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Mike Wilmington

By Mike Wilmington

Wilmington on Movies: In Darkness

In Darkness (Four Stars)
Poland: Agnieszka Holland, 2011

Sometimes we let the horrors of the past recede into a comforting mist of melancholy and remembrance and well-meaning cliché. We shouldn’t. History is always with us.

Agnieszka Holland’s In Darkness, one of the best films of the year, is a drama of the Holocaust, and a remarkable one, even given the high standards set by other real-life WW II Holocaust film chronicles of the past few decades like Schindler’s List and The Pianist. The movie — which was Poland’s official submission for this year’s foreign language film Oscar — is almost fearsomely realistic, horrifically uncompromising and deeply, deeply moving.

Holland’s film, like Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List and Roman Polanski’s The Pianist, is based on a true story, a saga of gruesome anguish and fear and, finally, of profound humanity. But it’s done with an excruciating physical realism those other two movies didn’t really try for. Based on the true story of a small time criminal and burglar named Leopold (Poldek) Socha — who used his day job as a sewer inspector in Lvov, Poland during the German WW II occupation, to hide over a dozen Jews for 14 months in the sewers below — it’s a movie that plunges us into an abyss of fear and suffering, lit by faint glimmers of incongruous but radiant hope. It is a great, stark, sometimes awesomely emotional film, with an incredible lead performance by the Polish actor Robert Wieckiewicz as Socha, and brilliant, uncompromising direction by Holland.

Holland and her crew, especially her cinematographer Jolanta Dylewska, make this experience so gritty and tactile that it almost hurts to watch it. The sewers of In Darkness are not like the sinister, shadowy and strangely romantic Viennese sewer underworld of Carol Reed and Graham Greene‘s masterful 1949 film noir The Third Man — those vast echoing tunnels through which Orson Welles ran from Joseph Cotten like a rat in a maze. Nor are they stark and grim and deadly, like the Warsaw sewers where the anti-Nazi Polish partisans hid in Andrzej Wajda’s WW II-set 1956 Polish masterpiece Kanal.

The sewers of Lvov are smaller and inky black. They’re steeped in an airless-looking gloom, cramped and comfortless, wet with sewage and slime. These sewers look like real sewers. (Actually, they’re a mix of genuine locations and sets by Erwin Prib and the art directors.) They are true hell-holes, and the people hiding there are a mismatched crowd of businessmen, operators, snobs, adulterers, ordinary people, families and even children, all escaping from the Lvov ghetto, crowded together on the walkways and pressed to the breaking point.

The leader of the group is Mundek Margulies (Benno Furmann) — and Mundek knows the money must inevitably run out. The Chiger family — father Ignacy (Herbert Knaup), mother Paulina (Maria Schrader), daughter Krystyna (Milla Bankowicz) and son Pawel (Oliwier Stanczak) — are a tight-night group, being inexorably pulled apart by the frayed nerves and awful conditions of life below. All of them, good people and somewhat bad ones, are living through a time of horror that sometimes makes the initial ordeal of Anne Frank’s family — hiding in their Amsterdam attic — look almost comfortable.

The Jewish group, or “Socha’s Jews,” as he eventually calls them, have entered this hell out of desperation. All around them, before their voluntary imprisonment begins, other Lvov ghetto Jews are being arrested and taken to the death camps, or simply shot on the streets or killed in the outskirts and forests without trial, something we and Socha see in the movie’s shattering opening scene. This is undoubtedly what will happen to all of them, unless they can hide from their murderers.

The Jews’ “savior,” Socha, isn’t acting out of the goodness of his heart. He does it for the money, and when the story begins, “Poldek” even shows signs of anti-Semitism, something typical for many Catholic Poles (like Socha) in that era. But, as the months go on, as Socha has to feed and watch over the fugitives, to reassure them , and to provide their only link to the outside world of daylight and fresh air — as he has to resort to ever more dangerous ruses to keep them all hidden — we see him change. Socha is a crook, but he‘s also a fearsomely competent worker and man, someone who can do, dare and accomplish what most of the others can’t. That very competency and self-assurance eventually helps humanize him, while, by contrast, the Nazi “efficiency” turns them into monsters.


Eventually they run out of money, and Socha must make a decision: to abandon them or to go on hiding and helping them. What he chooses to do, and why he chooses to do it, and what eventually happens, make for an astonishing and inspiring climax to an extraordinary story.


In Darkness is a film of great emotional power and force, one of the best Holland has ever done. It’s been a critical hit so far, and deserves to be, although some critics and pundits have complained (in generally sympathetic notices) that the movie suffers from “Holocaust movie clichés,” that it’s giving us what we’ve heard before.

