Starring: Robert Wieckiewicz, Benno Furmann, Agnieszka Grochowska
Directed by: Agnieskza Holland (“Janosik: A True Story”)
Written by: David F. Shamoon (debut)
As one of the most abominable acts in human history, the Holocaust remains a powerful subject to this day. The atrocities were so vast and far-reaching, that it is easy to lose sight or perhaps not even be aware of some of the courageous individual stories involved with this period of time. Some of these stories find life on film, none more notable than Steven Spielberg’s Oscar-winning masterpiece “Schindler’s List.” While the stories of harboring Polish-Jews to save them from the terror of the Nazis are parallel, director Agnieszka Holland focuses less on the events in concentration camps and more on the lives and real life events of those being kept hidden in the Oscar-nominated film “In Darkness,” a harrowing, but worthwhile journey of survival and personal growth.
In Nazi-occupied Poland, Leopold Socha (Robert Wieckiewicz), a man who works in the sewers, agrees to give a fleeing group of Jews a place to hide underground exchange for a weekly fee. As time goes on, those fighting alongside the Nazis ramp up their hunt for Jews. Because of this, Socha must increase his efforts to keep them from being caught. When people start becoming suspicious, Socha finds himself at an impasse. Are the lives of these people living in fear and filth worth putting his own family at risk?
The backbone of the film is undoubtedly Wieckiewicz’s strong performance as a man in an emotional tug-of-war. Perhaps the best role of the supporting cast belongs to Benno Furmann, who plays Mundek Margulies, one of the hidden Jews who doesn’t seem to trust Socha and feels he will give them up if he finds himself in any danger. Beyond that, none of the supporting cast particularly stands out, but that is certainly not meant as a slight. The large ensemble of actors deliver when they are called upon. The balance between characters works, especially when Wieckiewicz is not on the screen, and is what keeps “In Darkness” moving along effortlessly.
With a large part of the film taking place deep in the dark and dank sewers of Poland, Holland succeeds in creating a cramped atmosphere. Her usage of dark and unlit scenes in the sewer, among other techniques, gives the audience a very visceral and claustrophobic experience as characters try to survive with a war waging right above their heads. Holland also excels at creating tension. Whether it is during scenes where the Jews might be discovered or the unknown lengths Socha will go to protect them, Holland keeps the anxiety high.
Not all choices are successful ones for Holland, however. Throughout the film there is a strong running theme of eroticism, with sex scenes even occurring down in the sewers while other people watch. Since most of the film is hard-hitting, emotionally-charged and centered around the fight to stay hidden from the Nazis, these scenes seem out of place and ultimately unnecessary and distracting to the plot. The film could also have used a little trimming in the editing room, as it feels every bit of its overlong 145 minute run time.
As the movie progresses, we see Socha lay more and more on the line and watch his motives in protecting these lives morph before our very eyes. With a pitch-perfect performance from Wieckiewicz, Socha’s personal evolution is what makes this film an overall success. Even though the subject material can be hard to handle, there is something inherently fascinating about watching a person being guided by a moral compass, even in the face of imminent danger.