Hidden amid the popular heroes of the Holocaust – names like Oskar Schindler and Raoul Wallenberg – are the ordinary folk who, for whatever reason, risked everything to safeguard a few lives.
Among them was Leopold Socha, a Polish sewage worker whose knowledge of the labyrinth of tunnels beneath the streets of Lvov allowed him to secrete a handful of Jews in 1943. Agnieszka Holland’s In Darkness – based on Robert Marshall’s book In the Sewers of Lvov – illuminates the transformation of one man. As the Germans seize control of Jewish property, so Socha and his colleague steal everything they can carry. What he never expects is to fall into aiding a band of Jews as they first escape the Nazis and then settle into a half-life beneath the deserted streets.
Claustrophobic, nervy and possessing a tangible feel for the stench of a subterranean world the majority never experience, In Darkness is as powerful an addition to our understanding of the Holocaust as The Diary of Anne Frank.
Built on a foundation of gloom and horror – gloom down below; horror up above – Holland’s film gives another indication of the survival instinct and the will to go on. In among the daily grind are characters plucked from real life – people attempting to preserve their dignity as the world they knew is consigned to the flames.
Children play. Secret lovers continue their affair. Prayers are given. Books are read. And Socha, the mercenary worker out for himself, discovers an allegiance that transcends cultural or national boundaries.
It is arguable that In Darkness tries to pack in too many separate plotlines and that it becomes bogged down in its attempt to delineate its many and varied characters. Socha is played with weary grace (and a dawning, if reluctant, sense of heroism) by Polish star Robert Wieckiewicz, who adds strength to any scene.
His gradual metamorphosis from taker to giver – he risks being shot by the Germans and their collaborators for harbouring Jews – is wholly plausible and buoys up the story. He is also peacemaker and pragmatist, calming the frustrations of his underground family.
At its most basic In Darkness is a snapshot of a much bigger atrocity. Characters talk of mass killings, camps and the Germans’ knack of sniffing out their quarry, yet so little of it is shown. This is to the benefit of the movie; the story becomes localised, intimate, insular. In the end, it’s about the people you come to know.
On limited release