In Darkness Reviews

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Super Reviewer
January 21, 2014
The very best movie I have seen in years. It's 1943 in Nazi-occupied Poland. The Warsaw Ghetto has fallen and captured Jews are being shipped to death camps. Persecuted on all sides by Germans, Poles and Ukrainian Nazi-collaborators there is nowhere to look but below the manholes into the waste and rat-infested sewers running below the city of Lvov. Polish sewer worker Leopold Socha and his friend Sczcepek are willing to give refuge to the Jews as a means of supplementing their income. It's risky as discovery would mean certain death for them and their families as well. Director Agnieszka Holland, screenwriter David F. Shamoon and cinematographer Jolanta Dylewska have vividly recreated the horrors of that period in "In Darkness". The "Darkness" encompasses the ignorance, sadism and blind hatred of the era as well as the subterranean world in which a handful of people cling to life. Robert Wieckiewicz gives a great performance as Socha. A simple man he is reticent to question the authorities or commonly held prejudices. The supporting cast is excellent including Weronika Rosati as a woman who's concealing a secret that could jeopardize all their lives and Agnieszka Grochowska as Klara who loses her younger sister when she flees the sewers. Based on Robert Marshall's book "In the Sewers of Lvov" this is tough stuff and a powerful indictment of our capacity for cruelty and hypocrisy. 5 stars 1-20-14
Daniel Mumby
Super Reviewer
September 10, 2012
Even as we near the 70th anniversary of VE Day, the Holocaust remains a sensitive and difficult subject to portray on film. Merely talking about a perceived 'Holocaust film genre' cheapens the pain and sacrifice endured by those who survived one of humanity's lowest points. Such a term risks turning said pain and sacrifice into a series of generic conventions, to which all subsequent depictions of the Holocaust must bend in place of telling the truth.

But despite the familiarity of both its narrative and subject matter, In Darkness avoids most of the traps into which 'Holocaust films' are liable to fall. Agnieszka Holland has experience in the 'genre', having made her name in Europe as the director of Europa Europa, a compelling drama about a Jewish boy who survives the war by pretending to be German. In her most personal film since that time, she presents a gripping story of human triumph and tragedy which manages to be respectful, insightful and dramatically engaging.

On first impressions, In Darkness merits a very close comparison with Schindler's List. Both films have the same central idea, of good deeds being able to emerge from bad intentions in a time of great crisis. Both have central characters, in Oskar Schindler and Leopold Socha, who begin as questionable, business-minded individuals who undergo a transformation and embrace compassion and sacrifice. And both films, in their own way, attempt to offer some kind of hope for the audience in the midst of undeniable tragedy.

One's opinion of In Darkness will therefore be swayed by one's opinion of Schindler's List. If you regard Steven Spielberg's film as a masterpiece, which deserved every award and kind word that it got, you will probably look upon this film as a well-meaning but ultimately second-rate version of the same character study (the phrase "Schindler's List-lite" doesn't seem appropriate). If, on the other hand, you regard Spielberg's film is an admirable failure, whose good intentions were never fully realised, then this is the film that takes the same emotional arc and gets it right.

The central problem with Schindler's List was the mismatch between the sombre, serious subject matter and Spielberg's sensibility as an entertainer (or, as Dan Aykroyd put it, an "artist-industrialist"). Spielberg had nothing but the best intentions behind making the film, not even taking a fee for his troubles, and sections of Schindler's List are appropriately bleak and grim. The trouble is that he is unable to sustain the ambiguity needed to make Schindler a truly compelling character, resorting to sentimentality through the girl in the red dress when being clinical would have worked much better. As his good friend Stanley Kubrick put it: "Schindler's List is about success. The Holocaust was about failure."

In Darkness succeeds for this very reason: there is a great deal more ambiguity surrounding the characters, and more legwork for the audience to do as we try to pin down their thoughts and motivations. We are meant to spend a sizeable part of the film either distant from Socha or actively disliking him. His appeal comes not just from his emotional transformation, but the way that Holland humanises him so that we understand his position, just as we care about Harry Lime in The Third Man in spite of the horrors he has perpetrated or allowed to happen.

Like The Third Man, a sizeable part of the film takes place in the sewers. But while Carol Reed's film made the place seem faintly artistic, shooting them in a vaguely expressionist manner, there is no such glamour in Holland's film. The sewers of Lvov (which Socha knows "better than his own wife") are as dark and rancid as you would expect, with every square inch either filled with rats, stagnant water or excrement. But because the film's tone and performances are so naturalistic, we never feel like we are being forced into repulsion at the squalor, and thereby being made to sympathise with the Jews. The film is shot so simply and yet so evocatively that you can almost feel the grime on the walls, or the freezing, filthy water swirling around your ankles.

