New on DVD: In Darkness (2011)

The Poles did not exactly acquit themselves well when it comes to complicity in the Holocaust. All the evidence suggests that they were a fiercely anti-Semitic culture to begin with and that the Nazi occupation simply gave those long-simmering hatreds an official outlet.

And yet there were thousands of individual Poles who defied the authorities and their fellow citizens and provided shelter and comfort to their Jewish neighbors.

Leopold Socha was one such individual. You may not have heard of him, but you’ll never forget him after seeing In Darkness, the latest (and, you could argue, the best) film from Polish director Agnieszka Holland.

Holland has done just about everything a director can do, from quality TV (The Wire, Treme) to adaptations of classics (Washington Square, The Secret Garden). But she has often turned to the question of her country’s complicity in Hitler’s “final solution.”

Angry Harvest (1985) and Europa Europa (1990) both were set in World War II and centered on Jewish characters.

But nothing she’s done has been as powerful as In Darkness.

Leopold Socha (Robert Wieckiewicz) is a pretty typical Pole: a Catholic blue-collar sewer worker with a pleasantly plump wife and a daughter he adores.

He’s also got a criminal streak. Seeing an opportunity to make a few extra bucks, Socha and his younger, dumber co-worker have a sideline looting the houses of Jews who have been relocated to the ghetto. Down in the vermin-infested sewer they have a makeshift bank vault filled with ill-gotten goods.

Yet another opportunity for profit comes when Socha encounters a dozen or so Jews — men, women and children — who have dropped into the sewers to avoid the German troops clearing the ghetto above. He quickly strikes a deal to shelter the fugitives in the tunnels — for a price. He’ll provide food and flashlights as long as the Jews can pay with cash or valuables.

When the money runs out, Socha plans on turning them in to the authorities for a reward.

Problem is, Socha has underestimated his own humanity.

In Darkness (the script is by David F. Shamoon) takes place both above ground and deep beneath the streets and sidewalks. It’s hard to say which world is the more depressing.

Among the Jews there are a variety of types. There’s an intellectual who thinks his education and fat wallet makes him the group’s natural leader. There’s a man who, at a crucial moment, chose to go into hiding with his mistress rather than with his wife and daughter. There’s one pious Jew whose daily rituals mostly generate eye-rolling among his less religious brethren.

One woman hides her pregnancy until going into labor. What to do with a baby whose squalling may bring down disaster upon all of them? There are two elementary school-age children — a boy and a girl — who somehow adapt to the damp, the odors and the dark. They treat the rats like pets.

One of the Jews, Mundek (Benno Fürmann, possessor of one of the greatest faces in movies today) convinces Socha to guide him to a nearby concentration camp where he attempts to extract missing family members. They tell him they’d rather die in the open than dwell in the darkness; he returns to the sewer empty handed.

Through all this Socha is slowly undergoing a transformation. The marvel of Wieckiewicz’s performance is the way the actor portrays the weight of his growing conscience.

When his working buddy expresses amazement upon hearing that Christ was a Jew (apparently the priests never mentioned this fact) Socha holds his tongue — but the look on his face says plenty. Just a few months earlier, he was that ignorant himself.

In time the sewer worker goes from fear of discovery to pride in his ability to keep these people alive. He calls them “my Jews.” He loves them, and he loves the newly discovered humanity within himself. Not that he says so out loud. But the change is unmistakable.

In Darkness is not only a gripping epic of survival (it’s got a running time of nearly 2 1/2 hours), but it’s also a technical masterpiece. The cinematography by Jolanta Dylewska is quite amazing ... the film is dark, illuminated mostly by flashlights and candles, yet so carefully composed and lit that we see everything we need to see.

The sewer itself is like something out of a medieval adventure, with sweating walls, dripping water, arched corridors, and its own variety of wildlife.

Much of In Darkness is tough going. But at the film’s end you will experienced a tremendous surge of emotion.

If there’s hope for a Socha, then there’s hope for everyone.

About the Author

Robert W. Butler is a lifelong Kansas City area resident, a graduate of Shawnee Mission East High School and the William Allen White School of Journalism at the University of Kansas. For several decades he was the movie editor of the Kansas City Star; he now writes a movie-themed blog at butlerscinemascene.com. He joined the Library's Public Affairs team in 2012.

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