February 1, 2012 Volume 26, Number 02
In Darkness sheds light on underground war story
By Bruce Soderholm | ChristianWeek Columnist
Photo courtesy In Darkness.
Leopold Socha (Robert Wieckiewicz) is a man who's not afraid to get down and dirty. In fact he does it every dayliterallyin his capacity as a sewer inspector for the Polish city of Lvov. He knows the tunnels beneath the city like the clichéd back of his work-calloused hand. It's 1943, and the sewers are a convenient place to hide some of the minor spoils of wargoods and artifacts pilfered from the homes of local Jews who've been forcibly removed to ghettosduring the Nazi occupation of Poland.
Socha is the main character in veteran director Agnieszka Holland's latest film, In Darkness, which is based on a true story. The film, with Canadian co-production credits and a Canadian-authored screenplay (David F. Shamoon), premiered at the 2011 Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) to critical acclaim.
There has been no shortage of films chronicling the horrors of the Holocaust and the Jewish ghetto experience. Schindler's List (1993) and The Pianist (2002) are just two of many titles that quickly come to mind. The subject matter is an itch that isn't easily scratched and a scar that won't heal. The tandem of evil and pathos portrayed in these settings makes it hard to look away.
In the film's initial scenes, Socha comes into contact with a group of Jews trying to escape into city sewers from their ghetto before they're forcibly sent off to camps. Socha quickly recognizes a money-making opportunity, and despite the lethal consequences of being caught giving aid to Jews, he agrees to hide a dozen of them in the sewer system. In exchange for cash and jewelry, Socha will bring them food and other necessities while also keeping them hidden.
Benno Furmann (Joyeux Noel) plays the part of Mundek Margulies, a capable and intrepid leader among the Jews hidden by Socha. He must, among other responsibilities, resolve disputes between the fugitives, and forage for supplies when Socha can't deliver. The film depicts the numerous tensions existing among the fugitiveseverything from the annoyances of being in close quarters, and adulterous liaisons, to crises of faith, and the ever-present fear of being discovered.
While we're given great insight into the plight of the fugitives, the story really revolves around Socha. We wonder what he will do as pressures inevitably start to build against him. He is, after all, apparently only helping the Jews for the money. Nazi collaborators become aware of the refugees, friends become antagonists, and the collateral damage to innocent citizens through reprisals mount. At one point, Socha washes his hands of the whole enterprise, but is drawn back in by the plight of a lost child. What is most gratifying to observe in Socha's character development is the ownership he eventually takes of those he terms, "my Jews," as he takes greater and greater risks to protect them.
Socha is representative of the Catholic-Jewish tensions seen in Poland at the time, but ultimately, his actions serve to undermine the stereotype of anti-Semitism associated with the Catholics of the time period. Holland herself maintains that she is most interested in showing us that everyone has the potential for both evil and good.
The film is long at 145 minutes and the dark extended scenes shot below ground can feel slightly claustrophobic at times, but Holland claims that that is an intentional strategy to give the audience a taste of what all the characters had to endure. There is constant suspense related to the life-and-death stakes and intensity at every turn. While emotionally exhausting, this film is also emotionally satisfying as evidenced by the audience reaction at the TIFF premiere.
The producers briefly considered using English dialogue, but opted instead for the authenticity of Polish, German, and Yiddish. Not all audiences appreciate the use of subtitles, yet much of the story is primarily visual in its telling. In Darkness has already been selected as Poland's entry into the Academy Award foreign language category and rates an excellent chance of making the short list on Oscar night. It is slated for narrow release in Canada at the end of January and is rated 14A for disturbing content.
Bruce Soderholm is a freelance writer and educator who makes his home in southern Ontario.