Sunday, February 26, 2012

In Darkness Movie Review

I wonder if we’ve reached a saturation point where Holocaust films are concerned. Sure, there are millions of stories to be told from that travesty of human failure, but most would probably be fairly similar. Real eye-opening awareness of the horrors of the Holocaust came about in the 70s when documentaries and dramatic films began to crop up in Britain and the United States. In a cultural awareness sense this probably reached its pinnacle with Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List in 1993. Roman Polanski provided a new take on the subject by focusing not on anyone’s heroism or courage but on one man’s blind luck to come out alive in The Pianist. Given all that’s come before I really wonder what drove Polish director Agnieszka Holland to visit the Holocaust for a third time with In Darkness, adapted by David F. Shamoon from Robert Marshall’s book In the Sewers of Lvov which is itself based on a true story. That is generally the nail in the coffin for any criticism leveled at a Holocaust film.


The question you have to ask is if this film adds anything to our knowledge or understanding of history or is it simply enough to tell another story even if it is derivative. I suppose I wouldn’t even ask these questions if the treatment had been better.

How many times can we bear witness to dramatic recreations of the Nazis’ monstrous acts of barbarism and cruelty? When a random Jew is shot in the head in a work camp, you can’t help recall Spielberg’s film with Goeth picking them off from his quarters. A Nazi soldier humiliates a Jew by making him dance while others are tortured. Didn’t we see that in Polanski’s film? We wince as a man’s beard is ripped from his chin along with some skin. Is this truth in cinema or is it just gratuitous?

The story here is not unlike Schindler’s List in that it concerns a gentile who helps a group of Jews for personal financial gain. The main difference being that Oskar Schindler eventually relinquished his personal fortune to keep 1100 Jews alive while Leopold Socha (Robert Wieckiewicz) in this film comes to see his tiny group of survivors as his personal project almost like pets that he’s kept alive. At the liberation of Lvov he proudly proclaims they are “[his] Jews.” Socha is a sewer worker and part-time petty thief who certainly has no love for the Nazi occupiers in his country. But he’s motivated by money and is shocked to learn from his wife that Jesus was a Jew.

As the ghetto is being liquidated a small group of Jews tries to take shelter in the sewers but Socha finds them. He strikes a deal for a daily payout for which he will keep them hidden and supply food. The group he agrees to conceal numbers 11 people initially. These include various stock characters – or caricatures really. There’s the good-looking rogue (Benno Fürmann) who ventures out periodically for supplies; the bookish intellectual (Herbert Knaup) with a wife (Maria Schrader) and two small children; the uneducated dolt who abandoned his wife and daughter to go underground with his mistress.


It’s a shame that Holland has resorted to such mediocre storytelling after her wonderful Europa Europa more than two decades ago which told another true Holocaust story about a teen who passes for a gentile in the Hitler Youth in order to survive. That film and Schindler’s List have more nuance contained within their frames than In Darkness could ever hope for. And let me be clear that I don’t really think much of Schindler’s List.

To Holland’s credit, she doesn’t make her film as emotionally manipulative as other films on the subject. Children in danger is always manipulative as is the Holocaust on film in general, but rather than using a sweeping musical score the film is suffused with what I can only describe as musical rumbling and stretching. It always sounds like instruments played to their breaking points but in slow motion if that makes sense. It creates tremendous tension even while you sit flabbergasted at the sheer number of amazing coincidences that help save the lives of this group, which is itself a kind of emotional manipulation I suppose, and one that took me outside the believability of the story.

As for the visual palette of the film, it lives down to its title by bathing the underground scenes in such shadow and darkness it’s almost always impossible to discern any details let alone individual characters. This is part of the reason the group members don’t really retain any individuality. I had chalked this up to a dim projector bulb, but Roger Ebert notes the same problem, leading me to believe that it was done purposefully. Then I read that Holland shot underground using only available light so the actors wouldn’t have to pretend to be blind. When the Method ends up extending to your audience I think you’ve failed somehow.

Socha is at least a marginally more interesting character than Schindler was because he didn’t act out of goodness at any point. He maintains dehumanized views of the Jewish people straight through the end. Interestingly, this sets up a dynamic through which our sympathies are weighted far heavier in favor of those in hiding. When he is nearly caught by his old military friend and current leader of the Polish Guard colluding with the Nazis, our fears are based more on what will happen to the people in hiding than to Socha himself.

I’m most amazed that the Academy fell for the Holocaust yet again and nominated this film for the foreign language category ahead of what I’m sure were far more worthy entries. If it wins, it will be nothing but craven succumbing to the power of the Shoah and not for any quality of the filmmaking involved.

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