Attempting to write about In Darkness is a tricky proposition. A heartfelt, Oscar-nominated movie based on the real-life suffering of Jews in World War II, critically dissecting it seems almost cruel – like analysing a charity record, or a cake baked for a church fete. In Darkness is well acted and made with such good intentions that it seems almost sacrilegious to say it’s anything less than perfect.
When viewed against other movies based on the Holocaust, such as Claude Lanzmann’s sprawling, extraordinary documentary Shoah (1985), Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List (1993) or Roman Polanski’s The Pianist (2002), In Darkness isn’t without flaw. But then again, the story it has to tell is so remarkable that it’s not difficult to see why it gained attention at this year’s Academy Awards.
In the Polish, Nazi-occupied town of Lvov, middle-aged sewer worker Leopold Socha (Robert Wieckiewicz) barely scrapes enough money to feed his wife and young daughter. A far from angelic character, he burgles houses for trinkets to sell for extra cash, and when he catches a group of Jewish escapees digging a hole down into the town’s sewage network, he senses another money-making opportunity. With the Nazis about to liquidate the ghetto, the Jews, lead by Mundek (Benno Furmann) make their escape into the sewers, with Socha paid to guide them to a safe hiding place.
Although Socha’s involvement is purely financial at first – and he certainly makes no secret of his antisemitism – his regular trips to the Jews’ hiding place with food and supplies over a period of months gradually change his sympathies. And with the life of Socha and his family also on the line, he’s just as invested in their survival as his own. The unfolding story takes place over a 14-month period, as Socha struggles to keep his sympathies a secret from the Nazis and his old friend Bortnik, a Ukrainian officer who’s well aware that Jews are hiding somewhere in the town’s underground network.
It’s a story full of danger and dramatic possibilities, and director Agnieszka Holland brings real tension to certain scenes – the Jews’ initial descent into the sewers, as the Nazis ransack the ghetto around them, is a particular standout. Both Holland and screenwriter David F Shamoon (adapting Robert Marshall’s book, In The Sewers Of Lvov) should be commended, too, for creating a group of believably flawed, sometimes selfish characters, rather than mere innocent victims.
Where In Darkness falters, though, is in its pacing and cinematography. Criticising a movie called In Darkness for being underlit may seem rather redundant, but there are long stretches here where it’s almost impossible to see what’s going on. Admittedly, the darkness and use of low-light provides a palpable sense of claustrophobia, but it comes at a price – barely being able to see who’s who affects how we connect withthe characters, and this, coupled with the film’s slow pace and 143-minute duration, lessens its dramatic impact.
Having said this, some of the acting really does cut through the murk. Wickiewicz provides a robust lead performance, as does Kinga Preis, who plays his wife Wanda. The most impressive turn, however, comes from German actor Benno Furmann. Looking for all the world like a late-60s era Paul Newman, he exudes extraordinary charisma – it’s a pity, in fact, that his character isn’t given as much to do as the one Wickiewicz inhabits. With any luck, the attention of In Darkness will provide Furmann with some meatier roles in the future.
With such great performances and sporadically nail-biting moments, it’s a pity, then, that long stretches of In Darkness are such a slog. The quieter moments of familial drama and squabbling among dank, rat-infested sewers are absorbing at first – because, let’s face it, to try to live in such a place for more than a few hours would be unimaginably horrible for even the most stoic survivalist – but the repetition of these scenes, and their sheer length, sadly undercuts the power of the underlying story.
Such flaws mean that In Darkness is far from perfect, but it’s still a commendable, sometimes moving film. For those willing to overlook its languid pace and dramatic lulls, there’s a fascinating, uplifting real-life story to discover here.