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Grim Humanity

by Shawn Stone on March 29, 2012

In Darkness
Directed by Agnieszka Holland

You can't escape history: In Darkness

Another Holocaust movie?

Yes, another Holocaust movie—and a good one, this time. And by “good,” I mean a drama without easy answers and only tarnished heroes. The Oscar-nominated In Darkness tells the harrowing story of a group of Jews who survived the Nazi occupation of Lvov by living in unspeakable conditions in the city sewers.

Over the centuries, Lvov has been run by Turks, Austrians, Poles, Russians and Ukrainians. As the story begins in 1944, it’s a Polish city with a Jewish ghetto occupied by Germans and Ukrainian Nazis. We meet a small group of ghetto Jews, a mix of locals and European deportees, who know that the “liquidation” of the ghetto is only days away. And so they’re digging a hole in the basement of their overcrowded “home” in order to break into the sewers; the plan is to hide there for as long as it takes the Russians to arrive from the East. Reading between the lines of German propaganda, everyone knows that the end of the war is in sight—but no one is sure how close liberation is.

The filmmaking is so assured that you may not even notice how deftly director Agnieszka Holland incorporates a lot of thorny history into the film, or that she and her collaborators accomplish this without resorting to cumbersome plot points to do this. The breathtaking prologue (it’s not labeled a prologue, but functions as such) introduces the main characters and their relationships, but also takes care to note the base viciousness of the Germans, the anti-Semitism and complicity of the Poles and Ukrainians, and the stark class, sexual and religious divisions that divide the Jews.

When the Jews break into the sewers, they immediately bump into Socha (Robert Wieckiewicz), a Polish sewer worker, and his assistant. Socha’s a wily trader who offers to guide the desperate refugees to a safe place—for a price. The Jews quickly assent. They are led by Mundek (Benno Furman), a working class hero who easily matches wits and strength with Socha, and are funded by (Herbert Knaup) a wealthy, educated family man with a wife and two lovely kids.

The film takes place mostly in the sewers, with only slightly less horrifying scenes above ground in the occupied city. The terror is intimate, and the characters are all too human: The heroes and villains are complex, their actions often terrible, their motives often murky. And this is the strength of In Darkness.