Neely Swanson

In Darkness: a powerful film about human frailty and strength in the Holocaust [MOVIE REVIEW]

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in darkness movie

Milla Ba?kowicz as Krystyna Chiger and Robert Wi?ckiewicz as Leopold Socha. Photo by Jasmin Marla Dichant, Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

“In Darkness,” based on a true story, explores darkness in ways literal and figurative. 1943 Lvov, Poland was a dismal place. Previously occupied by the Soviets, now overrun by their former Nazi allies, there were no resources, little food and a palpable resentment toward the occupants of the Jewish Ghetto who so often seemed to have more than anyone else. There was little resistance or outrage by the locals when the Nazi occupiers, aided by the Ukrainian militia and a great many of the local residents, began to systematically eradicate this Ghetto which had housed 220,000 Jews, destroying the homes, killing, raping and torturing the residents, sending those few who lived to the nearby Janowska concentration camp.

Already aware of the hopelessness of their situation, the occupants of one tenement plotted their survival, instigated by Mundek Margulies, known as Pirate, a name apt for a conman who had always survived by his wits and his scams. The Lvov sewers, he proposes to his group of more well-heeled followers, would provide the perfect hiding place – dark, dank, dangerous and out of sight. Successfully cutting a hole into the underground system, Pirate unknowingly leads his group right into the larcenous arms of Leopold Socha and Sczepek, sewer workers and petty thieves. Socha sees an opportunity to profit from the Jews misfortune and indicates that for a price he would be willing to hide them where they won’t be found; Sczepek, however, is terrified as aiding Jews is an offense punishable by death. Socha’s pecuniary instincts prevail, but only after Pirate agrees to winnow the large group down to twelve. Abandoning the unchosen to certain death, Pirate and his group are led far into the bowels where they will remain for far too long.

Like the events that precipitated this flight, there are no happy endings, unless survival is your only gauge of success. Socha is not an heroic creature, or at least not at the beginning, and the Jewish refugees, forced into living conditions that even rats try to escape, reveal little nobility in their struggle for survival because in such circumstances it is the strong, single minded and self- absorbed who are more likely to live. Friend betrays friend, lover betrays lover, and food is a commodity that is stolen and hoarded. Children are a hindrance and the end of monetary resources may mean the end of shelter.

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Agnieska Holland, for whom the Holocaust is not new territory, has given us a film of great power about human frailty and strength. Her story is about people forced to live in a sewer, captive to every possible vermin and disease, rarely able to bathe, and where the mere act of boiling onions brings Nazi investigator far too close to them. Death and betrayal are at every turn and Holland makes the viewer feel it. The palette is so dark that whenever the camera is brought out of the sewers and into the above-ground life of Socha, it is another cause for sensory discomfort.

This is straightforward storytelling at its best. The terror they feel is your terror, the stench is real, as is the antipathy you feel towards the hidden, much like the antipathy they feel toward one another. But they are not the enemy, the enemy is above them – not just those in jack boots and uniforms, but the ordinary citizens looking for a payoff for turning in Jews or their collaborators, for Poland, still a country where anti-Semitism runs strong, was not a place where the populace protested the atrocities against the Jews, a people viewed as foreign, vile and deserving of their fate.

A long film, running almost 2 ? hours, it is relentless in its darkness, relentless in making each of us face ourselves. What would you do under the circumstances? Could you be a Socha, who eventually rises to a level of nobility and bravery that was previously unthinkable? Could you survive what this small group of Jews found the force to do, a survival that involved a strength, and single-mindedness unknown to the rest of us? And in the end, what is the cost?

Opening February 10 at the Landmark Theatre.

Neely also writes a blog about writers in television and film at


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