The cinematography of In Darkness is pale and washed out in such a way that both evokes the period and assists the storytelling. Jolanta Dylewska fills the screen with greys, browns and other pale colours to recreate the burden being placed on the city by German occupation. The only bright moments (at least, in terms of lighting) come in the bar where Socha and his Nazi colleague are drinking, and for a few early moments of intimacy between Socha and his wife. Holland's camerawork compliments these choices very well, especially in one well-judged pan from the squalor of the sewers to a low shot of some polished shoes on the cobbles just above them.

Being a film about the Holocaust, and a 15 certificate like Schindler's List, there are moments in In Darkness which are harrowing or uncomfortable to sit through. One such moment involves a character called Mundek (Berno Fürmann) attempting to enter a camp to find one of the Jewish women who ran away rather than take her chances underground. When he is found to not have a cap, with which to doff to the officers on horseback, the man next to him in shot and his cap is given to him. This scene treads close to a similar one in Schindler's List, but it is still pretty shocking in its own right.

Another example which proves Holland's mettle as a filmmaker comes when one of the women in the sewers give birth. We see the characters debating as to whether she should have the child, which is the result of an affair, and the mixture of joy and trauma on the woman's face when she holds the baby in her arms. Soon that trauma turns to despair, and she ends up smothering the baby rather than let it grow up among the horrors that surround them. It's a truly heart-breaking scene, not only for its content but for its symbolism: the death of a child in cinema often represents a loss of hope, and the ease with which the mother takes such a decision conveys just how desperate their circumstances are.

Although I began by comparing this film to Schindler's List, one could argue that scenes such as this, which focus on endurance and survival, put the film much closer to The Pianist. The distinguishing factor between these films is largely one of ends: Schindler's List is about reaching a hopeful resolution, while The Pianist celebrates survival as the embodiment of hope, focussing on the means and not the end. Ultimately In Darkness falls short of Polanski's film in conveying this idea, but the extent to which it tries prevents us from labelling the film as melodramatic.

The two biggest strengths of In Darkness in such familiar territory are the central performance and its ending. Robert Wi?ckiewicz really inhabits Leopold Socha and does justice to his transformation, constantly pulling back from any big emotional outburst so that every subtle shift in his attitude becomes magnified in its impact. We believe his frustration with his family and co-workers, feel his terror when his daughter blurts out about the Jews, and experience his ultimate happiness in the final scene. It's a very engaging performance which anchors the film and all the horrors it throws at us.

Just as the film as a whole could be read as either a story of hope or of survival, so the ending can either be seen as a humanistic triumph or a spiritual one. Holland, a practising Catholic, is very careful to neither affirm nor rebuke the faith of either the audience or the characters, making the joy and rapture we feel all the more personal and powerful. The music is relatively understated in this section, as is the symbolism of the characters coming into the light, so that we can simply experience the joy of being alive as they would have done.

In Darkness is a very fine piece of work which succeeds where Schindler's List ultimately came unstuck. While it is too long at 2-and-a-half hours, and doesn't contribute any ground-breaking insight into the subject, it is more than engaging as a piece of drama and is highly compelling on an emotional level. The Pianist remains the benchmark for films which tackle this period in history, but Holland's film is a welcome addition to the 'canon', and will engage and satisfy anyone with an interest in the period.
Super Reviewer
½ August 19, 2012
Yet another horrible view of Holocaust times, and based on a true event. Not an easy watch, due to the fact that it spends almost an entire 2hrs plus in a disgusting, dark, rat infested sewer. Disturbing, well done, and unbelievably sad.
Super Reviewer
½ September 5, 2012
A great film that falls just short of classic status, due to a few historical inaccuracies and unnecessary eroticism. Still well worth seeking out, especially if you're fan of world cinema.
Super Reviewer
January 12, 2013
We've seen many Holocaust films that seem to focus on the tragedy which is where In Darkness standouts. It doesn't remind us again that the Holocaust is bad and the Nazi was plain evil, but instead explores the human complexity from the point of view of those who suffered and those courageous to lend an helping hand.

