The quandary of so many Holocaust films is how to show now-familiar horrors without making them seem rote, like some sort of laundry list of degradation.
It's one the legendary Polish director Agniezska Holland (Europa, Europa) faces in In Darkness, which initially, at least, feels like so many other Holocaust films we have seen before. Set inside and outside a Jewish ghetto of 1943 Lvov, Poland (now the Ukraine), this 2012 Academy Award-nominated Best Foreign Language Film, which is based on a true story, opens with quickly paced scenes of humiliation — a callous murder, the rounding up of the Jews in one final push — that barrel past the viewer.
As tension builds inside the ghetto, a group of Jewish men have been digging a tunnel from their cramped quarters into the elaborate sewer system beneath Lvov. Once inside the sewers, they are beyond the reach of the Nazis, but they're initially preyed upon by two Polish sewer workers, Leopold Socha (Robert Wieckiewicz) and Szczepek (Krzysztof Skonieczny). In addition to their day jobs, the men moonlight as petty thieves, and they are more than happy to take the money of the Jews living below the earth. They agree to lead a group of them deeper into the sewers. As long as they continue to pay him, Leopold keeps their secret, though he never loses his distaste for the business at hand. Every situation they face only affirms his disgust for the Jews in his care.
Like a shepherd with a flock, Leopold is one of the few people able to navigate the sewers and find his way in and out. The intricate system is both the salvation of the Jews hiding there, and their horrifying predicament. They escape so far into the bowels of the sewer they become utterly removed from the "normal" world above them. Only occasionally does the leader of the group, the handsome, resourceful Mundek (Benno Furmann), take trips above ground, one of them to bravely search for Klara (Agnieszka Grochowska)'s sister Mania in a nearby concentration camp.
Once the film digs into the reality below ground, In Darkness begins to take emotional hold, chronicling the true, terrible story of these people who lived a claustrophobic existence for 14 months. The circumstance is almost impossible to fathom. Part of the effectiveness of the underground sequences is the sense of entrapment, conveyed by dimly lit scenes played out in low-ceilinged, damp rooms where the group clusters together, huddling deep inside the caverns of the circuitous underworld. They sing, read, and knit, feigning some semblance of normalcy. But their bodies are filthy, and they become used to swatting the rats who occupy their quarters like one would shoo a fly. How eating or bathing or anything was achieved in such grotesquely contaminated surroundings is hard to imagine.
The longer Leopold tends to his Jews, bringing them food or books or supplies, the more he begins to move beyond his knee-jerk anti-Semitism. You see his psychological investment in these people begin to overtake him, especially in response to the children in his care. Wieckiewicz really carries the film with his believable performance of a deeply flawed man who has something of a moral awakening. He makes you see how many people during the Holocaust might have ignored the plight of the Jews, allowing a foundation of anti-Semitism — along with a need for self-preservation — to distance themselves from human suffering.
Part of Holland's insight within In Darkness is to show the strain of entrenched anti-Semitism that was pervasive in Poland in the midst of the Holocaust. She is clearly committed to not making heroes or martyrs out of anyone in the film, but to instead present a realistic portrait of the moral complexity of her characters. By the same token, the Jews hidden inside the sewers have their own agendas and all-too-human side as well. Holland devotes a significant number of scenes to sex, both furtive and romantic, between her Jewish characters, as if to amplify her point that these are real, ordinary human beings, not noble constructs.
And yet, despite Holland's clear-eyed depiction of some of the moral failings of her Polish and Ukrainian characters, by the same token, some Poles saved thousands of Jews from the Nazis, harboring them in their homes or abetting their escape from the Germans. Holland's own mother was a member of the Polish Underground that fought in the 1944 Warsaw Uprising. She recognizes how an event like the Holocaust brought out the basest, and also the more noble side of human beings, and In Darkness does that kind of contradiction justice.