A couple of decades ago, I saw back-to-back pretty terrific films from Polish director Agnieszka Holland. The first was called ‘Europa Europa” here in the states, and the next release went by the title of “Olivier, Olivier”. She received a lot of praise for the first film(including a Best Screenplay Oscar nomination after winning the Golden Globe for Best Foreign Language Film in 1992), and then fine support for her follow-up two years later. Holland than dropped that double title thing and directed 4 more films of varying quality throughout the 1990’s. Most of her helming duties for the last ten years have been of the television variety(with multiple episodes of the HBO series “The Wire” and “Treme”, among others), so it was a pleasure to see Ms. Holland enter into the feature film-making world again after a 5-year hiatus. And Agnieszka roars back strong with the harrowing “In Darkness”, a 2012 nominee for Best Foreign Language Film, and the 3rd of the 5 to be reviewed in my SIP ’12 project. I’m not certain how many Holocaust themed films I’ve visited over the last 30 years or so, but it’s at least a couple dozen. Some have been outstanding(Roman Polanski’s 2002 “The Pianist” immediately comes to mind), some have been awful(like Edward Zwick’s 2008 “Defiance”, a film I’ve heard praised by certain friends and relatives over the last few years—which proves to me again how otherwise very intelligent people can be immune to tin-eared dialogue and hack-level direction)and a whole lot fall right in the middle somewhere. I believe that “In Darkness” falls comfortably into that middle section—probably on the high-end of it. It’s a solid return for Ms. Holland, and a welcome entry in the ever-expanding canon regarding this particular subject matter.
We are in Nazi-occupied Poland in 1943, and the situation is becoming increasingly desperate for the area’s Polish Jews. Already forcibly corralled into the Lvov Ghetto, they are soon faced with complete extermination as the Germans speed up the massacre of the remaining inhabitants. Enter Leopold Socha(an excellent Robert Wieckiewicz), a part-time thief and full-time sewer inspector who(for a price)will risk his life(and therefore the welfare of his wife and young daughter)by agreeing to hide a certain amount of Jews in the labyrinthine sewer system. What follows is part adventure story, part sobering drama as we witness various close calls, like discovery and near-drownings, while at the same time not shying away from the difficult realities of starvation, isolation, jealousy, fear, sex, identity and child-bearing in an underground haven smelling of shit and crawling with rats. It never gets any easier to watch this stuff(it shouldn’t), and you’ll get a two-plus hour dose of horrendous situations and conditions here. You’ll arrive at the end credits to learn that Leopold Socha and his wife were eventually awarded the title of “Righteous among the Nations” in Israel, an honor that Leopold was unable to collect in person as his destiny took an ironic and unfortunate turn not long after the events chronicled in the film.
Two quick things. One is sentimentality and how to authentically use it. You’ll occasionally be begging for some relief here from the dire situations depicted, so some softness and kindness can go a long way. However, directors should still strive to avoid scenes resembling the somewhat-derided, Liam Neeson “two more people” speech in 1993’s Best Picture recipient, “Schindler’s List” from Steven Spielberg. Does Holland accomplish this? Well, yes and no. She steers clear of such depictions for most of the running time, before finally getting a bit syrupy in the third act. And the finale comes dangerously close to insulin injection territory. But enough of it feels earned to make it acceptable. The next is the issue of release dates. After further research, it turns out that “In Darkness” did have a brief December 2011 run in New York and L.A., before expanding to other cities in February of this year. I cite this because in an earlier post I declared that only “A Separation”, the eventual winner among the five nominees for Best Foreign Language Film, was viewable in the States during the calender year of 2011. I stand corrected. Release dates are a tricky thing for reviewers. I tend to go with the North American release date for most films, but ignoring that if the films are shown exclusively at festivals. I get tripped up sometimes, but I think generally I’m on the money. “In Darkness” is generally on the money too, and I think it will alternately stir and haunt you. We’ll never run out of Holocaust stories I reckon, and this one is definitely worth a look.