In Darkness is a dramatization of one man's rescue of Jewish refugees in the Nazi-occupied Polish city of Lvov. The Holocaust and the war taking place during the 1940s is merely in the background. It's more about the actual people here than actual tragedy. We get human characters and witness what the Jews had to go through during this time. Whereas other films would merely showcase Nazi killing Jews for us to sympathies with the victims this film chooses to ignore the violence. This makes the film stronger because you're not be focus on hating the Nazi for what the mass killing, but rather focus on the people who had to endure terrible living conditions (in a sewer for several years I might add) in order to live. The film contains fleshed out characters that make the whole experience inspiring. Even in the darkest of time and worst of conditions these people were still able to maintain their hope. The cast is excellent and the cinematography is very good. Though I could have done without the unnecessary eroticism.

In Darkness is different of Holocaust movie that focuses on people rather than a broad over view of the tragedy. If you want a film that shows the human side of the tragedy you can't go wrong with In Darkness.
Super Reviewer
½ March 5, 2012
Leopold(Robert Wieckiewicz) and Stefek(Krzysztof Skonieczny) are a pair of thieves operating in Nazi occupied Lvov in 1942. One day, in the sewers where Leopold works his day job, they hear a noise which turns out to be from the ghetto with the Jews planning on using the sewers for a hiding place of their own. Leopold agrees to help for 500 a day and then later feels he should have asked for more. But before any plans can be solidified by Leopold and his new clients, the Nazis put their plans into effect of liquidating the ghetto, forcing him into action. So, it's good that he recently renewed the acquaintance of Mundek(Benno Furmann), a Ukrainian officer who he knew from jail, who is allied with the Nazis. But even with the unintentional help, Leopold soon realizes there are too many to care for properly and puts the upper limit at 11.

Incredibly based on a true story, "In Darkness" splits its story between above and below ground, with differing results between technical and dramatic spheres. I applaud the movie for going with natural lighting as much as possible below ground, making the claustrophobia and darkness characters themselves, while taking advantage of sudden shifts in elevation to emphasize the refugees' condition with a judicious deployment of rats. And it did seem brighter than usual when I left the movie theater.

On the other hand, in an attempt to detail the lives below ground, the movie veers too closely to soap opera at times, instead of concentrating on the details that make survival possible. By comparison, Leopold evolves from someone who does the right thing for the wrong reason to someone who cares below the surface, with a face that only a mother or his wife(Kinga Preis) could love. This all just goes to show you that we all wish the best in humanity, even in a time of atrocities being committed just out of sight.
Super Reviewer
March 4, 2012
Nominated for Best Foreign Film at the 2012 Academy Awards, Agnieszka Holland's IN DARKNESS, is the poor man's SCHINDLER'S LIST, and I mean that as a high compliment. Now don't get me wrong. I think Spielberg made a masterpiece with his Shoah epic, but Holland earns astute emotions and mines similar themes yet in a more intimate setting. Based on the true story of a Polish sewer worker who charged a small group of Jewish refugees a daily fee to squat in the filthy sewers beneath the city.

The title of the film is apt, as so much of it takes place in utter darkness. At almost two and a half hours in length, we feel every minute of their intensely long hiding. Like Schindler, our main character, Leopold Socha, played wonderfully by Robert Wieckiewicz, is an opportunist rather than a Jewish sympathizer. In fact, his anti-semitism is much more overt than Schindler's. On the other hand, his wife Wanda, an incredible Kinga Preis, is much more liberal at the outset, but wants to turn her back on the Jews when she fears for her life and that of her family. Their story is so searing, so vivid and unsentimental. It's no wonder I was more drawn to it than to the lives of the various Jews here. While all terrific actors who are given one horrifying scene after another to endure, their plight isn't as layered as that of Socha.

There is one exception, and it's played by Benno Furmann, who is the love child of a Patrick Wilson/Josh Lucas bromance. Playing a man who leaves the sewers to escape INTO a concentration camp to save someone's life, he has leading man written all over her face. He easily commands the screen in all of his scenes.

