In Darkness: Poland’s Oscar Nominee, Directed by Agnieszka Holland

Agnieszka Holland’s most interesting films are set in the past, specifically WWII, works like “Angry Harvest,” in 1985, and especially “Europa, Europa,” in 1991, both of which were nominated for (but did not win) the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar.

And now comes, after several artistic and commercial disappointments “In Darkness,” a moving Holocaust saga based on a true story, which was nominated (and again did not win) in the foreign lingo Oscar category.

The protagonist is an unusual man, Leopold Socha, a sewer worker and petty thief in Lvov, in 1943, during the Nazi occupation of that Polish city.  One day, Leopold encounters a group of Jews who are trying to escape the liquidation of the ghetto.

Socha struggles to make ends meet for his wife and young daughter, who live in the same room. Utilizing an element from the Faustian morality play, tale then introduces Socha’s friend, Bortnik, a high-rank, greedy Ukrainian Officer, promises him a better life, if he finds and arrests Jews hiding in the sewers. After all, no one knows the system better than Socha, who has been using it as a hiding place for his loot.

At first, like Oskar Schindler of “Schindler’s List,” he is doing it for the strictly material compensation. Socha hides the Jews for money in the town’s sewers beneath the bustling activity of the city above.

However, what starts out as a straightforward and cynical business arrangement turns into something unexpected, lending the tale the elements of a suspenseful thriller, because you never know what will happen next.  As the unlikely alliance between Socha and the Jews as the enterprise continues to evolve, he begins to experience (and suffer from) a guilty conscience.

On another level, “In Darkness” is also an extraordinary chronicle of survival a clique of men, women and children, why may share in common only one basic need: to avoid death during 14 months of an increasing and intense danger.

Upon coming across a motley group of Jews, Socha is trying to escape the liquidation of the Lvov ghetto by hiding in the sewers. They offer Socha money to protect them. Although he is aware that helping a Jew could mean immediate execution for him and his family, Socha sees this as “easy cash” and they strike a deal.

Holland is particularly sensitive to issues and conflicts of social class: Though they are all of the same race, the weak prey upon the weaker, and the poor steal from the less poor. Holland should also be commended to creating and sustaining an ambience of fear, suspicion, and paranoia, as no one, Jew or Gentile can be trusted—or taken for granted.

One member of the group, Mundek Margulies, a con man who hides deep reserves of courage under a breezy manner, deeply distrusts Socha. Nevertheless, when the Nazis strike, Socha helps the Jews, including two children, escape into the sewers.

Socha’s challenges are just beginning, as he tries to stay one step ahead of Bortnik’s growing suspicions that he is hiding a secret. Before long, his fragile tightrope begins to fray. His charges start to crack under the immense strain of life underground. Socha weighs the money he’s receiving against the threat of certain death to himself and his family. Buckling under the pressure, he abandons them.

However, powerful circumstances intervene. Socha saves Mundek’s life by helping him kill a German soldier. Then, stumbling upon the two children wandering lost and dazed in the sewers, he realizes that he cannot desert these people.

The trials for Socha and the group in the sewer are relentless. First, a woman gives birth, with tragic consequences. Then, Mundek falls in love with feisty young Klara, and decides on entering into the heart of darkness, the Janowska concentration camp, to rescue her sister. To that extent, he persuades Socha to help him enter, and then escape from the camp, compelling him to take greatest risk of his life.

Inevitably, soon the Jews’ money runs out. But now there’s no turning back. Socha buys them food with his own money, moving them from one chamber to another, protecting them as Bortnik gets ever closer to exposing him.

A series of catastrophes, man-made and nature products, ensue, a devastating flash flood fills the sewers, Bortnik realizes that his friend has indeed betrayed him. As a result, Socha is forced into one final and desperate act of courage.

Oscar Context:

In Darkness was nominated for the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar, but did not win.  The winner that year was the Iranian feature, A Separation.