Sunday, December 11, 2011

In Darkness: A Harrowing Tale of Enlightenment

Milla Bankowicz and Robert Wieckiewicz in In Darkness

My mother and her closest kin came to America from Poland, a nation that was invaded a dozen years later by the Nazis. In 1942 virtually all Jewish residents in the shtetl of her little hometown, Goniadz, were killed outright or sent to the gas ovens of the Treblinka death camp. Their homes were ransacked by Catholic anti-Semites, who rejoiced with the local priest as they helped the Gestapo wipe out an entire community.

She’s not around any more but I wonder what her opinion would have been of In Darkness, about a sort of proletarian Polish version of Oskar Schindler named Leopold Socha. With his help, ten people survive for 14 months (beginning in May 1943) in the filthy, rat-infested sewers under Nazi-occupied Lvov, where fellow Jews are systematically obliterated by the Gestapo. This sort of topic was always raw for a woman who could never concede that there might conceivably be such a thing as a good Pole.

As with Schindler’s List, the Academy Award-winning 1993 Steven Spielberg film, the latest take on how the Holocaust unfolded in Poland is based on a true story. In this instance, the “righteous gentile” is not a handsome aristocrat like Schindler; Leopold (a terrific Robert Wieckiewicz) is a sewer inspector and petty thief with a peasant’s potato face. Although both protagonists are initially more interested in making money and reluctant to take a stand, they stumble into heroism by virtue of their previously unrealized humanitarian instincts. Moral decisions can create cinematic suspense, a feature that elevates the new film above the muck and misery inherent in its plot.

Robert Wieckiewicz as Leopold Socha
Directed by Warsaw-born Agnieszka Holland, In Darkness explores the same period of history that she tackled with some of her earlier work, such as Angry Harvest (1985) and Europa, Europa (1990). For her current project, the screenplay was adapted by Toronto advertising executive David F. Shamoon from In the Sewers of Lvov, a 1991 non-fiction book written by British author Robert Marshall. It’s an exceedingly grim subject for Sony Pictures Classics to be unleashing on the public in a limited release just before the eight days of Hanukkah and the twelve days of Christmas.

Leopold (everyone calls him Poldek) discovers the Jewish resisters as they’re digging a tunnel from a ghetto hideout that’s no longer safe to the labyrinthine sewer system. His detailed knowledge of this subterranean complex is up for sale. In the belief that this arrangement is more lucrative than turning them in, he becomes their only reliable link with the city above, delivering food and clothing in exchange for cash.

For a long time, the relationship is tenuous; “Never trust a Polack” has always been the mantra for a persecuted populace. And, indeed, Leopold is tempted by the notion of betrayal. His younger colleague Stefek (Krzysztof Skonieczny) is much less resolved about keeping a secret that grows increasingly risky for the collaborators, who would be hanged if caught sheltering Jews.

But, when the refugees run out of cash, Leopold’s conscience kicks in and he digs into his own pocket to feed them. This is someone who has just accepted the prevalent bigotry without really giving it much thought. He truly adores his more tolerant wife Wanda (Kinga Prels), who points out to him that “Our Lady and the Apostles and Jesus – all Jews.” Plagued by modest means and war profiteering grocers, they cannot provide nutritious fruit for their sickly daughter Stefcia (Zofia Pieczynska). His thievery – often breaking into the homes of deported Jews and stealing their valuables – seems like a relatively mild crime in comparison to the genocide taking place in the society as a whole.

From left: Maria Schrader, Milla Bakowicz, Herbert Knaup, Marcin Bosak

Viewer compassion fatigue is lurking in every shadow while Holland presents a realistic perspective on the fetid conditions in scenes that are necessarily claustrophobic and poorly lit. Unfortunately, at first that makes it difficult to sort out who is who among those in hiding, a bit exhausting in the context of a 144-minute film. Eventually, the chief characters come into sharp focus and not all are noble or sympathetic, reflecting the flaws found in real life:

- The observant Chiger family (Maria Schrader and Herbert Knaup as the parents; Milla Bakowicz and       Oliver Staczk as their children);
Marek Margulies (Benno Fürmann), called “Pirate” because he’s a bit of a wheeler-dealer;
- Klara Keller (Agnieszka Grochowska), who is as attracted to Marek as he is to her;
- Mania Keller (Maria Semotiuk), Klara’s sister who slips out of the sewer and winds up in a             concentration camp, where Marek bravely tries to find her;
- Yanek (Marcin Bosak), who abandons his wife and child for a self-centered mistress, Chaja (Julia           Kijwoska).

Fürmann and director Holland on the set of In Darkness.
Leopold is not particularly happy that the Germans are occupying his country, but he feels safer thanks to his connection in their military – Bortnik (Michal Zuranski), a Ukrainian helping them carry out Hitler’s Final Solution. And we see some of the graphic results of this campaign.

Holland – the offspring of a Jewish father and Catholic mother – has chosen to depict the requisite sequences of violence with disturbing realism. The film even opens with soldiers herding naked Jewish women through a forest to their certain demise. After giving birth to Yanek’s baby once he’s departed, Chaja smothers the infant while the enemy combs through the sewers. That’s one of several close calls, many of them cleverly thwarted by Leopold as he evolves into a mensch.

The 1,135 Jewish citizens of Goniadz were not able to hide in the sewers and had no Leopold Socha to protect them. Instead, they all were transported in cattle cars, trucks or even horse-drawn wagons to Treblinka, where 13 gas chambers had been constructed to murder 2,000 people at a time in an orgy of German efficiency and Polish complicity. Little wonder my mother remained bitter. But In Darkness is Poland’s official submission as a potential nominee in the foreign-language category of the Oscars, so perhaps that’s a sign of progress.

Susan Green is a film critic and arts journalist based in Burlington, Vermont. She is the co-author with Kevin Courrier of Law & Order: The Unofficial Companion and with Randee Dawn of Law & Order Special Victims Unit: The Unofficial Companion.

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