MOVIE REVIEW: ‘In Darkness’

A poignant piece of ‘defeated art’

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I’m of two minds about “In Darkness,” a film about a Polish sewer worker who shelters a group of Jews from the Lvov ghetto during the last days of the Nazi occupation in 1943. Based on a 1991 nonfiction book by Robert Marshall, the film — an Oscar nominee for best foreign film — places its emphasis on a sliver of feel-good anecdote that threatens to diminish the larger history it taps.

It’s a moving story, made more poignant by the transformation of its protagonist Leopold Socha (Robert Wieckiewicz) from anti-Semitic con man to selfless humanitarian. Yet it’s exactly the sort of movie anticipated (and dreaded) by Elie Wiesel in his moving 1989 essay, “Art and the Holocaust: Trivializing Memory.” The Holocaust, Mr. Wiesel wrote, “defeated art, because just as no one could imagine Auschwitz before Auschwitz, no one can now retell Auschwitz after Auschwitz.”

While “In Darkness” isn’t literally about Auschwitz, it is an effort to locate a grain of heroism amid the most catastrophic failure of moral courage in human history. The camera cannot convey the unspeakable reality of the Holocaust, and even if it could, such a film would not make a fit subject for commercial cinema. Instead, we get films like “Schindler’s List” and “Life Is Beautiful,” which, with noble intent, mix kitsch with horrific imagery. The result invariably softens and sentimentalizes the subject matter for human consumption. “In Darkness” is squarely in this camp.

The film has other flaws. For one thing, the civilian population is depicted largely as callous but non-acting bystanders to the depredations visited on the Jews of the Lvov ghetto. Instead, Ukrainian troops backing the Nazis are depicted as some of the worst and most ruthless hunters of Jews. It is one of these, a Ukrainian officer named Bortnik (Michal Zurawski), who knows Socha and promises him bounties for recovering any Jews that might be hiding in the Lvov sewers.

It’s this bargain that sets up Socha for the conflict that has him teetering between villainy and heroism. His original plan is to bilk the Jews, led by the charismatic Mundek Margulies (Benno Furmann), for weekly payments until their money runs out. Once that happens, he intends to sell them to the Ukrainians. But along the way, Socha begins to identify with the terrorized, dehumanized Jews, and despite his reflexive anti-Semitism, begins to actively thwart the Nazi occupation and its agents.

“In Darkness” may be kitsch, and it may indulge in a bit of historical score settling, but it is also an impressive piece of filmmaking. The scenes set in the sewers are genuinely claustrophobic. The naturalistic acting style of the European stars is well-suited to the film, and there is a great deal of complexity in the relations between the Jews who manage to buy their way into Socha’s care.

Mr. Wiesel’s point, that “the Holocaust is not a subject like all the others,” is well-taken. On balance, “In Darkness” is a moving tribute to an unsung hero, despite the movie’s melodramatic leanings.

★★★

TITLE: “In Darkness”

CREDITS: Directed by Agnieszka Holland; written by David F. Shamoon, based on the book by Robert Marshall

RATING: R for violence, sexuality and scenes of depravity

RUNNING TIME: 145 minutes; in Polish, German, Yiddish and Ukrainian with English subtitles

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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