"In Darkness" is a pitiless glimpse into the inferno, into hell not only on earth but below it. Based on a true story, it takes you into the sewers of the Polish city of Lvov during World War II, a place where a group of Jews lived for more than a year under circumstances that are almost unimaginable.
But, as directed by the veteran Agnieszka Holland, "In Darkness" is not a typical Holocaust film. For one thing, even more than in her 1990 film "Europa, Europa," Holland's directing style is cool, almost dispassionate. It's as though she's insisting that, as detailed in David Shamoon's effective script, these horrific events should speak for themselves without special pleading, if they are to speak at all. And for another, the film's focus is not on the Jews but on the anti-Semitic, Catholic Pole who becomes their unlooked-for savior and lifeline.
Not only did Leopold Socha (top Polish actor Robert Wieckiewicz) look unsympathetically on Jews, he was hardly a model citizen. An inspector in Lvov's sewers by day, by night he was a burglar, hiding his loot in the underground system and returning to his wife Wanda (Kinga Preis) and their daughter like nothing had happened.
Though he was contemptuous of the Germans and hated their invasion and occupation, Socha initially felt that what was happening to the Jews had nothing to do with him. There is a nightmare moment early in the film where he watches German soldiers herding a terrified group of naked Jewish women through a forest on the run as if it was all going on in another universe.
If Socha stands out as the protagonist from the start, the Jews he ends up saving are, perhaps intentionally, harder to tell apart at first, a situation that parallels the undifferentiated way Socha himself tends to view them.
Sensing that a liquidation of the Lvov ghetto is imminent, the Jews investigate the sewers as a potential hiding place, which is where they literally run into Socha, who tells them, truthfully as it turns out, that no one knows this underground world as well as he does.
Socha agrees to help the Jews find a hiding place, but for a steep price. He'll take their money now, he tells his assistant, and then think about turning them in to the Germans for a reward when the cash runs out. For their part, the demanding Jews can barely hide their contempt for this man: "Never trust a Polack" is about the mildest thing they say.
Gradually, however, Socha — and viewers — are able to tell the Jews apart. We meet Mundek (Benno Furmann), the confidence man who is their de facto leader, and Klara (Agnieszka Grochowska), who worries about her errant sister. We meet Yanek (Marcin Bosak), who has furtive sex with girlfriend Chaja (Julia Kijowska) with his wife and child nearby, and the cultured Ignacy (Herbert Knaup), who still believes speaking German is the mark of an educated man and whose young daughter ended up writing a memoir, "The Girl in the Green Sweater," about the family's sewer experience.
Helping make "In Darkness" so realistic and so involving is Holland's decision, apparently taken against the advice of the screenwriter and the producers, to tell this story in all its multiple original languages. Having characters often not understanding each other as they speak Polish, Yiddish, German and Ukrainian underlines the fraught complexity of Poland's ethnic situation and points out, for instance, the way the Germans used Ukrainians like Socha's friend Bortnik (Michal Zurawski) to do the dirtiest of their dirty work.
"In Darkness" is also honest enough to show how the enmities and conflicts that existed among the Jews aboveground were carried into the sewer and worsened by that desperate environment. In a world where everyone was looking for an angle, hoping to survive the nightmare and maybe even turn other people's misery into a tidy profit, the fact that a fragile humanity survived at all is little short of a miracle.
Though Holland is best known for her European features, she did direct several episodes of HBO's landmark "The Wire," and the kind of visceral but controlled skill she displayed there serves her well here. Working with cinematographer Jolanta Dylewska, production designer Erwin Prib and editor Michal Czarnecki, Holland so successfully re-creates that alien subterranean world that Krystyna Chiger, the "Green Sweater" author who survived the ordeal, told the New York Times that the film "was so realistic that I felt I am back in the sewer and am smelling it."
Holland, interestingly enough, dedicates "In Darkness" twice. At the film's beginning, she singles out Marek Edelman, the Jewish leader of the legendary Warsaw Ghetto rebellion. At the end, mention goes to the more than 6,000 Poles, more than any other nationality, who are recognized as Righteous Gentiles by the Israeli government for having risked their lives to save Jews. "In Darkness" shows us how extraordinarily fraught that choice was.