Is there anything left to learn from another Holocaust film? For some, the question itself may be indelicate. For others, the idea of such a film, let alone an entire genre is just as problematic. But for acclaimed Polish director Agnieszka Holland, whose grueling, 145-minute In Darkness recounts the true story of a band of Jews sheltered for months by a Polish sewage worker, the answer is an emphatic yes.
Nominated for an Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film, In Darkness begins in 1943, when the surreal chaos and violence of the war have become the norm for the residents of Nazi-occupied Lvov (now in Ukraine, then a polyglot crossroads belonging to Poland). Amidst the flux of nationalities and languages—which the film accurately reconstructs, yet its English subtitles inevitably flatten—a rigid hierarchy pertains. Germans rule at the top, Jews hide at the bottom, while Poles and Ukrainians scramble uneasily in between.
The Polish sewer worker and part-time thief Leopold Socha, played with brusque charm by the actor Robert Wieckiewicz, is one such everyman caught between the poles of good and evil. When Socha, who goes by Poldek, stumbles upon a group of Jewish families in the city’s maze of underground tunnels, he sees an opportunity for a quick buck. In exchange for regular payments, Poldek offers silence and food.
It’s not too hard to guess how this plot will unfold. Cutting between the streets of the city above ground, Poldek’s increasingly precarious home life, and the dark world of tunnels, water, flashlights, and rats, the film marches its hero over a series of increasingly dire ethical hurdles. When the group runs low on money they bargain for a cheaper fee (“Just like a Jew,” Poldek retorts before relenting). Further along, an ostentatious Ukranian officer dangles greater rewards for sniffing out Jews than he receives by protecting them. Predictably enough, as Poldek spends more time with the mini-society entrusted to him, and especially two Jewish children who are the very paragons of innocence, the pendulum of his conscience begins to sway toward the good. Like many a Holocaust movie before it, that shift from self-interest to altruism is what the film attempts to trace, with partial success.
Although inspired by real events, In Darkness nevertheless views the war more as a controlled setting for its own psychological experiments than as a true subject for exploration. Like a perverse scientist of human nature, Ms. Holland continually places her characters before impossible choices: a husband given no time to pick between a lover and a daughter; a man cheating on his wife beside her; patriarchs debating whom of their group will be saved. These horrific situations shock us in the abstract, but bring us no closer to the inner lives of the characters they affect. And the drives Ms. Holland means to test—lust, greed, self-preservation, but also righteousness—remain textbook sketches of human motivations, rather than complex psychologies embedded in the world. As a result, and despite a fine ensemble cast, the characters rarely develop beyond the surface of their characterizations: the wayward husband; the cowardly family-man; the brave alpha-male; the gentile savior.
Indeed it is surface, rather than psychological nuance, at which In Darkness excels. Through a handheld camera, Ms. Holland and her cinematographer Jolanta Dylewska adeptly transmit an electrified sense of horror and disorientation with quick, clipped scenes. One early sequence glimpses a flock of iridescent bodies running through a night forest before gunfire rings out. The subterranean passageways, where the film spends more than half its running time, are cast in a chiaroscuro palette pierced by shafts of light.
This commitment to an almost painterly surface is not merely superficial. Ms. Holland still believes in film’s ability to best recreate an experience by showing what it looked like. That bridge between visual style and feeling finds its greatest success not in the film’s moments of hair-raising dread or claustrophobia, but in its patient commitment to the almost existential weariness that months hiding from certain death must induce. The darkness of the theater will never be the darkness of the holocaust, and two-and-a-half hours in a multiplex isn’t the same as eleven months in a sewer. But In Darkness does manage to take you part of the way.