Movie Review: “In Darkness”

Written by Melissa MacAulay March 28, 2012

 A film to put you in a very dark place – both literally and figuratively…

Having so recently watched another film about genocide, I was not sure that I was up for seeing In Darkness. Set in 1940s Lwów, Poland (modern day Lviv, Ukraine), this film tells the true story of a group of Jews who spent 14 months hiding from the Nazi Germans in the city’s sewer system – quite a dark film, both literally and figuratively. Seeing as the film has received so much critical acclaim, however (including an Oscar nomination for Best Foreign Language Film), I ultimately resigned myself to spend one beautiful, spring evening in the dark sewers of Lwów.

The story follows closely the actions of Leopold Socha (Robert Więckiewicz), a sewer worker in Lwów. Socha, along with his partner Szczepek, discovers that a large group of Jews has dug a secret entrance into the sewers, hoping to escape the German Nazis who are now invading the Jewish Ghetto of Lwów. With a wife and child to support, Socha strikes a deal with the Jews: for 500 zlotys per day, he will keep them safe in the sewers, and provide them with food and supplies from the outside. The Jews, unable to put a price on the lives of themselves and their loved ones, accept the offer and follow Socha into the depths of the sewers, many of them never to return.

Although the main characters are introduced while still above ground, the beginning of the film moves very quickly, making it difficult to get an initial handle on who’s who and what’s what. Two sisters, Klara and Mania Keller, descend into the sewers, along with the Chiger family – Paulina, Ignacy, and their young children, Krystyna and Pawel. Among the leaders of the pack are Mundek (Benno Fürmann) as well as Janek, whose wife and daughter descend into the sewer alongside his mistress.

The dynamics between the characters become clearer once they have begun their lives in the sewer. In the darkness, however, it becomes harder to see which character is which, and so it takes some effort to follow exactly what is happening. Similarly, the darkness of the sewers makes it impossible to orient oneself within the setting of the film. It is unclear just how big the space is, or how certain spaces are conjoined; it is impossible to tell what time of day or year it is. The overall effect is one that is very claustrophobic and uncomfortable, reflecting the kind of life existence these people were forced to endure for the 14 months they spent underground, where they would never have been able to fully see their own surroundings.

Despite the severity of the situation– not to mention the filth of the sewers – a surprising amount of sex goes on in this film. Some of these scenes are plausible, and even lend a realism to the film; what can you expect from a group of people holed up in a dark room for over a year? One scene in particular, however, struck me as somewhat contrived and ad hoc. Naked and exasperated, showering under a stream of sewer water, a mysterious source of light causing the wet bodies to glisten… It wasn’t quite enough to make me forget that a group of other people, including a Rabbi and two small children, were probably sleeping on the other side of the wall.

Various love/lust stories unfold throughout the film, although none is as endearing as that between Socha and his wife, Wanda (Kinga Preis). Wanda’s character is perhaps among the most relatable, as she speaks the words that any modern-day audience is undoubtedly yearning to say to the characters of this film. Although Socha undergoes a gradual transition from greed to compassion, Wanda seems to be enlightened from very beginning of the film, telling her husband that “Jews are just the same as us.” She is also there to greet the lucky few who emerge from the sewers unscathed, and offer them cake – something that, by the end of the film, the entire audience is wishing they could do.

In Darkness, much like other films about the Holocaust, will undoubtedly manage to touch a nerve in us all. The difficulty in reviewing these kinds of films, as always, is separating the emotive quality of the subject matter from the cinematic quality of the film itself. Overall, Agnieszka Holland has done a great job capturing the reality faced by those Jews in Lwów during the Holocaust, both above and underground.

My Rating: 8/10

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About Melissa MacAulay

Melissa is a PhD student in philosophy. When she is not busy publishing wildly successful books and making earth-shattering contributions to her field, she enjoys travelling, eating chocolate, playing with pugs, and writing film reviews.

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