First, I want to emphasize to you that there is nothing particularly bad in “In Darkness”, one of the Best Foreign Film Oscar nominees in last year. It was made with good intention, and its subject is treated with respect and sincerity, and its story is one of interesting ones inside one of the biggest human tragedies in the 20th century.
However, I kept noticing its redundancy while watching this well-intentioned film although the experience was far from being tedious. The story itself has compelling aspects, but there are too many familiar things we have seen from other films about the Holocaust including Steven Spielberg’s great film “Schindler’s List”(1993). The movie is not a bad film at all, but it has almost nothing to distinguish itself from the other Holocaust films except that impressive claustrophobic darkness its Jewish characters have to endure for 14 months.
The movie is about an ordinary man who managed to hide them from the Nazis for that long period. It is 1943, and Leopold Socha(Robert Wieckiewicz) is a sewer worker in the Nazi-occupied Polish city of Lwów, which is currently Lviv in Ukraine. It is economically hard for everyone in the city due to the ongoing war, and, like many opportunistic people at that time, Socha does not hesitate to grab any chance to earn extra money for supporting him and his family. We see him and his co-worker breaking into the house of some Nazi official for stealing anything valuable during the opening scene, and we also watch him illegally dealing with the Jewish people in the ghetto. There is hell to pay if he gets caught, but it is all right for him as long as he gets money.
And then the circumstance for his major clients becomes harsher as the Nazis decide to liquidate the ghetto in June 1943. While most of the people in the ghetto are killed or taken to the concentration camp, some people manage to evade the capture and hide in the sewer system. As a man who knows a lot about the intricate sewer system below the city through his official job, Socha provides them a temporary hiding place in the underground, and then around 10 people are selected and moved to another hiding place under his protection.
Like many people who helped the Jewish people during that time, Socha initially does this dangerous job for getting more money, but, not so surprisingly, he gradually finds himself caring about these helpless people protected by him as he frequently rises to the occasion. He usually makes sure that he gets paid as he demands, but he does everything he can do for hiding them and supporting them. Even when the refugees do not have any money to pay him, he chooses to keep helping them even though it will give him no profit but more danger.
While the movie and a good performance by the lead actor Robert Wieckiewicz wisely do not explain the motive behind it, Socha’s behavior reminded me of what an old man said to the hero of Cormac McCarthy’s “Crossing”. He said true evil has the power to sober the smalldoer against his own deeds, and I think it aptly summarizes the transformation Socha goes through. Like Oscar Schindler, this small-time crook is disgusted by a far greater evil he witnesses, and that eventually takes him to the point he has never imagined before.
The movie also spends a considerable amount of time on the details of the underground shelter Socha’s people are forced to live in, and we can vividly see and feel that this is not a pleasant place to live at all. It is a dark, stuffy, and stinking place filled with big rats, and it is no wonder that they become constantly edgy and paranoid as the time goes by. At one point, the rain pours all over the city, and they find themselves in a grave danger as the sewer system gets overflowed. They cannot possibly go outside, so they have to stay in the shelter even though they are well aware of that they will be drowned within minutes if water does not go down.
The director Agnieszka Holland and her crews do a nice job in creating the gloomy atmosphere through this murky background, but the story becomes less interesting whenever it gets stuck in this dark underworld. While the actors give competent performances as required, the characters and their desperate drama about survival are mostly remained limited and underdeveloped within their small stuffy world, and the climax sequence feels more like an obligatory chapter to break its monotonous feeling.
The drama above the ground also feels flat occasionally due to deficient characterization. As Socha’s worrisome wife Wanda, Kinga Preis has good scenes with her co-actor, but I also found that her character was rather a bit inconsistent. While it is understandable that Wanda does not like her husband’s dangerous work despite her sympathy toward Jewish people, her change from annoyance to full support around the ending is a little too awkward. She becomes very angry at him because he cares more about the refugees’ safety than their cute little daughter’s communion at the town church, but, although she almost leaves him, she comes back to him in the end. I wonder whether they have had similar marital conflicts and following reconciliations in the past.
In spite of my grumbles and reservation on it, “In Darkness” is a fairly watchable film based on another interesting real-life story behind World War II. I think it could have been shorter, but it is engaging to watch on the whole during its long running time(144-min), and its characters’ long struggle in the darkness feels harrowing at times thanks to good direction and nice performances. Too bad there have already been too many similar films on its historical subject.