Whenever I think there can’t be anything new to be said cinematically about the Holocaust, someone proves me wrong.
Agnieszka Holland’s film “In Darkness” tells the almost unbelievable story of a Polish thief who hides a group of Jews in the sewers of Lvov, risking his own life and that of his wife and daughter. The script by David F. Shamoon is based on the true story of Leopold Socha, full-time burglar and part-time sewer worker, who saved the lives of ten Jews by feeding and protecting them for 14 months in the rat-infested sewers under the city until the Russians liberated the town from the Germans.
Recognized by Israel as one of the righteous, Socha is an extraordinary character in the film, which is ultimately more interested in the mystery of goodness than in the evil perpetrated by the Nazis. What quality made Socha behave so differently from all his neighbors and friends?
The Polish equivalent of a good ol’ boy, Socha and his young pal Szczepek burglarize apartments abandoned by the Jews herded into the ghetto as well as the occasional store. They stash their loot in the sewers, where Socha knows every turn in every tunnel. The stolen goods help him support his wife Wanda and young daughter Stefcia, who he clearly loves. It’s 1943, and the residents of Lvov (now in Ukraine but then part of Poland) are suffering under Nazi occupation. Nothing compared to the Jews, of course, who have all been pushed into a small space and are methodically being murdered.
For the most part, Holland spares the viewer the horrific images we’ve come to expect from Holocaust films, but one scene of naked women being driven into a forest at gunpoint, and then the sound of shooting when the camera swings away, serves to remind us of the fate the Nazis had planned for the Jews.
At the opening of the film a group of Jews are digging through the floor of their apartment and break through just before the Germans begin the liquidation of the ghetto. These are not the saintly victims of German brutality we’ve seen innumerable times. Holland, who has dealt intelligently with the subject before in “Europa, Europa,” pays them the compliment of providing them with personalities. They are terrified human beings, some stoic, some hysterical with fear, some determined to save themselves, some self-sacrificing, some rich and educated, while others are poor and perhaps criminal. They are an assortment of people who would probably have nothing to do with each other except that the war--and the Nazis‘ racial ideology--has pushed them together.
As they drop into the sewer tunnels, several in the group immediately rebel in revulsion. They can’t bear to be in the dark, foul-smelling hole, and so they decide to leave. The rest soon run into Socha and Szczepek. The Ukrainians, in charge of doing the Nazis’ dirty work, are paying a bounty for each Jew found and Socha is ready to claim his due. Ignacy Chiger, the richest man in the group, offers Socha more to keep them safe. Once Socha agrees after some haggling, his strange journey begins.