Agnieszka Holland’s In Darkness, about the rescue of Jewish refugees by a Polish sewer worker, creates a cramped and dank universe of close calls, shallow morality and survival instincts. That it reminded me constantly of better movies made about similar material, some directed by Holland herself, somewhat diminishes the overall effect of what is a moving and stark picture.
It’s the start of the war and Lwów’s Jews are living disenfranchised in the ghettos under the watchful eye of the Nazis and the even more watchful eyes of shrewd Polish Catholics like Leopold Socha (Robert Więckiewicz) who can blackmail the Jews against the Nazis to shake them down. Soon the ghettos are flushed out by the Nazis and some escape into the sewers where Socha, an expert on the tunnels, agrees to protect a group for a fee. Eventually, the anti-Semite Socha begins to connect with the individuals in his charge and ceases to define them by their religion. As the risks get higher, he becomes more and more selfless and continues to provide his protection and insight long after the money has run out.
Polish movies have had much to say on their homeland’s experience during World War II and in many ways In Darkness is the heir of Andrzej Wajda’s Kanał (1956). In fact, Holland was an assistant on a number of Wajda’s films but the student lacks the immediacy of the teacher’s picture; which also takes place mainly in sewers. In Darkness shares a lot of DNA with Spielberg’s Schindler’s List (1993), also about an opportunist that gradually does the right thing, but doesn’t come anywhere near the charm of the earlier movie. Schindler’s List a charming movie? In so much that it seduces you the way Liam Neeson’s Schindler seduces those around him; it makes his transformation that much more believable. Więckiewicz’s Socha, while finely played, is rougher around the edges; he seems to have more to lose, making his reversal harder to buy. Also, his conversion is more simplistic, a charge often laid at Schindler’s feet. Holland’s strength is not in physical dread, as in Kanał but in the psychological fear of discovery. This is best on display in her brilliant Europa Europa (1990), which follows the attempt of a Jewish boy to stay undiscovered in the Hitler youth, but it shines through here as the toll of life in the sewers is compounded and compounded in a way that 1956 wouldn’t allow Wajda to show. However, these emotional gains are undone by the taxing logistical issues of staging a movie in a cramped sewer, issues that seemed to have overwhelmed the director. Wajda faces even more difficult conditions in Kanał and created a clear narrative, during In Darkness we spend too much time squinting for intelligible action. Wajda is twice the visual thinker often giving us better images in his opening shots than Holland can muster up during the entirety of In Darkness, I’m thinking specifically of the long tracking brilliance that opens up Kanał, of the fraught tension of the first moments of Katyn (2007) which shows Polish refugees fleeing the Germans from the East just to cross a bridge and encounter the invading Russians from the West and of the coming doom of the French Revolution that is ushered in by dawn and a carriage at the top of Danton (1983), which, playing fair, Holland was the assistant director of.
It is of course unfair to judge Holland’s movie against the best portions of Polish and Holocaust cinema but must be mentioned because it was all I thought about and Holland didn’t do much to keep my attention onto her movie, which is in many places quiet good. Więckiewicz is very good as Socha, he reminded me of Stellan Skarsgård, whom he resembles, in Zero Kelvin (1995), angry and a little insane. He is starring in Wajda’s upcoming biopic about Lech Wałęsa, a man Wajda has dedicated a section of his career to. In In Darkness, he’s undercut by the script that wants to give away all his secrets. The movie is better before it gets into the sewers. There we see civilization trying to behave normally while it disintegrates all around. People can’t eat and could be shot at any moment but they have sex and cheat on each other. Perhaps a completely original film could have been made in those sewers but we’ll have to settle for a pretty good retread of others.