Agnieszka Holland is a half-Jewish director, born in Warsaw several years after the Second World War, who has had a varied and illustrious film career. She was assistant director on her mentor Andrzej Wajda’s Danton (1983), and directed films of her own in Poland, like the grim, political A Lonely Woman (1981). After 1981 most of her films, such as Olivier, Olivier (1992) and Washington Square (1997), were made elsewhere in Europe and in the United States. In recent years, she has directed episodes of David Simon’s two striking HBO series, The Wire and Treme.
Holland, whose paternal grandparents were killed in the Warsaw ghetto and whose Catholic mother served in the Polish underground and helped save Jewish families, is probably best known for her Holocaust films: the psychologically penetrating Angry Harvest (1985), which received an Academy Award nomination for Best Foreign Language Film, and Europa Europa (1990), her best known and critically acclaimed film. Holland has said that both Jewish and Gentile sensibilities exist within her. Consequently, all three of her Holocaust films deal with the complex relationship of victimized Jews to Gentiles in worlds—German, Polish, and Ukrainian—that either initiated or collaborated in the destruction of the Jews.
In Darkness centers on the real life story of Leopold Socha (drawing on the book In the Sewers of Lvov by Robert Marshall), who helped a number of Jews hide from the Nazis in the sewers of Lvov—a city then in Eastern Poland, now a part of the Ukraine (and known as Lviv). Socha, or Poldek (Robert Wieckiewicz), is an ordinary sewer worker and a burglar with a potato-like face and a direct, plain manner who, without giving it much thought, is prone to stereotyping Jews—the kind of reflexive anti-Semitism that many Poles of that time shared.
Nevertheless, he and a younger friend and criminal associate, Szczepek (Krzysztof Skonieczny), help a group of Jews escape the Nazis and their Ukrainian allies’ violent liquidation of the ghetto by hiding them in the sewers, in exchange for cash. Socha knows every byway in the labyrinthine sewer tunnels, which he used as hiding places for his loot. In Darkness, at its core, is about Socha’s transformation from sleazy opportunist into the risk-taking, almost possessed savior of “my Jews.”
Holland does not romanticize the diverse group of Jews who go into hiding. Among them are a cultivated, wealthy, German-speaking couple, the Chigers (Maria Schrader and Herbert Knaup), and their two children; a volatile, philandering husband and his mistress; a pious man who is always praying; a drug addict; two children; a handsome con man and courageous tough guy Mundek (Benno Fürmann), who has a powerful will to survive; and the compassionate, sensitive woman he falls in love with, Klara (Agnieszka Grochowska). The group fights among themselves, and three men desert only to die in the sewers.
But if Holland avoids sentimentalizing these victimized Jews—turning them into paragons of virtue—she also fails to individuate them. Early on in the film it’s hard to distinguish one from another in the near darkness of the sewers, but even when we begin to see them as separate people they are rendered without much nuance.
Socha’s story is rooted in fact, but the account of his shift from an ignorant, somewhat brutal man to a heroic figure—who acts with great sweetness toward the Chiger children, ultimately refuses to take money from “his Jews,” and leaves his daughter’s first communion to risk death in the midst of a flood to save them—lacks the internality necessary to make it more believable. Socha’s warm, loving relationship with his daughter and wife does suggest a gentler, more caring part of his personality earlier in the film. And his wife, Wanda (Kinga Preis), turns out to be a sympathetic soul—no heroine, but full of Christian charity and untouched by anti-Semitic feeling. Still, though Socha is the most developed character in the film, his transformation is not fully convincing.
Socha and Mundek ultimately form a close connection after spending time at each other’s throats. It is troubling how unsurprising this is. These stoical petty criminals overcome their differences when they join together in killing a German soldier who threatens their lives, and discover that neither is a bad guy, that they respect each other, and that the gap between Jews and Poles can be bridged.
Holland, however, manages to evoke the claustrophobic, dank, malodorous, rat-ridden world they hide in. Shot underground, the film’s only light sources in underground scenes are the flashlights that the characters use. At times their world turns pitch black. Holland doesn’t aestheticize the world of the sewers as Wajda does in his more expressionistic film about the Warsaw Uprising, Kanal (1957). Rather than aim for a striking use of light and shadow, Holland and her cinematographer Jolanta Dylewska try to convey the reality of surviving in such an inhospitable environment, and they succeed brilliantly. In addition, they catch the sensation of leaving the world of darkness for the world of light outside, in a dazzling shot where Socha lifts the Chigers’s little girl, who has not seen daylight in fourteen months, through a manhole cover into the light. The external world may be dangerous, but it offers a breath of freedom.
In Darkness clearly has its artistic limits—at times it seems too familiar and predictable—but it remains an emotionally affecting film. Holland tries not to exploit the usual Holocaust film images of Nazi barbarism. Though the film carries scenes of the SS oppressing Jews by making them dance, shaving their beards, and casually dehumanizing and raping and killing them, most of the violence occurs off screen. Like in Schindler’s List (1993) and The Pianist (2002), it is survival rather than annihilation that is foregrounded.
Though stunningly shot and filled with virtuosic set-pieces, Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List remains a mainstream Hollywood film, with a heroic protagonist and a story packed with cliffhangers. In Darkness is a much quieter, less sensational film, and closer in spirit to The Pianist—which was directed by a Polish-born Jew, Roman Polanski, who escaped the Krakow ghetto at seven and whose mother died in Auschwitz. It’s the anti-Schindler’s List of Holocaust films, gaining its emotional strength by depicting the Holocaust’s horrors without ever revving up the action and suspense or romanticizing its Jewish victims. The Pianist’s perspective is a modest one. The events in the film are seen from the point of view of the protagonist, Wladek (Adrien Brody), who is neither a hero nor anti-hero, but a man obsessed with music. He survives because of luck, not courage. Because he’s so remote and silent, the audience is able to go beyond his personal fate and grasp the Holocaust as a collective tragedy.
In Darkness also avoids most Hollywood conventions, and it consciously tries to project a complex perspective on events. But there is something simplistic, however true, about Socha’s heroism, which makes Holland’s a less powerful and penetrating film.
Leonard Quart is the coauthor of American Film and Society Since 1945 and a contributing editor at Cineaste.