In Darkness Review

With a limited release on the cusp of eligibility for Academy Awards glory, Agnieszka Holland’s In Darkness is a stunning entry in this year’s Best Foreign Film category.

Holland’s follow-up to Janosik: A True Story is no ordinary war film depicting the atrocities of the Holocaust, but a stirring and sorrowful narrative of the light and dark present in all humanity.

A coal-coloured model train spins dizzily around its track of In Darkness’ opening frame, and providing a sinister omen of what lies ahead for the Jewish community of Poland’s Nazi occupied city of Lvov.

The child’s toy spirals in one of the few brightly lit scenes of Holland’s two and a half hour saga, a journey defined by its tormenting darkness. So begins this cinematic adaptation of Robert Marshall’s book In the Sewers of Lvov; a true story of one man’s inspiring heroism and defiant betrayal of the Nazi’s to protect a group of Polish Jews.

We’re immediately thrust into the terror of 1943 Poland and the infectious presence of Germany’s fascist regime felt in Lvov. Leopold Socha is a scavenging thief, who hides his stolen acquisitions in the shadows of the city’s underground sewage filled labyrinth; until a chance encounter with some Jews sectioned to the ghettos ignites a moneymaking initiative.

So Socha takes advantage of their predicament and agrees to traffic a number of Lvov’s Polish Jews through the dregs of the sewer system, offering an underfoot safe haven after the Jewish ghetto has been liquidated.

Such safety comes at a price though, as Socha charges them a weekly fee for their protection from the terror that reigns above. Gradually, this Polish antihero starts to provide safety and food solely through his own good will and it’s not long before Socha’s transformation from shabby gold-snatching thief to heroic protector endangers both himself and his family.

The true story of In Darkness swallows you whole, forcing the viewer to fully commit to a historical retelling of pure annihilation. The film’s tightly controlled chaos ricochets between above ground life, in Lvov’s obliterated ghetto and Janowska concentration camp, and below; where the desolation and paranoia of discovery plagues life in the filth smeared innards of the city’s sewers.

Holland’s depiction of the eventual heroics of Socha, played by Robert Więckiewicz, is testament to humanity prevailing even in the most unrelenting of circumstances. Her presentation of the complicated duality of our human spirit, the juxtaposition found in the will to commit acts of great charity and the will to commit acts of great terror and suffering, creates a brilliant narrative of morality, survival and love.

One of Holland’s most extraordinary accomplishments is the tangible claustrophobia In Darkness manages to create by confining the majority of screen time to the pitch-black bowels of the Lvov sewer system.
Holland’s complete and exceptionally executed physical manipulation demonstrates a meticulous control of light and shadow, provoked further by the nervous unknown fate of Socha and the Jewish people alike.

I hope In Darkness will not be dismissed as a brutal film, but rather a film that interrogates the brutality of war and the silencing wake produced by such Fascist regimes.

The comparative terror and consuming claustrophobia of In Darkness is its compelling strength; but one that, when coupled with Socha’s noble narrative, leaves a haunting light that will warm you long after viewing.

Lindsay Parnell

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March 2012
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