Academy Award, and then placed on the five-film nominee list for that honor, Agnieszka Holland's "In Darkness" is completely enveloping. The coarse winter scrub of the outskirts, the gray stone of the Polish city of Lvov, the cunning and avid face of sewer worker and petty thief Leopold Socha (Robert Wieckiewicz) are all alive and real and horrible. And as Socha decides to play both ends against the middle -- hiding Jews in the city's very sewers in 1943, when every Jew in the Lvov ghetto was executed or sent to the camps -- we come to know the dripping and damp walls of the dark tunnels, the fear and the filth and the wet-waste stink of them. To make a subtle distinction, it is not a Holocaust story, but it is a story of the Holocaust -- a brief moment within that maelstrom of death, and a moment superbly made.
In Billy Wilder's 1961 film "One, Two, Three," James Cagney, as Coca-Cola's man in West Berlin, briefly asks his right-hand man, Schlemmer (Hanns Lothar), a pointed question: "Just between us, Schlemmer, what did you do in the war?" His response is flat: "I was in the underground." Cagney shoots him a look: "Resistance fighter?" Schlemmer waves the suggestion off: "No, motorman. In the underground, you know, the subway." It's a funny joke because it's a true and grim one: While Europe was tearing itself apart, with Nazism digging its blood-soaked snout into Jewish communities to devour generations of families, men like Schlemmer were simply going about the business of a civilized modern nation-state either with screams in the background or right before them every day. Socha knows where to hide things in the sewers; it's where he stashes his loot from petty break-ins to supplement his low wages. Now, for 500 zloty a day, he'll hide Jews in the sewers, knowing that they, and he, will die if found out.
There's certainly more than enough dramatic and moral force on the table. What Holland does, though, is focus as much on the technical challenges of the film as on the narrative ones. The director of photography, Jolanta Dylewska, makes light a character in the film -- a necessary part of life, a potential betrayer. When Socha emerges from the undercity, the shift in light is disorienting. Every time one of his charges gets a brief reprieve from their hiding place, the exposure is so cranked up as to be blinding. Holland also makes several pans from the sewers to the city above as if the barrier between the two were thin as an eye blink, with noise and other betraying slips ready to leak through to the horror above. Editor Michal Czarnecki keeps pace with the scope and speed of Holland's tale without compressing it. Even at 145 minutes, there's not a moment of sag or strain in the film's length.
Much like the unfairly maligned "Defiance," "In Darkness" will be seen with a suspicious eye when it depicts people in hiding under inhuman conditions for weeks and months pausing in their suffering to laugh, love or hope. But it also shows those same characters commit brutal and expedient and stubborn acts: The exiled group's rugged de facto leader, Mundek (Benno Fürmann), risks his life to sneak into the local camp in the name of love, even as we see him kill with his bare hands to survive. And the script by David F. Shamoon may lose some steam in the later going as the film's shades polarize more black-and-white than the subtler blend of their earlier grayness and even have a heavy-handed and unnecessary coda, but it also has a sense of bleak humor and rough justice.
And the film keeps coming back to Socha, and to how majestically flawed he is. A coarse anti-Semite, a loving family man, a short-fingered opportunist, he's a man who backs into heroism until he finally finds it, all the while terrified for his life. Many Oscar-watching cynics will shrug that, in the Foreign Film and Documentary categories, it always "helps" to present "a Holocaust movie," as if one of the 20th century's greatest nightmares can be reduced to a 3-yard advantage at the imaginary starting block for a sprint that doesn't matter. But when Ms. Chiger (Maria Schrader) races through her community the day the hammer falls, she runs past summary executions and bodies stacked like cordwood in the streets, with firing squads visible from the atrium of her building as she runs up the stairs and a body falls past the window at the landing as she finally makes it to the door of her home in one single shot. It's a technically impressive moment, but it's also a carefully calibrated attempt to show the unshowable that's immensely moving.
James Rocchi's writings on film have appeared at Cinematical.com, Netflix.com, AMCtv.com, IFC.com, SFGate.com and in Mother Jones magazine. He was also the on-air film critic for San Francisco's CBS-5 from 2006 to 2008. He now lives in Los Angeles, where every ending is a twist ending.