Agnieszka Holland returns with a Holocaust story set in the sewers of a Polish city

In Darkness

Directed by Agnieszka Holland

Opens March 23 at the Charles Theatre

There’s something so appealing about the classic bad-guy-turned-good tale, and In Darkness has just that. While it could easily traipse down the path leading toward Hollywood cheese, it instead blazes it’s own trail, altogether heartbreaking, truthful, and life-affirming. Director Agnieszka Holland, in collaboration with screenwriter David F. Shamoon, retells the stories of several people living in Lvov, Poland, during World War II, and in keeping with the title of the film, they cover territory that’s morally murky. In Darkness depicts fully human characters, flaws and all. No one is perfect, and even the criminals have a shot at redemption.

At its start, we meet Leopold Socha (Robert Wieckiewicz), a petty thief who stashes his loot in the sewers of Nazi-occupied Lvov. Though he’s selfish, self-serving, and outwardly anti-Semitic, scenes with his wife and young daughter indicate from the outset that he’s also quite loving, and protective of his family. With the liquidation of the town’s ghetto, Socha meets a group of Jews attempting to hide in the sewers, and he offers them guidance in exchange for money. Initially, the deal is purely for his own monetary gain, but as time goes on, and as the money slowly dwindles away, the forces guiding him shift. He begins offering the group his own food, and despite the danger posed to his family, he struggles to ensure their safety.

In Darkness is told in the characters’ native languages; Polish, Ukrainian, Yiddish, German, and working-class Polish dialect Balak bounce from character to character, and these linguistic differences raise walls between everyone. For instance, in the depths of the sewers, tension mounts among the group as it’s determined who will lead. Ignacy Chiger (Herbert Knaup) demands that he have a say in how to proceed, and another pipes up: “Listen to the professor who refuses to speak Yiddish! All your education didn’t buy you any sense.” Moments later, Socha, unable to understand the conversation, shouts, “Speak Polish, damn it!” Although they face a shared crisis, they still have differences that must be set aside for the sake of their survival. This element adds to the believability of the story, while also amping up the discord among the characters.

In real life, “Socha’s Jews” were in the sewers for 14 months, braving rats, a dwindling supply of food, and the harsh conditions of life below Lvov. The pain of living through such an ordeal comes across vividly in the film, and it’s obvious that the actors (and crew, for that matter) went through an ordeal just to get it made. They trudge through dank, dark sewers, fighting rushing streams of water. Despite the anguish, the almost 160-minute run time, and the hardships depicted onscreen, In Darkness miraculously avoids putting the viewer through unnecessary pain. Rather, it holds onto the hopeful, inspiring elements of the story without indulging in melodrama.

The acting is one of the strongest elements of the film, and considering the physical discomfort endured, one has to wonder if the limitations imposed by the setting helped inspire solid performances out of everyone. As Socha claws his way through the sewers, working against the rushing waters brought on by a downpour from above, Wieckiewicz has no choice but to respond honestly to the physical situation. And as the Jews gasp for dwindling air above the rising tide, their fear seems real.

With a story of survival during the Holocaust, it would be easy to make a film where the boundaries between good and evil are clearly defined, but one of the film’s successes is in creating characters that are complete with both a light and a dark side, and their authenticity is what makes the story all the more compelling. Is it fair for Socha to put his young daughter in danger in order to help a group of strangers? When faced with the choice of actually murdering a Nazi or allowing the capture of one of “his” Jews, which is the most moral path to take? In the darkness, nothing is clear, and everything is questionable.

Copyright © 2019, Baltimore City Paper, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Privacy Policy