Director: Agnieszka Holland
Screenplay: David F. Shamoon
Based on the Novel by: Robert Marshall
Starring: Robert Wieckiewicz, Benno Fürmann, Agnieszka Grochowska
Country: Poland, Germany, Canada
Running Time: 145 min
BBFC Certificate: 15
In Darkness is a Holocaust drama from Polish director Agnieszka Holland, who brought us Europa, Europa as well as acting as a writing consultant/collaborator on the Three Colours Trilogy. Nominated for Best Foreign Language Film at the Oscars this year, this powerful drama heads to UK homes this summer on a wave of hype, but for the more cynical viewers out there do we need another Holocaust movie? What else is there to be said on the subject?
Luckily, Holland's film focusses on a rather unusual true story from Poland during the atrocities of the Second World War rather than the well-told tales of the concentration camps (as obviously important and powerful as they are). In Darkness tells the story of Leopold Socha (Robert Wieckiewicz) a Polish Catholic sewer worker in the Nazi-occupied city of Lwów. When he comes across a group of Jews planning to use the sewers as a refuge he offers to help them, for a hefty fee. Once the Nazis start to put the 'Final Solution' into place though the group is forced to live down there and Socha faces the dilemma of whether or not he should turn them into the Nazis, who also pay well. His conscious gets the better of him, but the situation gets more trying as his wife urges him to leave them be and an officer friend who is helping the Nazis starts to snoop around.
In Darkness is a finely mounted drama with a lot to recommend. Spending much of it's running time in the dark, dank recesses of the sewage system, the film has a grimy look, but the cinematography makes the most of it, with handheld camerawork adding a sense of being there and low key lighting providing a beauty beneath the filth. The music and sound design are strong too, especially during an astonishing climax where a heavy storm threatens the lives of the protagonists. The set-pieces in general are powerfully portrayed. Holland's depiction of the Nazi push to clear the Jews out of the slums is another standout. The violence is swift and harsh and often only briefly glimpsed as the camera tracks characters in long shots. Nothing is glamorised or lingered upon, instead the scene is powered by a manic, intense energy making for a terrifying experience. Speaking of glamorising, the film thankfully refuses to canonise any of its characters either. Even Socha is shown to be a bit of a bastard, especially in the first half of the film.
As powerful as many of the scenes were though, I did have some problems with the film as a whole. After a very promising first third, the film hits a long lull in the middle. This is largely due to the lack of a clear narrative drive once the group are down in the sewers. They're just trying to survive down there and the audience is forced to endure it with them. We get a few character arcs to provide a crux for the film, but these rarely go anywhere fast, and Socha's line is pretty clear from the offset. Yes we follow the group dynamics, but again these don't undergo many massive changes. This all goes to create a film that, due to it's obviously horrific subject matter, is more of an endurance test than an engaging cinematic story. Maybe that's the point, but it is a hard film to get through, especially given its length. In my opinion it could have remained an equally, if not more profound piece at a manageable 2 hours.
The climax (as mentioned previously) and a poignant, but unsentimental finale help redeem matters after the long slog of the mid-section and I don't want to bash the film too much. It's an undoubtedly strong piece of work and deserves to be seen, but is much tougher going than it needs to be with its meandering pace and excessive length. It's a film I would safely recommend, but with a minor warning.
In Darkness is out now on DVD, released by Metrodome. As expected for a new release, the picture and sound quality are great.
There's only one special feature of note and that is In Light, a behind the scenes featurette running at 26 minutes. This is actually more than just a run of the mill backslapping session though as it centres around an interview between director Agnieszka Holland and Krystyna Chiger, one of the actual survivors of the ordeal. As well as talking about her experiences and thoughts on the film she discusses the memoirs she has written on the period called The Girl in the Green Sweater: A Life in Holocaust's Shadow (released after the film was in pre-production, which was based on In the Sewers of Lvov by Robert Marshall). This is a fascinating added extra to the film as it really drives home the fact that these events actually happened and it's interesting to hear what happened 'straight from the horses mouth' so to speak.