One of my all-time favorite critics, Roger Ebert, dismissed this film by saying that we've seen it all before. As much as I respect his opinion, I disagree. Usually films about this period in history tend to glorify the Jewish characters and they make every moment epic. IN DARKNESS does just the opposite. The Jews are just as flawed as any other characters here, as flawed as anybody would be when facing unreal, desperate circumstances. This is not a hyped up film. Something as simple as rainfall becomes an exciting action sequence, but it's played with an ingenious, dispassionate touch that Holland has always brought to her work.
July 2, 2012
The story may drag a bit in the beginning, but the second-half of the movie really pays it off. This true story of the existence of humaneness in times of war and hardship in the 1940s Poland brings up a painful reminder that any of us can bring the best or the worst in us at any given time... All we have to do is just choose.
June 21, 2012
This Oscar nominee for Best Foreign Language Film tells the true story of Leopold Socha (Robert Wieckiewicz, terrific), a Polish sewer worker and thief in the city of Lvov, now held by the Nazis. Leopold takes money to hide a group of Jews in the underground sewers he knows so well. Taken from Robert Marshall's non-fiction book, In The Sewers of Lvov, In Darkness offers an unflinching look at the choices of those deemed heroes and those deemed victims. It's looking for more than the uplifting heroism of Steven Spielberg's Schindler's List. Polish director Agnieszka Holland (Europa, Europa, a triumph) make sus feel every filthy, rat-infested detail of living in sewers. It's a harrowing viewing experience, especially when Jews are subjected to public humiliation, and victim to a ferocious rainstorm while in the sewers. Holland means for us to be shaken. That we are.
½ May 22, 2012
What the fuck? Does the Holocaust need to be sexy? The ending is emotional, but the film doesn't entirely earn it. Instead it rides on our memories and cultural histories with the Holocaust while showing us a totally bland story. Wieckiewicz is often excellent however, and a few moments do manage to stand out as authentic both viscerally and emotionally.
½ March 8, 2012
Although this was a beautifully made film, it dragged on way too long. I found myself impatiently tapping my foot, waiting for something dramatic or waiting for the movie to end. However, it was a good historical portrayal of what actually happened and it certainly made me want to get out of the theatre like the Jews wanted to get out of that sewer.
March 2, 2012
A chillingly realistic film of a real Polish Holocaust story with great acting and perfect film grammar.
½ February 13, 2015
So great a movie that we feel we're there with them. Brilliant!
December 18, 2014
Its always good to tell the story of someone who stepped up and was brave enough to help any Jews during WWII. A remarkable showing of what people will go through if pushed to their limits. Somewhat longer than it needed to be and an odd amount of sexual situations that didn't seem to fit, but another piece of history that should be rightfully told.
January 25, 2014
Loved it, and plan on reading the book, "The girl in the green sweater."
½ February 12, 2012
So. I'm going to start this off by saying this is a rough two and half hours. Not rough in terms of film making, but rough in terms of "this is a Holocaust movie about Jews living in a sewer for a year" rough. Director Agnieszka Holland doesn't shy away from showing the brutality of their situation and of the time period in general. Basically, this movie is one depressing situation after another. But don't get me wrong, this movie is also very good. I really liked the realistic portrayal of the main character, as he starts out helping them only for personal gain, and then we see him grow as a person as he starts realizing that they are people too. I loved his wife, Wanda, she is a great character. Also, the group of people that ended up staying in the sewers was also interesting. They were not friends, only four of them were family, and not all of them even liked each other, they all just got thrown into this situation and had to deal with. This was mostly very quickly paced, and was fairly good at transitioning the jumps in time, although it did lack a little into the second half. Also for me, the fact that the resolution obviously took place months after the climax didn't quite work. It was this huge tension filled moment in the sewers...and then it was a fast forward to a least a few months later and it was the ending of the movie. But I will say, this is worth a watch for the story, which is even more remarkable because it was true.
½ August 10, 2013
It's another version of Schindler's List, except not quite as powerful. It's definitely a well-done film (both directing and acting are spot-on), but there just isn't enough drama in this movie to justify its length. The pacing is off and I was quite bored through most of it. The last 30 minutes are the best part, if only the rest of the film engaged you as much and moved as purposefully as the last 30 minutes, it would have been a much better film.
August 3, 2013
Una historia más de judíos salvados por una persona con algo de consciencia. Esta vez es en Polonia donde un personaje cobró por esconder a una docena de judios por 14 meses mientras los rusos llegaron a invadir y a expulsar alemanes. Más de lo mismo de siempre.
½ February 4, 2012
Were all those erotic scenes really necessary?
April 24, 2013
Yes, it's a WWII film, similar to so many others that tell stories of how some Jews were able to survive with the help others. The similarity doesn't make it any less hard-hitting or less valuable to watch, learn and remember. The emotions we experience with the hidden Jews and their helper are real; and they also remind us that life still goes on, despite what evils we dream up. The final line of the film is so telling, so heartfelt, so poignant. (Robert Wieckiewicz is pretty good as the helper).
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