In a New Light, by David Bax
I feel sort of guilty for the reaction I had when I first read about Agnieszka Holland’s new film, In Darkness. Upon learning that it was the true story of a group of Polish Jews hiding from the Nazis, I instinctively rolled my eyes. Another Holocaust movie, is what I thought. This wasn’t because I lack respect for those who suffered horrendously during Adolf Hitler’s inhumanly brutal reign. It’s because the Holocaust has been depicted on film so many times that some filmmakers have taken to using it as a cheap and maybe even immoral shorthand, assuming that the mere fact of its setting will make their film more important or powerful. I am happy to report that, in many ways, In Darkness is not just another Holocaust film and I’m pained to report that, in a few other ways, it is.
Of course, there are some things about stories set in this time and place that will likely always work, when done right. Holland insightfully portrays the base cruelty of the Nazis who became conditioned to think nothing of a human life if it belonged to a Jewish person. People are killed for little or no reason throughout the film but Holland doesn’t turn exploitative in these scenes; instead she represents them with a gut-churning matter of fact approach borrowed from Roman Polanski’s The Pianist. She also avoids melodrama concerning the survivors’ resilience and inner strength or their bravery in undertaking risks, while still making these staples of the genre resonant. In other ways, she flouts expectations even more flagrantly.
The true story involves a Polish sewer worker named Leopold who finds a group of Jews hiding from the incoming Nazis in the tunnels underneath the city of Lvov. For over a year, he uses his knowledge of the sewer system to keep them hidden and brings them the food and other supplies they need to survive until the occupiers leave.
Holland’s version of the Holocaust is a great catalyst, changing fundamentally the people with whom it comes into contact. Some of these changes are for the better and some are not but the good and bad reactions don’t always line up with the characters we want – or expect – them to. When first we meet Leopold, for instance, he is decidedly not a good person (much like the hero of that other film about the non-Jewish person who saves a number of Jews from the Nazis, Schindler’s List). A thief who supplements his government income by fencing his stolen goods, he initially helps the Jewish characters only because they’ll pay him to do so. Even later in the film, the extent to which he considers leaving them to die out of self-interest is both honest and chilling. Meanwhile, the people in hiding, as well as the ones who get caught and killed – are not the noble stoics or martyrs one might anticipate. Many of them are petty and selfish. One man leaves his wife and daughter to be killed or captured by the Germans and chooses to escape with his young mistress instead. This disparate group of human beings, bound only by a vaguely shared belief system or genetic code, are almost as in danger of being torn apart by their own infighting as by the Nazis.
In at least one case, though, the film does lean on an unimaginative, flat, stock character. The leader of the Nazis in Lvov is a capital-V villain. Unlike everyone else in the movie, his motivations are thoroughly negative. He is an unredeemable character and, therefore, not a truly human one. This unfortunate trope of a character really distracts in the film’s final act, when things devolve into the bad kind of Holocaust movie. After spending more than two hours building an impressive and relatable ensemble of characters, the climax is a depressingly rote chase sequence through the sewers. For these few minutes, the movie is simply a thriller tale – and a subpar one at that. Holland is being lazy here, assuming that something the audience has seen countless times will be imbued with weight by the fact of its setting. It is not.
In Darkness is an above average Holocaust movie for most of its running time, mainly because it remembers to be a story about people rather than another historical melodrama about a subject everyone agrees on to begin with. Truthfully, though, the disappointing part comes a bit too late for the film to recover from it. And then Holland includes some unsubtle, preachy, message-centric text on screen at the end to make matters worse. As a result, the movie has a sad conclusion but not in the way you’d expect or hope for.