By Eric Kohn | Indiewire February 8, 2012 at 1:20PM
The Holocaust genre tends to invite reductive terms, so on that basis Polish director Anieszka Holland's survival drama "In Darkness" is a grimier alternative to "Schindler's List." While following the plight of WWII-era Jews hiding out in a sewer system, it takes the focus off their individualism and assumes an outsider's perspective -- in this case, a thieving sewer worker who agrees to keep their presence under wraps. However, the movie's true savior belongs to the shadows that blanket the characters in nearly every scene.
Away from the barrage of swastikas and goose-stepping now firmly established as formula, the sewer dwellers exist in a revisionist tale so minimalist it takes on a theatrical quality. "In Darkness" becomes a separate movie altogether when Holland's narrative shifts outdoors, where the scheming Leopolad Socha (Robert Wieckiewicz) slinks around the Nazi-occupied Polish city of Lvov in a frantic effort to survive as the invading forces continue their destructive path.
When Socha initially discovers the group down below, their terrified faces represent nothing more than dollar signs, and he scrambles to drain their resources in the service of keeping their presence a secret. But eventually the hustler develops a heart of gold, and his personal investment in his clients' subterranean existence pushes him and his family closer to the same dangers facing the people they choose to shield.
Because Socha's ongoing coverup forms the main conflict, it's easier to sympathize with him than the crowds of dirty men and women who face a far more perilous state in the muddy sewer waters. Meanwhile, their base instincts slowly taking over, this uneasy group approaches its breaking point. They're as symbolically charged as cinematographer Jolanta Dylewska's stark encapsulation of their claustrophobic environment. However, the screenplay (co-written by Robert Marshall and based on his book) rarely allots the same depth to Socha.
Over time, Holland's approach pushes beyond despair and turns into a pure exercise in grim atmosphere, shifting from a story of staying alive to a closeup of a private hell. No longer a mere Holocaust drama, "In Darkness" universalizes its setting, empathizing with its victims to the extent that it often struggles to breathe along with them. At 2 1/2 hours, it alternates between gripping, suspenseful moments (a childbirth sequence stands out as especially mortifying) and a punishing slog through each new low in their gritty routine.
You'll notice the outline of plot details includes no reference to specific characters. There's a reason for that: Their blackened faces and emaciated figures diminish their physical presence, which makes it difficult for Holland to convey their emotional turmoil. Instead, their suffering combines into a gothic patchwork of cruel circumstances. Call it Holocaust Expressionism.
"Schindler's List," the measuring stick for any modern cinematic rendition of Holocaust woes, never sinks to the existentially dreary lows of "In Darkness." However, both movies conclude with colorful uplift after spending lengthy periods buried in dread. Holland's use of film language to convey the nature of survival blows past the simplicity of black-and-white photography. However, the nature could have used more nurture; Holland remains so committed to the nightmare that she can't find the right transition for waking up the material. The movie trudges in the sewer to occasionally frightening and frequently redundant effect, and then abruptly turns on the lights for a quasi-cheery finale. When "In Darkness" transitions into a life-affirming tone, it also paradoxically feels lifeless.
Criticwire grade: B-
HOW WILL IT PLAY? While the buzz for Best Foreign Language Oscar is split between "A Separation" and "Monsieur Lazhar," the Holocaust has never been especially marginalized at the Oscars and Sony Pictures Classics is well positioned to use that platform to market the movie into a solid hit in limited release.