In Darkness, from veteran Polish Director Agnieszka Holland (Europa Europa) is the extraordinary true story of Leopold Socha. A simple Polish sewer worker in the town of Lvov during the Nazi occupation, who hides and protects a group of escaping Jews from near certain death in the city’s rat infested underground. The film is a harrowing account of life underground but also a touching tribute to the heroic Socha. Visually arresting and superbly acted by the ensemble cast, most notably for Robert Weickiewcz’s solid performance as the thief -turned-saviour Leopold Socha, In Darkness is a brutally honest and tense drama without the usual sentimental pitfalls of the genre.
At almost 2 and a half, Agnieszka Holland’s film is a hard fought slog. It’s a constantly demanding, uncomfortable, and confronting watch. No film handling this subject ought to be easy, how can it. Engaging and challenging, it decisively should, but entertaining? Possibly. Fortunately, her characters are a fascinating lot and infinitely watchable. The Jews are portrayed as every bit as broken, confused and conniving as any random collection of individuals suffering at the hands of oppressors. Holland makes no distinction from their lives above ground as they are below. She levels the playing field, showing their true nature in the candle light of the sewers. And in their charge is a thieving, opportunistic and immoral anti-Semite Polish sewer worker who luckily for them knows the sewers better than he knows his own wife and may well sell them out at any point.
In Darkness spends a lot of time creating a very brutally honest depiction of life for the Jews in the sewers. The setting is often very dark, sometimes too dark, but it’s complemented with the constant sound of sloshing putrid water at their feet, echoing footsteps bringing an impending doom, and a confusing mix of languages spoken in panic and desperation. Children fend off rats, prayers and meals and even sex are all performed as normal, candidly portrayed. While painfully confrontational and intimidating, the film finds some release during the moments above ground when Socha faces his despairing wife and child. These moments, however are constantly short lived as threats come from the ever growing chance of ‘his’ Jews being discovered. Socha realises the threat but it’s through his wife that he receives his transformation. In a touching Baptismal scene, Socha is made to understand how we are all in this together.
While the cast all perform brilliantly, none is more engaging than the versatile Polish actor Robert Weickiewcz. In a role that is both physically demanding and dramatic, his approach is measured and reassuringly calm in the face of all dangers. Wonderfully natural with children in some ridiculously tense scenes he fills the screen with hope and comic flourishes. The film however belongs to Holland. Her approach is equally measured. Balancing above ground suspense and below ground tension with expert command.
If ever a symbolic scene was needed to provide a metaphor for Polish Cinema itself rising up from the undeground, In Darkness‘ final scene and the movie poster itself would fit appropriately. Like their hero Socha, there is a great deal to be proud about.
Director: Agnieszka Holland
Stars: Robert Wieckiewicz, Benno Fürmann, Agnieszka Grochowska
Runtime: 145 min
Country: Poland, Germany, Canada