Director Agnieszka Holland depicts Jews in a fascist world where they are forced to delve into the sewers – In Darkness, set in Poland, is based on the novel, ‘Sewers of Lvov’ and was nominated for Best Foreign Language Film at the Oscars this year. The Film stars Robert Wieckiewicz as Leopold Socha, a sewer worker who imposes bribes upon the Jews for their security, and ‘Sin Eater’ actor Brenno Furmann as Murdock, a Jew who frequently ventures outside the safety of the darkness.
What’s unique about In Darkness is we get more of the Jewish perspective, compared to similar films like Schindler’s List. This allows us to see the turmoil among the Jewish community. We see one married man, Janek, making love to another woman in front of his sleeping wife and daughter. We also see a woman named Klara beat her hysterical sister. Holland is successful in how he manages to drag us down into this world of despair.
It seems bleak throughout. Jews are shot on the streets, members of the group are found dead and bribes start to run out. But what puts smiles on faces are the glimmers of hope, like the blankets, found for the Jews in the rubble. Most of this hope comes from Socha, as his hostility turns to warmness. He begins to buy food for the Jews and even hides their existence from the police. However, despite our smiles, deep down we know they can’t stay in the sewers forever. We know, their efforts are in vain.
The high tension between Socha and the Jews keeps us hooked. We hear of how they are ‘ungrateful’ for even the nicest things Socha does for them. In one scene they fight for food he offers. In another, Murdock strangles Socha after he graciously returns a bribe. Relationships are kept distant, so Socha labels them as ‘vermin’ to keep that gap. We find conflict within ourselves, as we don’t know where we should focus our sympathies. This sets up a strong foundation for the film.
Tension unfortunately subsides as relationships cool down. However when this happens, suspense rises. When Socha becomes friends with the Jews, it gives him more responsibility, so we start to fear for his life as well. This allows Holland to emphasise lots of near misses. Socha’s daughter complains in front of an officer, ‘but the apples are for the Jews’, which leaves members of the audience muttering, ‘stupid girl’. The officer walks over to her, leans down and asks ‘what Jews?’ We think that the cover is blown but the daughter picks up her dolls and says, ‘these are my Jews.’ We unclench our seats and exhale.
What is successful about the piece is how the characters are launched into conflict. This includes the sense of justice we feel when they are saved from the various situations. Murdock is the character that is hurled into the most conflict. We see a member of the Gestapo aim a gun at him, but Socha distracts the officer and they bludgeon the officer to death. How In Darkness manages to satisfy us is through this empathy created for the heroes alone, as they force us to tap into our own survival instincts. Therefore, what we experience is a non-stop bleak ride that constantly leaves our hearts squeezing against our rib cages.