In the Oscar-nominated drama “In Darkness,” Polish sewer worker and petty thief Leopold Socha is no Miep Gies, the Dutch protector of Anne Frank and her family.
Likewise, the sewer drains and tunnels beneath the city of Lvov that serve as a hiding place for a small group of Jews who escape the liquidation of the ghetto above are a dank and toxic haven nothing like that secret annex that was, for a time, the Franks’ sanctuary.
Yet director Agnieszka Holland’s film quietly insists that it is precisely on the burly shoulders of Socha and his ilk that the hopes for human decency rest from time to time. And “In Darkness” is a moving yet unsentimental addition to the canon of films wrestling with complicity, opportunism and resistance in the face of genocidal madness.
While hiding loot in the bowels beneath the Nazi-occupied town, Socha and his young accomplice, Szczepek, come across the fugitives. They are a diverse bunch led by the black marketeer Mundek (Benno Furmann) and financed by the well-off Ignacy Chiger (Herbert Knaup). Chiger’s wife, Paulina, and their children are the only complete family in the group.
Should the Poles give them up to Socha’s friend Bortnik? The Ukrainian officer is offering rewards for Jews found in the sewers. Or will they extract all they can from the vulnerable bunch at the risk of their own deaths?
“In Darkness” is based the nonfiction book “In the Sewers of Lvov,” by Robert Marshall. Screenwriter David F. Shamoon wanted to make sure the escapees weren’t depicted as abject victims but complicated beings. The ensemble gathered in the shadows aids this desire. The chiseled Furmann gives Mundek a savvy, even moral, brawn. As Paulina, Maria Schrader makes an argument for gentle yet pragmatic maternalism.
Robert Wieckiewicz’ performance as Socha is matched by Kinga Preis, who portrays his wife, Wanda.
They are devout if plain-spoken Catholics. The film makes use of their faith in a number of ways. One particularly potent moment comes as ace cinematographer Jolanta Dylewska’s camera rises from the sluice of sludge in the sewer to a hymn-filled, candlelit Mass taking place in the sanctuary of Our Lady of the Snow above. Where is the darkness? Where is the light?
And there is one laugh line in this beautiful drama. It concerns Jesus. It’s a muted doozy and perhaps a catalyst, too.
(Lisa Kennedy is the movie critic at The Denver Post.)
Three and a half out of four stars
R. 2 hours, 25 minutes.