[EDITOR'S NOTE: Fearless Sarah D. Bunting of Tomatonation.com is making it her mission to watch every single film nominated for an Oscar before the Academy Awards Ceremony on February 26, 2012. She is calling this journey her Oscars Death Race. For more on how the Oscars Death Race began, click here. And you can follow Sarah through this quixotic journey here.]
Leopold Socha (Robert Wieckiewicz) is a sewer inspector in Nazi-occupied Lvov; he's also a thief, robbing abandoned houses to provide for his family, and he and his partner Szczepek (Krzysztof Skonieczny) hide the spoils in the watery catacombs beneath the city. One day in 1942, the burglars run into another group in the sewers: Jewish families who have dug down through the floor of an apartment in the ghetto, knowing that going literally underground is their only chance to survive. Socha agrees to help them, but only a dozen of them, and only for $500 a week.
Directed by Agnieska Holland (Europa Europa) and based on a true story, In Darkness gets right into the action — Socha and Szczepek busted in the act by a pair of Nazi Youth — and though Holland skillfully alternates quiet moments and anxiety, the claustrophobic mucky sewer and the clean cold daylight above, the tension stays constant throughout. (I had to pee when I arrived at the theater; the movie is two and a half hours; I didn't move until the credits, except to squirm at plot twists.) It isn't just the dozen Jews in an impossibly precarious situation, but Socha's marriage and the lives of himself, his partner, and his family; whenever you start to relax, the band of refugees has to relocate, or Socha is compelled to stop buying them food, or Mundek (Benno Furmann) breaks into a work camp to try to find the stubborn sister of the woman he semi-secretly loves.
The tension derives from the larger situation, of course, but also from the way it's filmed. When you're in the sewers, it's dark, and you can't see much; the violent deportation of the ghetto's other occupants is merely heard from below, which makes it harder to bear. (Also heard, and seen, continuously: sewer rats. The children in the group eventually make pets out of them, but if this is something you're sensitive to, be warned.) And the final rainstorm sequence is filmed and edited flawlessly. The submerged screams, the belongings floating by, the deafening water are an impressive build to the ending, but also nearly intolerable.
In Darkness is also expert at letting all the characters be who they are — sometimes they're horndogs. Sometimes they're brats. Sometimes they're unexpectedly, or tragically, generous. Some of them are all these things; the script isn't afraid to make some of the refugees straight-up jerks, to let Socha ruin good moments, to let his wife (the excellent Kinga Preis) leave him and then come back to him and yell and laugh and be complicated in her love for him. A child almost blows the set-up, then catches her snap immediately and turns things around. It's not easy to avoid reverting to two dimensions of good and evil in a life-during-wartime drama, especially not one about that particular war; In Darkness is as much about the life as the wartime, putting the people ahead of the situation, and that lets the situation come through more clearly and with more texture (harder to watch, too, but that's baseball).
It's a truly well built story, frustrating and thrilling, controlled but not rigid. I don't think it wins its category, but it's very fine work.
Sarah D. Bunting co-founded Television Without Pity.com, and has written for Seventeen, New York Magazine, MSNBC.com, Salon, Yahoo!, and others. She's the chief cook and bottle-washer at TomatoNation.com. For more on how the Oscars Death Race began, click here.