Release date (UK): july 9th, 2012
Running time: 143 Minutes
Country of origin: Poland
Original language: Polish with English subtitles
Director: Agnieszka Holland
Writers: Krystyna Chiger (memoirs) Robert Marshall (book)
Cast: Robert Wieckiewicz, Benno Furmann, Agnieszka Grochowska, Kinga Pries, Milla Bankowicz
There was something of a watershed moment with the release of Spielberg’s genre defining Schindler’s List in 1993. Marking a new approach in film-making with its righteous gentile of a central protagonist Oskar Schindler, it found a way of presenting the atrocities carried out across Nazi occupied Europe during the holocaust in a way that could finally appease audiences.
However, since its release the appetite for the ‘holocaust on film’ by audiences and film-makers alike has led to concerns over the effect these might be having on us and its intended message. At times they can seem exploitative or that they even run the risk of desensitising a younger audience to the events that occurred.
Does the world really need another film about the holocaust, it needs to be asked. In answer to that question it has to be that – while there’s still holocaust survivors amongst us prepared to share their stories – we are all of us obliged to listen.
As was the case when Robert Marshall’s book In The Sewers Of Lvov, was published in 1991. Adapted from the memoirs of holocaust survivor Krystyna Chiger it recounts the story of how Chiger – a child at the time – along with a handful of Jews, evaded Nazi detection for 14 months living within the sewers of the Polish city of Lvov as the Nazi’s carried out their liquidation of the ghetto’s above.
Aiding their chances of survival was one Leopold Socha, a Polish Catholic sewer worker who uses his knowledge of Lvov’s sewer system to harbour Chiger and the others. A contradictory character, it is Socha – an anti-semite depending on the company he’s keeping – who caught the attention of Director Agnieszka Holland when she chose to bring it to the big screen with In Darkness, and her film is as much his story as anyone else.
To describe Socha (Robert Wieckiewicz) as a ‘petty criminal’, although accurate in its semantics, would probably be doing him a disservice considering the circumstances. More fitting would be ‘opportunistic’ – as was true for many others like him at this time. Foraging amongst the rubble for what can be salvaged and sold, robbing from the better off to feed his family, it isn’t long before Socha exploits his understanding of the subterranean Lvov to take advantage of the Jewish situation. They pay him, he offers them relative sanctum amongst the dirt and squalor.
This film, unsurprisingly, is about survival and allowances that need to be made outside of our own moral boundaries. To seize the right opportunities, it would seem here, was to survive.
What makes this film so important is not so much the subject or even the linear series of events it covers – In fact, for the most part, we only experience the aftermath, the fallout of events occurring above – The importance here is in the film’s exploration of the human condition under duress. It recounts a story of survival not just in a hand-to-mouth sense, but also in how we cope when all humanity around us escapes.
When we cease existing, how do we survive?
Holland continuously explores these themes throughout the film and a fitting example would be through the many brief and unlikely sexual encounters that occur beneath ground, amongst the Jews. Holland doesn’t shy away from making us watch these, making us understand that humanity existed even there in the most unlikely of surroundings, whilst also riffing on the cynicism of some who declare the ‘holocaust on film’ to be a voyeuristic experience – Perhaps.
But this comes not without its consequences – relationships breakdown, an unwanted pregnancy occurs, leading to the unimaginable birth of a child set amongst the filth and degradation below ground – life continues to go on despite the odds, one would assume.
Contrary to many films of this type, there are no sympathetic characters to be had here and it’s to Holland’s credit that she avoided the ‘Spielberg’ route entirely. Her Jews are not without their faults. At times ungrateful – as is the case with the films other lead Mundek (Benno Fürmann) – all are damaged, some neglectful, and even misogynistic – Take the man who abandons his wife and children to the mercy of the Nazi’s to seek solace below ground with his mistress, for instance. Would you risk your life to save these people? Holland asks us. Again, allowances need to be made in light of circumstance. But it’s a brave decision of Holland to show the light and shade and ask these questions of us.
This is a bold move and it makes for a much more interesting protagonist in Leopold Socha. Why indeed does he risk so much for seemingly so little. “These are my Jews! This is my work!” He proclaims.
It’s in Socha’s motives that we’re left with the most unanswered questions. To some, this may seem an opportunity to find fault with the film. Leopold Socha is no Oskar Schindler and Holland paints him, along with all the characters, in a palette of charcoal greys as opposed to a Spielberg black & white. However, it is often the most contradictory and ambiguous characters that make for the most interesting on film. And as the Jewish money that drives Socha invariably runs out over the course of the 14 months, he soon becomes motivated by something else – something much gr
“God will punish the greedy” It is said in this film.
Needless to say that in 1978 Leopold Socha was posthumously honoured as one of Poland’s Righteous Amongst The Nation for his acts during the war.
In Darkness is an accomplished piece of film-making. Utilising the constricts of light and space to create an atmosphere of unparalleled threat and foreboding. Credit must go to Director of Photography, Jola Dylewska, for how this was achieved. The dark corners of the sewers take on a life of their own that react as much to the events around them as their inhabitants.
To say these sewers act as a metaphor would be an understatement. To say this film isn’t harrowing would be a lie. This is far from comfortable viewing but is ultimately a very rewarding film and a deserved frontrunner for 2011’s Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film.
Having successfully dropped out of Art College after 3 gruelling months back in the 90’s; Toby used this experience to its best advantage - by becoming an Online Content & Communications Manager in London.
Toby is still very much involved in the arts, and exercises his artistic demons by reviewing most of the good, bad and downright ugly that passes through London’s galleries and movie theatres.
Although a film enthusiast by heart, Toby also cites himself as being an ‘expert’ on the delta blues and is proudly credited as the musical force behind ill-fated schoolboy band The Pilgrims of Grace — “we were too good, too soon”. You can find Toby on Twitter @2by.