The film borrows heavily from the standard archetypes of Holocaust films: Schindler’s List (the gentile helping the Jews at first does it for money, but then develops a conscience and does it because it is the right thing to do); and The Diary of Anne Frank (the hidden must remain quiet and cramped; screaming babies and slips of the tongue could mean death).
The Schindler for this film is Leopold Socha, a sewer inspector in Lvov (which is today part of the Ukraine, but has always had a sizable Polish population). He is also a small-time crook, and at the beginning of the film he and his co-worker have robbed a house at gunpoint, clubbing a Hitler Youth in the process. On their dash through the forest to safety, they see the unworldly spectacle of German soldiers herding a group of running naked women, their skin of ghastly pallor. Later they see the women all murdered, in a pile.
Socha (played effectively by Robert Wieckiewicz) knows the sewers like the back of his hands. He’s used to hiding the loot from his robberies there. But then he hears some noise from the Jewish ghetto, and finds that a group of Jews have tunneled in. He offers to be their guide, demanding 500 zlotys a day.
The tension between the Polish sewer worker and the Jews is tense at first, as Socha sees them as ungrateful and demanding, while the Jews see him as craven. A few of the Jews cannot face spending time in such a miserable place–Holland uses natural light (hence the deeply accurate title) and filmed in actual sewer tunnels. It was wet, rat-infested, and cold. Only the prospect of the ghetto being cleaned out, the remaining people being shipped to concentration camps, keeps them down there.
A few plot dynamics take place. There is infighting and even a little sex between the Jews, while above ground Socha involves his wife. He has an old buddy, a Ukrainian soldier collaborating with the Nazis who often asks him to search for any signs of Jews–Socha has to play both sides of the fence.
As time goes on, of course, Socha tends to think of them as “his” Jews, which is sweet if not infantilizing. Time is not strictly kept during the film, but that one woman conceives and gives birth to a baby tells us the stay is several months.
As with almost every type of this film, the banality of evil is shown in such ways that it’s difficult to wrap our minds around. An Orthodox Jewish man is made to dance on top of a barrel, and then his beard is ripped out by the roots. Another man is to be shot in the head because he has lost his cap, but an officer intervenes, shooting the man next to him instead, because he is not as healthy. There is no examination of the deeper meaning of all this–it’s just another story among thousands of one of the darkest periods in human history.
Though the film is long–two and a half hours–I was in it until the end. Holland does excellent work of making us feel like we’re down in those sewers–claustrophobes are hereby warned. When, after long sequences that take place in the sewer, we are back in the sunlight, we squint like the characters might.
If In Darkness doesn’t strike new ground, it’s very good filmmaking. The characterization of Socha is very interestingly rendered; he’s a more deeply divided figure even than Oskar Schindler (Socha and his wife were also named Righteous Persons). The movie isn’t as good as A Separation, but given the Academy’s weakness for anything concerning the Holocaust, it just might win.
My grade for In Darkness: A-.