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The Independent Critic

Agnieszka Grochowska, Alexandre Levit, Benno Furman, Frank-Michael Kobe, Herbert Knaup, Joachim Paul Assbock, Kinga Preis
Agnieszka Holland
David F. Shamoon, Robert Marshall (Book)
Rated R
145 Mins.
Sony Classics
An Evening w/Agnieszka Holland; In Light; Theatrical Trailer

 "In Darkness" Review  
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There was one huge problem with Polish director Agnieszka Holland's (Europa Europa) latest film, the Oscar-nominated In Darkness.

I didn't care.

I didn't care about Leopold Socha (Robert Wieckiewicz), the Polish sewer inspector whose mostly inadvertent heroism saved the lives of Jews during the Holocaust by hiding them beneath the streets of Lvov.

But, I also didn't care about these Jews, portrayed with a surprising degree of honesty and authenticity as not simply sympathetic victims but also as liars, cheats, scoundrels and remarkably human.

It's that lack of caring in a film that almost demands that one care that made it incredibly difficult to appreciate an otherwise harrowing, beautifully constructed and refreshingly non-dramatic film.

Based upon a true story involving the town of Lvov, Poland (now known as Lviv, Ukraine), In Darkness follows the experiences of a group of 12 Jews who hid in the sewers under Lvov for 14 months during World War II. Holland seems convinced that portraying her twelve characters as fully human suffices for character development, a fact that merely mutes their story's emotional resonance despite the harrowing circumstances in which they find themselves.

The group includes a well to do couple (Maria Schrader and Herbert Knaup) along with their two children, a rebel (Marcin Bosak), a hero (Benno Furrmann), a beautiful young girl (Agnieszka Grochowska) and a bit of a, well, floosie (Julia Kijowska) with a few other mostly irrelevant characters tossed in for periodic plot value.

Much like a certain Schindler, Socha was a bit of a profiteer who sort of stumbled into his previously unknown good side. He and his partner (Krzysztof Skonieczny) are thieves who've taken to looting the vacated homes of Jews once they've begun being carted off or executed by the Nazis. His initial offer when he discovers a group of Jews beneath the sewers is to assist them for a price but, as one might surmise, the course of this journey will illuminate his humanity and lead to his providing more assistance than one could ever expect.

Holland seems bent on emphasizing the stark humanity of the circumstances in which the Jews live, an emphasis that includes such Holocaust film rarities as repeated scenes of sexuality (Because, let's face it. We're humans. I don't care how close to death we are... We're not giving up sex!), scene after scene of rats scampering about in ways that feel both disturbing and normal.

The film most succeeds when there's a clear cut contrast between the jarringly normal lives of the Polish who are left undisturbed even as the Nazis chase nude and frightened Jewish women through the city. I'd imagine that it feels, on a grander scale, much like how one would feel to live next door to where a mass murder had occurred. There's always the sense that it happened "over there" and it's unfathomable to think that it would ever cross the line into one's own universe.

After all, life goes on.

D.P. Jolanta Dylewska is really the film's star, managing to turn a dark and dreary film into an electrifying and mesmerizing one even when the occasionally bland and even boring story disappoints. The cast is uniformly strong, with Furmann and Wieckiewicz shining most brightly amongst the ensemble.

In Darkness is refreshing in Holland's absolute refusal to simply "sell the drama" of the story. Instead, she seems to paint both the heartbreak and the humanity with equal zest. There's a sense of normalcy within this story that may even be more unsettling than any sense of heightened drama. Perhaps more than most films based within the Holocaust, In Darkness reminds us that these people who were slaughtered by the millions were normal, ordinary human beings with strengths and weaknesses, fears and joys, needs and wants and so much more. It is near the end of the film's 145-minute running time that we really understand, however, that Holland's story is perhaps even moreso about Socha, a normal and ordinary man who defied what may have even been his genetic make-up and served up an extraordinary act of sacrifice that saved the lives of others.

© Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic