A small-time thief becomes the heroic protector of a group of Jews during the Nazi occupation of Poland in Agnieszka Holland’s new film, In Darkness. While this story of yet another “righteous Gentile,” based on Robert Marshall’s non-fiction book, is conventional, the setting – a rat-infested sewer lit by flashlights and candles – and the memorable central performance from Robert Wieckiewicz etch themselves on the imagination.
Holland’s film, which is nominated for a foreign-language Academy Award, is her third Holocaust-themed feature following 1985’s Angry Harvest and 1990’s Europa Europa, also both former Oscar nominees. By now, her familiarity with the material allows her to challenge the viewer, both in the film’s forbidding look and its often unsympathetic characters.
In early scenes, in 1943 in the Polish city of Lvov (now Lviv, Ukraine), we see how the Nazi’s genocidal Final Solution is a licence to commit mass atrocities (a group of naked women racing through the woods to their deaths) and petty acts of sadism by German soldiers on the streets. None of this is much concern to Poldek Socha (Wieckiewicz), a sewer inspector and petty thief whose drinking buddy is a Nazi subaltern, a Ukrainian officer (Michal Zurawski) who turns a blind eye when Poldek goes scavenging in abandoned homes.
A bigot by upbringing, Poldek’s convinced all Jews are out to swindle him, and when he encounters a group of men, women and children trying to hide in the sewers, his mercenary instincts kick in. He could turn them in for an immediate reward, or, planning ahead, get them to pay him over a longer period. Along with his young apprentice, Stefek (Krzysztof Skonieczny), Poldek makes a deal with a wealthy man named Chiger (Herbert Knaup) to keep the refugees in exchange for regular payments, including the last of their heirloom jewellery.
The refugees, who have little in common beyond a desire to survive, are not a harmonious group. Chiger is hated because he’s wealthy and disdains to speak Yiddish. One man has abandoned his wife and daughter to take his mistress down in the sewers with him. Another (Benno Furmann) is, like Poldek, a hustler with the makings of a hero. The most innocent of victims are the children, who still find ways to play in the filth and darkness. Each time Poldek’s calculating gaze strays in the direction of the kids, who are little younger than his own daughter, you can see his humanity gradually overtake his habitual self-interest. When the payments runs out, he comes back with more food, now motivated by a pride in saving “my Jews.”
With much of the movie set in a world of perpetual night, In Darkness lives up to its title. But it is brought to life in the note-perfect performance of Wieckiewicz (he’ll next play Lech Walesa in Andrzej Wadja’s new film Walesa). A stocky, beady-eyed Polish everyman with a rough manner and unwavering toughness, he’s about as sentimental as one of the tunnel rats, the classic example of your worst enemy or your best friend. When he crushes the skull of a young German soldier, we understand he’s not a man ever to let conscience get in the way of survival.
Though the conclusion is foregone, Canadian screenwriter David F. Shamoon’s script manages to extract suspense out of Poldek’s ruthless, calculating nature: More than halfway through the film, it still seems plausible that he’ll sell out his Jews for the reward money, and to save his own family. That even this tough nut can crack makes the story that much more moving and, unexpectedly, even hopeful.
- Directed by Agnieszka Holland
- Written by David F. Shamoon
- Starring Robert Wieckiewicz
- Classification: 14A