In her director’s statement for “In Darkness,” one of this year’s Oscar nominees for Best Foreign Language Film, Agnieszka Holland writes of representations of the Holocaust in literature and cinema that, “One may ask if everything has now been said on this subject. But in my opinion the main mystery hasn’t yet been resolved, or even fully explored.” The feeling she’s facing may be less that everything that can be said has been said about the 20th century’s greatest atrocity, and more that people feel like they’ve already heard it all. To read about the true story on which “In Darkness” is based is to have your mind skip ahead and (probably correctly) fill in many of the details: Leopold Socha, a sewer worker and thief in Nazi-occupied Lvov, hides a group of Jews in the tunnels after the ghetto is liquidated, first for money and later just out of a desire to keep them alive. They survive underground for 14 months as the war rages on above them, as Socha risks his safety and that of his family to keep bringing them supplies.
It’s a tale that seems to proffer a narrow window of uplift through which to see an era filled with horror, a mini “Schindler’s List” set at the Polish-Ukrainian border. But Holland’s film is extraordinarily generous with its characters in ways that take the story beyond being a historical fable of altruism and endurance. “In Darkness” doesn’t let those on screen fall into easy divisions of savior and saved — it allows its Jewish characters to be complex and imperfect, and clears plenty of space for its protagonist to grow and change without shunting aside the sometime terrible costs of his actions. There’s nothing innately heroic or remarkable about Socha, played by Robert Wieckiewicz — he’s earthy and amoral, a cheerful worker who with his young partner Stefek (Krzysztof Skonieczny) moonlights as a robber. He lives in a cramped but cozy apartment with his wife Wanda (Kinga Preis) and their daughter, and while he doesn’t like the Nazis he isn’t about to put himself in danger combating them. It’s clear that he and his family would be fine riding out the war as they are, and when he and Stefek encounter a group of men from the ghetto digging through to the sewer tunnels in which the pair are traveling, the deal they strike is purely a business arrangement.
The refugees are a mixed and appropriately frightened and desperate group, already stressed to the breaking point before they’re gathered into a cramped, dark and dank space to live for an indeterminate amount of time — they’re neither uniform nor unified, a chaotic cross-section of society as it was before the war. Mundek (Benno Fürmann), who becomes the de facto leader, is a con man, while Chiger (Herbert Knaup) and his wife Paulina (Maria Schrader) are wealthy and upper class and foot the group’s bill. Yanek (Marcin Bosak) chooses his mistress Chaja (Julia Kijowska) over his wife and child, and Klara (Agnieszka Grochowska) tries to manage her high-strung sister Mania (Maria Semotiuk). There’s something deeply refreshing to how awful these characters can be, as much as they’re also capable of acts of grace and bravery. They’re people who are being forced to scrabble for survival, knowing that others are not going to make it. There’s not enough food, not enough space — early on, Socha demands without apology that a dozen be selected from the larger group that initially comes through to the sewers, as that’s as many as he thinks he’ll be able to hide. Those left behind turn up as corpses floating along in the water or curled by walls.
Cinematographer Jolanta Dylewska (who also did amazing work with “Tulpan“) shoots half of the film in the near dark, finding texture and contrast in the gloom — the images aren’t prettied up, the griminess of the setting never in doubt, but there are still moments of poetry. The actors’ pale faces swim forward, luminous in the little light there is, a love scene between two of the characters who get together while in hiding lit only by the faintest slivers of sun. It’s beautiful, but their pallid forms in the murk echo an earlier scene of carnage in which a group of naked women run, screaming, through the woods, their bodies bright against the trees just before they’re gunned down by German soldiers. Above ground, Socha finds his relative freedom to walk in the daylight hemmed in by the arrival of an old colleague, Bortnik (Michal Zurawski), who’s become an officer and who’s very eager to hunt down any remaining Jews in order to collect a reward. It’s impossible to pinpoint when Socha turns, when he decides he’s going to save the people he’s been protecting even when they can no longer give him anything in return, which speaks to the deliberate pace of his reluctant transformation. There’s no bolt of lighting, just his slow realization that he’s not going to walk away — which is why the closest the film gets to a dramatic Hollywood moment feels, while not unearned, unnecessary. The accrued small acts of generosity and courage are worth more than a grand gesture of saving the day. [A-]