REVIEW: In Darkness Takes the Holocaust Underground — to Dull, Didactic Effect

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Based on a true story out of World War II-era Lvov, Poland (now Lviv, Ukraine), In Darkness seeks to distinguish itself from the painfully distended genre of Holocaust movies with relentless “you are there” realism. It’s not quite Smell-o-vision, but the idea seems to be to try and make the experience of the 12 Polish Jews who hid in a sewer for 14 months as uncomfortable for the audience as it was for them.

It seems significant that even a movie like The Reader paused in the midst of its “I was deflowered by a war criminal” melodrama to acknowledge that there is nothing to be learned from the Holocaust. Because its stories of annihilation and survival have taken on the ritual interplay of genre, often they have as much to tell us about current narrative appetites as they do about history. In Darkness, currently nominated for a Best Foreign-Language Feature Oscar, is foremost a Holocaust movie that asks to be measured against all the others; its primarily lessons are directed toward the genre itself.

Not all of the victims, for instance, are noble or even particularly nice. Director Agnieszka Holland (Europa, Europa) seems so enamored with her own resolution on this account that little more is offered in the way of characterization. But making the victims “human” does not necessarily make them complicated, or well drawn; in fact it leaves them vulnerable to cliché. So here we have the upper-class couple (Maria Schrader and Herbert Knaup) and their two small children, the resourceful hero (Benno Furmann), the rogue (Marcin Bosak), the pretty sister (Agnieszka Groshowska), the wanton redhead (Julia Kijowska), and a few others who never really emerge from the sewer's shadows. Crammed together into a miserable crevice of the Lvov underground after a pogrom destroys the city’s Jewish ghetto, they all behave badly some point. There are fights over food, space, noise -- and though bitter religious recrimination occasionally erupts, it feels more like a requirement of the genre than a reflection of deteroriating inner lives.

In Darkness is based on the story told in a 1991 book called In the Sewers of Lvov, by Robert Marshall (adapted here by David F. Shannon). Its central figure is also one we have come to recognize on film: the benevolent gentile. Leopold Socha was a Catholic Pole and prolific thief when the war broke out; he also worked in the sewer system, and offered to help hide the group of Jews in exchange for payment. Robert Wieckiewicz, an enigmatic performer with a tough potato face, plays Socha as a Polish Tony Soprano by way of Graham Greene, with all the charisma, martyr issues and ambivalence about his own better nature that suggests.

In Darkness is most successful when it follows Socha through a city where life goes on despite the nightmares unfolding in plain view and underfoot. The opening scenes use an effective contrast to set up the question: What kind of times are these? Socha and his sidekick (Krzysztof Skonieczny) shake down a couple of teenagers in what appears to be a middle-class family home; during their getaway they cross paths with a group of naked women racing through a forest, pursued to their death by nattily uniformed gunmen. From there Holland continues to effectively exploit the tension between Lvov’s ominous sense of suspended reality and the denial human beings are capable of when not directly threatened themselves. Socha and his wife (Kinga Preis) speak about the massacres that take place in their streets like they have just read a report about a country halfway around the world. Though the tensions are not addressed in depth, the fact that German, Yiddish, Russian, Polish, and Ukrainian are spoken more or less interchangeably evokes the clashing ethnic currents that made Poland the Holocaust’s crucible, a better host than most of the region for genocide. Absolutely everyone is on the take, and the sudden perishability of human life has only heightened the instinct for self-preservation.

That that instinct is more acutely felt in the character of Socha and his life above ground suggests the overriding misery emanating from the film’s depiction of life in the sewer. With a few exceptions -- including cinematographer Jolanta Dylewska’s bravura depiction of a flash flood that threatens to drown the stowaways -- Holland cannot make the group’s determination felt because she’s so intent on making us feel the mortification of their suffering. The squeaking and scampering of rats becomes a motif over two and a half hours -- it ends almost every scene with one last dash of disgust -- and the seemingly high incidence of sewer sex gets lingering attention as well. Rather than beginning with the assumption that there is no possibility of our coming to know that kind of suffering exactly and using imagination and insight to truly take us inside the Lvov Jews’ plight, Holland makes the base conditions of their confinement a narrative as well as aesthetic priority. And frankly it’s boring as shit.

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  • Patrick Hallstein says:

    The point may be that gobbling up the like of a visceral 2-hour experience of sewer-trapped Polish Jews, is a source, for some, of contemporary mana -- makes you potent. Have you ever tried arguing with someone who believes him/herself more substantitve than you are, more the person, than you are, for having suffered but sustained through stuff that would completely blanch you? Few of us can use WW2 that way, but the way it was filmed ensures it can plausibly be counted as close to that -- as it is deemed -- unaccountable and epic manifestation as you can get. Even if nothing of the sort.

  • Anek says:

    a pogrom destroys the city’s Jewish ghetto

    You don't understand the word 'pogrom' and/or don't know the history. Jewish ghetto in this movie (as every other ghetto) is liquidated by German soldiers not any angry mob.

    the clashing ethnic currents that made Poland the Holocaust’s crucible, a better host than most of the region for genocide

    That's a bit too far-reaching conclusion.

    Also Russian is never spoken in the movie.

  • JoD says:

    Its a movie, folks, not a documentary. A piece of filmmaking with an artistic approach. Obviously. Why else would there be sex but barely details of everyday life about how these people really got by in there? Even having sex is something not that realistic, if you are a woman and know what I mean (regarding the requirements of requisites such as hygienic matters), because there are things that men never have to worry about in sex events. Then, the movie is made by a woman. And here we are again - its a piece of art. And if a critic finds it boring as shit, this is her damn right.