As Holocaust dramas go, In Darkness (Sony Pictures Classics, in limited release Jan. 27), stands firmly in the tradition of movies like Schindler's List and The Pianist: true-story films about Polish Jews who, against all odds, lived through the Nazi atrocities of WWII with help from non-Jewish protectors. Here the protector is the morally dubious Leopold Socha (Robert Wieckiewicz), a sewer worker and petty thief in Poland. Socha, a Catholic with a family to support, is offered money by the Nazis for every Jew he finds hiding in the sewers. But when a group of Jews offers him even more to protect their hiding place, he begins a journey down an accidental, opportunistic path toward heroism.
The film's title comes from its setting in the sewers, but is also a metaphor for the darkness of humanity. There is no clear delineation between heroes and villains, the good and bad; it's more like the bad and the worse. Acclaimed Polish director Agnieszka Holland (Europa Europa; The Secret Garden) explores ambiguous moral territory, where the Jews aren't all good and neither is the Gentile who protects them. Holland, who collaborated with her friend Krzysztof Kieślowski on the screenplay for the Three Colors trilogy, offers a nuanced document of the Holocaust that is strengthened by its reluctance to put halos on any of its characters.
This is not to say we don't feel connected to the characters or root for them to survive. We do, perhaps more so because of their imperfections. And Socha—a flawed man whose good heart is gradually revealed as his bond with the Jews grows—is a likeable protagonist. He spends his life pulled between the dark underworld (literally) and the goodness of daylight, family, and faith. He's driven by money and pride, but also by selflessness and love.
It's this spark that seems to interest Holland most. Her camera beautifully captures the dynamics of dark and light throughout, putting audiences in the disorienting darkness most of the time but offering glimpses of the above-ground world, with its bursts of light.
Where was God? That is a question every Holocaust rendering eventually asks. In a film like this—with its numbing brutality, unspeakable horrors, and bleak depictions of man at war with himself—it's hard to see God, but he is present. What drives Socha's sacrificial actions? Where does this sense of "right" come from? Socha has several "baptismal" moments that symbolize his gradual redemption and renewal. After a day of grimy work in the sewers, he's cleansed in a bathtub by his wife. And in one dramatic sequence, Socha dives into a potentially deadly situation to save those below—and emerges a new man as a result. It makes for an unlikely redemption story, a cleansing renewal in the midst of humanity's dark night, but surely God is at work.
Brett McCracken, a CT film critic, blogs at stillsearching.wordpress.com.
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