Updated Tue, Mar 20, 2012 2:13 pm
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, fascism and sadism was previously captured on 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 and 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 the Polish sewers. The atmosphere is dank, clammy and claustrophobic; you're down there with the rats. In Darkness 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 the film by exuding the crude gusto and cheer of an infantile man who doesn't think about much beyond satisfying his animal needs. Later, 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 have sex.
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 (for some, it does.) I think of the image of the naked woman 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, for a long film that strives to show the specifity of the experience, we never feel like we quite get to know them.
And it recognizes an accidental, yet real, hero in Leopold Socha. The film does well to remind us that his sort of heroism is as much a part of human nature as 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."
Born in Athens, Ohio, Scott Pfeiffer has lived in Chicago since 1993. He did a minor in film at Ohio University back in the day. These days, he knocks about Chi-town, taking in film, music and theater. Read his other music and film reviews at The Moving World.