The true story of a group of people forced to go into hiding in sewers when the Nazis liquidate the Jewish ghetto in the Polish city of Lvov is the basis of the tough but ultimately compassionate new film In Darkness directed by Agnieszka Holland, whose previous credits include not only the similarly themed Europa Europa but quite a few episodes of acclaimed TV series such as The Wire, Treme and The Killing. In general terms the new film is more or less a hybrid of Schindler’s List (cynical mercenary helps a group of Jews and rediscovers his humanity) and The Pianist (opportunities for survival in an increasingly bombed out city get more and more precarious) and a lot of its sewer sequences seem highly reminiscent of Andrzej Wajda’s brilliant and nightmarish Kanal, in which a group of resistance fighters find themselves cut off and lost in the tunnels under Warsaw, but this is far from a knock-off and has a particular power of its own deriving from the unflinching way it depicts the frailties of even the most courageous and selfless of people when they come under inhuman pressures.
The central character is Leopold Socha, a hardbitten drainage worker and black marketeer who spies a chance to make some extra bucks when a band of refugees turn up in his section of sewer. He’s no saint and initially treats his desperate clients with casual disdain, but he does at least honour his side of the bargain and his attitude doesn’t look so extreme once we’re given a taste of the atrocities that are being routinely doled out above surface. Eventually various unpalatable situations force him to choose which side he’s on, but he’s not the only character who’s loyalties are being tested – one of the most notable aspects of the film is its success in bringing out the individual and often subtle facets of the personalities of the trapped group, and the conflicts and alliances that result are not necessarily those you anticipate.
In Darkness is, as you’d expect, pretty murky visually for much of its running time, but the audience is given careful signposts throughout to ensure that we can differentiate, and sometimes even navigate, different parts of the tunnel complex. The film is treated to look grainy, with the bright colours that do occur full and saturated. It’s not really documentary-style, but it’s certainly effective. The performances are naturalistic and convincing, and really sell the enormity of the situation – frequently we’re presented with normally reasonable people yelling at each other and there are no artificial Hollywood-style inspirational orations here. A lot of bad things happen, and a lot of worthy people are denied a happy ending but the grimness never quite gets overwhelming, if only because we know, even if the characters don’t, that salvation via Russian tanks is on its way. Socha managed to keep his Jews hidden from the Nazis for an extraordinary 14 months and was posthumously honoured by Israel. This is a pretty bleak film to watch for much of its two and a half hours but it surely documents an amazing act of humanity.