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'In Darkness' finds humanity plumbing the sewers of Lvov

Photo: Courtesy photo, License: N/A

Courtesy photo

An Oscar-nominated Polish view on the Holocaust.


The darkness that pervades Agnieszka Holland's new film is figurative and physical. In Darkness (nominated to a Best Foreign Film Oscar) begins with a bungled burglary attempted under cover of night. But most of the film is set amid the Cimmerian gloom of Lvov's subterranean sewers, where a band of men, women, and children seeks refuge from the Nazi campaign to exterminate the Jews of Europe. When the camera moves above ground, the frame brightens, but only to expose moral darkness — the liquidation of the Lvov ghetto and the relocation of its survivors to Janowska, a nearby death camp.

In Darkness forces viewers — and characters — to grope their way through shadows. The Jews in the sewer are slow to differentiate themselves, and, creatures of fear, envy, courage, lust, and love, are too complex to be summarized as merely saints, sinners, or victims. One woman becomes so unnerved by the uncertainties of survival amid the stench of the rat-infested sewers that she flees to the lethal security of Janowska. Inverting the Greek myth in which Orpheus descends into the underworld to retrieve Eurydice and lead her back to daylight, Mundek (Benno Fürmann) sneaks into the camp to persuade the woman to descend with him back to their miasmal hideout.

The most interesting figure in the film is Poldek (Robert Wieckiewicz), a boozy, earthy Pole whose job inspecting sewers leads him to stumble on the fugitive Jews. No sentimentalist and certainly no lover of Jews, Poldek shakes them down for payments in return for his silence. The Nazis have placed a bounty on Jews, and Poldek's initial plan is to turn them in as soon as their money runs out. However, protecting Jews is a capital offense in wartime Poland, and, drawn into complicity with people targeted for annihilation, Poldek evolves from cynical extortionist to reluctant shield to courageous defender — like the "righteous Gentile" Oskar Schindler, a case study in how heroic actions can emanate from unlikely sources.

In Darkness lacks the black comedy of Holland's 1990 Europa, Europa; there is little to brighten the blackness here. But it, too, is based on a true but improbable story of Jewish survival. While conceding that the film is "suspenseful, horrifying, and at times intensely moving," A. O. Scott in The New York Times suggested that the plethora of Holocaust films has made In Darkness superfluous. That would be like dismissing Lonesome Dove and Unforgiven because we already had too many Westerns. The Holocaust is for our time what the Trojan War was for antiquity — a focal point for fundamental questions of morality, identity, and ontology. Though Poland was the bloodiest of the killing fields, Polish cinema came late to recounting the war against its Jews. In Darkness provides a valuable Slavic perspective on how to make one's way through the murk of mass murder. •

★★★ ½ (out of 5 stars)

In Darkness

Dir. Agnieszka Holland; writ. David F. Shamoon, based on a book by Robert Marshall; feat. Robert Wieckiewicz, Benno Fürmann; Agnieszka Grochowska (R)

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