If they read this review, the producers of In Darkness will likely groan at the headline. Does every movie about the Holocaust now have to be compared to Spielberg’s 1993 masterpiece?
Well, no—but the parallels here are undeniable. Like Schindler’s List, In Darkness (now playing at the Edina Cinema) is a portrait of a man who could have stood by the sidelines while the Nazis tortured and murdered Jews, but instead chose to put his own life at risk to save Jewish lives. And like Schindler’s List, this film is based on a true story centering on a character who works a miracle despite the fact that he himself is no saint.
In this case, the man is Leopold Socha (Robert Wieckiewicz), a Polish sewage worker who encounters a large group of Jews hiding in the Lvov sewers after fleeing the deadly ghetto. Socha can’t save them all, but he moves a small group to a tiny overflow chamber where they wait out the long months of German occupation.
It’s a gripping survival story, and director Agnieszka Holland keeps the film bristling with furtive life. We balance on the precipice with Socha’s Jews: they try to remain aware of the deadly danger surrounding them even as, over months’ time, they succumb to the occasional temptations to normalize their circumstances. The adults have affairs, the children enact pageants, and there are occasional excursions to the surface—sometimes out of necessity, sometimes out of sheer desperation.
Wieckiewicz—an acclaimed stage actor in Poland—has a Bob-Hoskins-like talent for balancing hard-bitten gruffness and lightness of spirit. This is the story of a man who, as David Denby notes in The New Yorker, “knows that, for the only time in his life, he has the chance to do something remarkable.” Working with a script adapted by David F. Shamoon from Robert Marshall’s 1990 book In the Sewers of Lvov, Holland keeps the pace taut and the characters believable from start to finish.
Writing about Katherine Boo’s new book Behind the Beautiful Forevers, I noted that journalists like Boo work in the hopes that telling a story can make a difference. In Darkness is similarly an act of witness—capped, unfortunately, with heavy-handed end titles that add an unnecessary tsk-tsk to a film that speaks for itself. This isn’t an easy film to watch, but it’s an anguished and articulate addition to a crucial canon documenting the horrors of the Holocaust, reminding us that the Shoah was an unspeakable atrocity that real human beings perpetrated upon other real human beings. As long as we remain human, it could happen again.