Film highlights true story of survival in wartime Poland

Top Row: Maria Schrader, Herbert Knaup and Jerzy Walczak; Bottom Row: Milla Bańkowicz and Oliwier Stańczak in the film ‘In Darkness.’ 

By Cate Marquis, Special to the Jewish Light

The best stories are often true ones, and such is the case with “In Darkness,” from Polish director Agnieszka Holland. The film tells the story of an unexpected partnership between Polish-Jewish families hiding in sewers under a Nazi-occupied town and a non-Jewish thief who helps them. 

“In Darkness” was the audience favorite at last fall’s St. Louis International Film Festival, where it won the Audience Choice award, and was nominated for a 2012 Academy Award for best foreign film. 

The movie depicts events in Nazi-occupied Lvov, Poland during the war. A sewer worker, Leopold Socha (Robert Wieckiewicz), who moonlights as a thief, agrees to hide some Jewish families trying to escape the liquidation of the ghetto in the sewers under town. He does this not because it is the right thing to do but for the money. 

Socha is a born hustler, always thinking and in relentless pursuit of every financial opportunity. This unsentimental opportunist is the last person one expects to rise to a heroic challenge. Nonetheless, he keeps his illegal activities secret from his beloved wife Wanda (Kinga Preis) and their daughter. 

The arrangement of hiding the families is supposed to be brief but instead they find themselves trapped in the dank tunnels for months. Socha’s intimate knowledge of the sewers and resourcefulness prove essential. During the long dark ordeal, things begin to change for Socha and the families in many ways. 

Holland is a legendary director and her film is moving and grippingly tense. Like all dramas about the Shoah, it is hard to watch at times but that it is a tale of survival, and of the human spirit, makes the film inspiring and worth the effort. More than anything, “In Darkness’ is a story of human nature, of both frailties and courage. Life in a sewer is not pleasant even briefly but this long ordeal is coupled with the difficulties of any kind of survival under brutal Nazi rule and the constant threat of discovery. 

It is the characters and their individual stories that warm our hearts. The acting is powerful and stirring. Benno Furman plays Mundek, a con man above ground who becomes a leader below. In hiding, Mundek falls for Klara (Agnieszka Grochowska), who is desperately worried for her sister left behind in the ghetto, in one of two tales of love woven into the story. 

In their desperate situation, social conventions are up-ended, with Mundek 

coming to the fore and pillars of the community, like the wealthy Ignacy Chiger (Herbert Knaup), now depending on a thief likely to have robbed him. Maria Schrader as Paulina Chiger and Marcin Bosak as Yanek Grossmann also play critical roles. Some of the most moving scenes involve the children and those of parents’ self sacrifice. As the months of hiding drag on, relationships shift and simple survival becomes increasingly difficult.

Almost all of the story takes place underground in the lightless sewer, which creates some challenges for the visual medium of cinema. Despite the claustrophobic setting, the film is visually polished, with masterful direction.

Scenes have a gritty realism, in which life in the sewer includes dirty clothes and faces, encounters with rats and the perpetual darkness and filthy water. The director’s aim was to make the audience themselves experience life in the sewer. Light itself, so rare in this shadowy world, is transformed into a symbol of hope and transcendence, and the dark, harsh labyrinth of the sewers becomes a metaphor for what is happening to Jews everywhere during the Shoah. However, Holland is careful to keep the focus on the characters and their relationships, and not distract too much with cinematic artistry.

If the film has a flaw, it is perhaps that at two and half hours, it is a bit long. Several scenes take place in total darkness, where the audience can see nothing, not even shadows, and hears only the splashing of water or a snatch of dialogue. A scene or two like this is all that is needed to establish the circumstances; more does little to add to the drama. Still, this transgression is a little thing in an otherwise stellar film.

All in all, it is a worthy, moving film well worth one’s time.