This Polish production tells the true story of Leopold Socha (Robert Wieckiewicz), who when we meet him is a petty criminal taking advantage of the social breakdown under Nazi occupation. There's a bit of nightmare imagery from early in the film that stays with me: Socha and his partner in crime are beating a getaway through the woods after burgling a house. As they run they look to the side: running parallel to them some distance away is a group of naked, terrified women being chased by gleeful, whooping Nazi soldiers with machine guns. The women's skin is pale grey, ghostly in the twilight woods.
This sense of a world thrown over to the sheer pleasure of absolute, arbitrary power, the fun of fascism--of sadism--has been perhaps captured truly on film only by Pasolini's "Salo", a film that happens to be almost unwatchable (as it should be). In "In Darkness" casual murder is always in the background, while everyday people go about their everyday lives. At heart, though, the film is the story of the ties that bind even admist a world turned upside down.
Socha works in the sewers, and one night when the Germans are having a field day liquidating the Jewish ghetto he finds himself swept beneath the streets along with people scrambling for shelter. Initially spotting a great profit opportunity--he'll shelter them for cash--the real-life Socha ended up keeping them alive for 14 months in the sewer, at great peril to himself and his family. (In the film he has a "friend," a Polish army officer who keeps himself closer than an enemy, whose ear misses no slip, whose eye is an antenna for anything suspicious.) Today Socha is recognized as one of the "Righteous Among the Nations".
If you've seen Andrzej Wajda's "Kanal" (1956), you know the buried-alive experience of being stuck in Polish sewers. The atmosphere is dank, clammy, claustrophobic; you're down there with the rats. Director Agnieszka Holland's frames are as leached of natural light as they are pregnant with tension. When the camera comes up to the surface and palette goes wintry, you might find your eyes have to readjust. A child's red boots cuts the palette, but in a way rather too redolent of the similar technique Spielberg used in "Schindler's List".
As Socha, Robert Wieckiewicz begins by exuding the crude gusto and cheer of an infantile man who doesn't think about much beyond satisfying his animal needs. His performance goes on to convey the dawning in Socha: the less he acts out of self-interest, the more human he becomes. Ah well, the Jews killed Christ, Socha shrugs to his wife early in the film as she washes him in a basin. Well, so was Mother Mary a Jew, replies his ruddy wife, and the apostles and even Christ himself. Jesus was a Jew?, asks Socha, surprised.
Throughout the film the people in the sewer are allowed to be human, not noble victims. They squabble for food, they cheat, they desert, they screw. A few stories stick out. One of the girls, a sister, runs away and ends up in a concentration camp, where she rather likes it better. A square-jawed, tough man (Benno Furmann) ventures outside the sewers on a mission to infiltrate the camp and bring her out. Mainly, however, these refugees nurture the flame of the life-force under circumstances you'd think would drive you insane. (Some it does.) I think of the image of the woman becoming naked and bathing in the run-off from a flood. Furmann's character encounters her and they share a fervid embrace.
"In Darkness" is well made and watchable. Unlike something like "Salo", though, after you watch it, all you've done is seen another movie. This is not to say it is without effect: by the end you want to bolt from your seat, out into the fresh air. Still, it is possible to go on with your evening, and even to go to dinner.
(There was a jarring note at the screening I attended: a woman cackled from behind me when the Russian liberators roll in and Socha is able to proclaim proudly to onlookers, as his charges make their squinty-eyed emergence from the darkness, "These are my Jews!")
The value of this film is to tell the story of what a handful of people had to endure. (Curiously, though, for a film that takes that it as its project to show the specifity of experience--and for such a long movie--we never feel like we quite get to know them.) And it recognizes an accidental yet real hero, Leopold Socha. The film does well to remind us that his sort of heroism is just as surely a part of human nature as is our seemingly bottomless capacity to inflict pain. That capacity is noted in an end title that "In Darkness" takes as its epigram: "As if we need God to punish each other."
--March 8, 2012
Key to ratings:
***** (essential viewing)
*** (worth a look)