There’s a bit of snobbishness, well-meaning of course, in attitudes like that. What these pundits are really saying is that In Darkness, and maybe even Schindler’s List and The Pianist and others as well, are something they expected, something they’ve seen before, that it’s the kind of film which the art house audience that seems this movie’s most likely constituency, has seen more than once — and that since it’s also the kind of film that’s often up for awards (because of its theme and subject matter), maybe it’s not really all tha exceptional, not as good maybe, as this year’s  foreign language Oscar winner (In Darkness was one of the nominees), Asghar Farhadi‘s fine Iranian family drama, A Separation.

A lot of the people who go to movies in the mass, especially younger people, not only don’t know the facts of the Holocaust. They sometimes don’t even know who their U.S. Senator is, or what countries fought each other in World War II, or why they fought. Many of them don’t read that much and if it wasn’t for the Internet, which supplies them with a fake memory, they might be lost. If they do know the broad facts, they don’t know the subtleties or the nuances — and they certainly haven’t had a film experience of the kind In Darkness gives them, or for that matter, The Third Man or Kanal or A Separation. Those are film buff films, and it’s a shame they sometimes aren’t seen by many more than film buffs.

I’m not knocking these non-readers, non-buffs. It’s not all their fault. And I want them to experience all they may be missing now. These films should really be seen by everyone, just as everyone should have a chance to read the great books, hear the great music, see the great paintings — and enjoy the great movies. By any measure, it’s good that films like In Darkness are being made, and made so well, and good that filmmakers like Holland craft them with such dedication and painstaking care.

Socha‘s story in fact provides something relatively rare in current dramatic movies: a true and convincing depiction of moral growth and spiritual redemption under the most extreme and terrifying conditions — centering on a character, Socha, who initially seems far from heroic, even if he’s gutsier and sharper than the Nazis he keeps outwitting, but who eventually rises to the occasion. Of course, movie heroes often rise to the occasion — that’s what movies and movie heroes are mostly about — but few have done it as powerfully and convincingly as Wieckiewicz does here, as Socha.

Playing this meaty, complex role, Wieckiewicz triumphs. He gives us a human being so real and earthy and so full of seeming contradictions, full of darkness and light, of sometime badness and goodness, that he transfixes us with the sheer human truthfulness and rough grandeur of his performance. This is the kind of acting the young Brando gave us, or the middle-aged Anthony Quinn, or Spencer Tracy, or Raimu or Depardieu or Liv Ullmann or Bogart or Jack Nicholson: acting without seeming artifice, so the words strike straight to the heart.

The rest of the cast are all fine too, especially Furmann as Mundek and Michal Zurawski as Socha‘s Nazi buddy Bortnik. But it’s Wieckiewicz’s movie and he wins us easily, while always, as any great actor does, letting his castmates shine as well. This picture is an extraordinary work, a glowing link to the past. You feel it in your heart and soul and senses. And the movie demonstrates something we sometimes forget: Agnieszka Holland, whose themes often involve moral struggle, can be one of the world’s finest filmmakers.

Two of Holland‘s most highly praised movies as writer-director — her Oscar nominees Angry Harvest (1985) and Europa, Europa (1991) — were also World War II era movies, and in them, as well as here, she’s able to create an experience both intensely realistic and almost mythic in its force. In “Darkness,” she‘s working with another writer‘s script — David F. Shamoon‘s dramatization of the events described in Robert Marshall‘s book “In the Sewers of Lvov” and in the 2008 memoir “The Girl in the Green Sweater,“ which was written by Kristyna, the little girl of the Chiger family who survived the experience (and who saw and appreciated this movie at Toronto). But Holland had big input into the script — including the crucial choice of filming in all the various languages of the old Lvov: Polish, German, Yiddish and Ukrainian instead of that ultimate movie universalizer, English.

English worked very well for Schindler’s List and The Pianist, but it wouldn’t have worked here, in a movie that puts such a premium on the actual events and that gives us those events at ground zero, and below. In Holland’s hands, the statement of In Darkness is both highly personal and utterly universal. This is a great movie on an essential subject, which it fully recreates and honors — and it has an inarguably great performance by Robert Wieckiewicz as Socha. A “Righteous Gentile” Poldek was called. (There were 6,000 other Righteous Gentiles in Poland, whose World War II record on prejudice was otherwise sometimes stained.) And righteous he was.

Equal to Schindler‘s List and The Pianist is sheer dramatic power, a bit superior to them in verisimilitude,  In Darkness is a movie that should be seen by more than just the art house audience, a film that plunges us into darkness, then pulls us up to the light. I hope Holland gets all the praise she deserves, and that her collaborators, like Wieckiewicz and Shamoon and Dylewska, get it as well. And Poldek, may he rest in peace and the sleep of the just. (In Polish, Russian and Yiddish, with subtitles.)

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