Considering the harrowing true-story origins of her latest WWII extreme survival story, Polish director Agnieszka Holland no doubt intended for “In Darkness” to be arduous. At nearly 2 1/2 hours, the taxing drama spends most of its time in the dank, rat-infested sewers beneath Nazi-occupied Lvov, where a group of Jews rely on a local thief to feed and protect them. No one expects Holocaust movies to be an easy sit, yet Poland’s Oscar pick — the most logistically demanding feature from the helmer whose “Europa Europa” proved so gripping 22 years earlier — lacks the essential qualities to engage non-Euro crowds beyond arthouses.
In light of its creepy subterranean setting, “In Darkness” shares more in common with contempo horror films than it does with Holocaust movies that have come before, and yet, far from accidental, that difference seems a carefully calculated aspect of Holland’s approach. The film presents itself almost as an answer to Steven Spielberg’s “Schindler’s List”: Both concern a wartime profiteer who risked his life to save a group of Jewish prisoners, but this one is far from black-and-white in its villainy and heroism — an artistic choice sure to result in mixed reactions.
When we meet Polish sewer inspector-turned-scavenger Poldek Socha (Robert Wieckiewicz), he resents the Germans because their occupation has turned Lvov into a war zone, and he hates the Jews because centuries of anti-Semitism have taught him that’s the appropriate attitude. The Nazis’ persecution of the local Jewish population spells opportunity for Socha and his accomplice Szczepek (Krzysztof Skonieczny), who break into abandoned buildings, looting whatever valuables they can find.
“In Darkness” is hardly the first film to depict the inhuman conditions of the ghettos where Jewish citizens were stripped of their possessions and forced to live like animals. The surprising thing about Holland’s strategy, however, is that the director resists portraying her Jewish protagonists as purely sympathetic victims. Instead, the core group consists of con men, cheats and tight-fisted business owners who constantly fight and argue among themselves. One man, Yanek (Marcin Bosak), abandons his wife and daughter in order to bring his mistress (Julia Kijowska) along in the sewers, only to abandon her, too, after she gets pregnant.
Historically speaking, this harsh approach is the most honest, consistent with the warts-and-all characterizations in Robert Marshall’s nonfiction book “In the Sewers of Lvov” and carried through David F. Shamoon’s script. At the same time, in dramatic terms, it severely jeopardizes audience identification, making for long unpleasant stretches in which we resist the characters and wish they weren’t so petty when bigger concerns — like survival — are on the line.
Among the Gentiles, Socha certainly isn’t your typical hero. Given his attitude in the early scenes, one half-expects him to betray his charges and collect the reward money offered for turning in runaway Jews. It’s not until the film’s final reel that we realize the story, which has been so focused on the fate of its Jewish characters for the first two hours, is actually about the transformation of one man’s soul.
For the film to work, Holland needs audiences to connect as deeply with the trapped Jews as Socha eventually does. With the exception of the group’s leader, movie-star handsome Mundek Margulies (German-born, internationally recognized Benno Furmann), the characters are flat as shadows.
Holland goes out of her way to include a number of sexual encounters in the film, as if to say that even in the direst circumstances, man finds time to make love. Far from gratuitous, the scenes reveal important connections between characters; still, it’s odd for the helmer to spotlight these details and leave out nearly anything that describes the dull routine of life underground. As if loathe to confront the boredom that must have defined their lives, Holland instead depicts the exceptional moments, such as the tense finale in which a sudden rainstorm turns the sewers into a death trap.
True to its title, “In Darkness” devotes long stretches to low-lit scenes, some of them so obscure that moviegoers complained they couldn’t make out the image at all. Fortunately, a rich sound mix situates auds in the sewers, which look so authentic, it’s a surprise to learn that production designer Erwin Prib re-created most of the labyrinthine system on stages.