In the sewer, seeing the light
By Michael O'Sullivan
Friday, Feb. 24, 2012
Man's capacity to torment his fellow man is not the main theme of "In Darkness" - filmmaker Agnieszka Holland's third foray into Holocaust territory, after "Angry Harvest" (1985) and "Europa Europa" (1990) - but it's nonetheless hard to ignore.
The Polish Jews of Lvov suffer mightily under Nazi brutality in this fact-based tale inspired by Robert Marshall's nonfiction book "In the Sewers of Lvov," about a group of fugitives from the Jewish ghetto who find refuge in that city's sewers.
Still, an even larger theme is our capacity for grace, despite ourselves.
The powerful and moving film - which like Holland's earlier Holocaust films is up for a foreign-language Oscar - centers less on the refugees than their unlikely savior, a virulently anti-Semitic sewer worker and petty thief named Leopold Socha (Robert Wiekiewicz). When Poldek, as he's called, stumbles upon the bickering, unruly and desperate group fleeing through the sewers one day, he's faced with a choice: turn them in to the Nazis for 500 zlotys a head, or charge the group that same amount per day not to. It's a smart, if mercenary decision.
Not that it's without risk. Poldek could be shot for harboring people whom he doesn't even like.
They're not terribly fond of him either.
That, at least, is where we enter "In Darkness." By the time we come out of this tunnel - nearly 21
2 hours later, a subtle transformation has occurred on both sides.
Over the 14 months that the film covers, Poldek morphs, slowly but believably, into something of an Oskar Schindler, as protective and altruistic - and at times as uncomfortably possessive - of his charges as that German war-profiteer-turned-hero. In turn, Poldek's Jews, as he comes to think of them, gain a genuine if grudging affection for their unlovable benefactor.
As you might expect, "In Darkness" is also filled with lots of nail-biting suspense. In addition to miscellaneous threats from dysentery, floodwaters, claustrophobia and rats, there's the constant fear of discovery. It's a thriller in every sense of the word.
As Poldek, Wiekiewicz turns in a spellbinding performance. With his homely, pockmarked face, he makes for a strange hero: cynical and world-weary, but with unexpected heart. Benno Furmann is also quite good as Mundek - or Pirate, as he is more aptly known - the Jewish refugees' charismatic renegade.
The soul-tugging power of "In Darkness" comes not from its action sequences, though there are plenty of them, but from the emotional journey it takes us on. Knee-deep in excrement for much of the film, Poldek personifies the compassion that's capable of lifting even the worst of us out of base circumstances, and out of our even baser selves.
Contains violence and brutality, obscenity, nudity and sex scenes. In Polish, German, Yiddish and Hebrew with English subtitles.