By Brian Lafferty
August 29, 2012 (San Diego) – A harrowing sequence of events transpire during the first thirty minutes of In Darkness, atrocities that I could describe but I won’t. That’s because as shocking as they are, there is only one shot, seen later, that remains entrenched in my mind.
It's a brief, fleeting moment, something easy to overlook. In the sewers underneath the ghetto, a little boy - overcome by the stench of human excrement - upchucks. It affected me on two levels. Maybe its because he’s only a child and for that reason alone, it’s hard to watch a child throw up. Or maybe it’s because he’s too young to understand why he’s being forced into this rat-infested, fecal-drenched sewer.
Which brings me to the second level. As children, we have no control over our lives and our surroundings; our parents or guardians do. Obviously, this boy doesn’t either. What makes it worse is neither do the adults. We look to our parents to give us a home, to protect us, to guide us through our formative years. The Holocaust upended the lives of thousands of innocent people and, as the throw up shot subtly indicates, all of these important facets were lost. How could their parents protect them and give them a stable home if they couldn’t?
So who is this little boy I speak of? He's one of a small group of Polish Jews who pay an anti-Semitic sewer worker, Leopold Socha (Robert Wieckiewcz) to hide them underground. The Nazis overtake the Polish Ghetto of Lvov, and set up a concentration camp. Some of the survivors are interesting characters. The most notable is a total jerk of a husband who cheats on his wife (right in plain view of her, no less) and leaves his mistress when she becomes pregnant. The focus, however, is on Socha, who starts out as a Jew-hater but transforms into a more tolerant, selfless savior.
The sewer is a disgusting place. Holland and cinematographer Jolanta Dylewska routinely throw in shots of rats trundling about the scummy floors and walls. Thank goodness Smell-O-Vision never became a cinematic mainstay; I would hate to smell what these people smell. In one area, about fourteen survivors are placed in a cramped corridor, but to get there, they have to wade through at least six inches of feces and who-knows-what (no wonder the little boy barfed).
Flashlights provide the primary light source in the sewer. The film stock accentuates the light beams while almost blackening the dark areas to build an eerie, ghostlike atmosphere. Dylewska paints the sewer scenes with a mixture of darkly-toned blue, gray, and black. This palette, combined with the film stock, gives the sewer a slicked-down appearance. The sewers are sludgy, foul, and vile, but they certainly look cleaner and more inviting than what resides above. The Ghetto is as bleak and as colorless as it could be using color film stock. The interiors - namely Socha's home and the bar - provide a variety of colors that complete the trichotomy.
Wieckiewicz gives a quiet, restrained performance as Socha. His anti-Semitism isn't overt, yet you can still see his prejudice in the way he looks at them and talks about them.
When I do my "Best Of" column this year, In Darkness will either be in my Top Ten of 2012 or it will garner an honorable mention. No matter where it ranks by year’s end, In Darkness is one of the best films of the year and worthy of its nomination for this year’s Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film.
A Sony Pictures Home Entertainment release. Director: Agnieszka Holland. Screenplay: David F. Shamoon, based on the book “In the Sewers of Lvov: A Heroic Story of Survival from the Holocaust” by Robert Marshall. Original Music: Antoni Lazarkiewicz. Cinematography: Jolanta Dylewska. Cast: Robert Wieckiewicz, Benno Furmann, and Agnieszka Grochowska. 145 minutes. Rated R.