BY Willard Manus
Agnieszka Holland, the acclaimed Polish director of such films as The Secret Garden and Europa, Europa--and co-writer with Krzysztof Kieslowki on his 1993 trilogy, Three Colors--returns with a Holocaust masterpiece, IN DARKNESS.
The feature is set in Nazi-occupied Lvov, Poland in 1943 and centers on Leopold Socha (memorable performance by Robert Wiesckiewicz), a sewer inspector and petty thief. Socha's humanity is tested when he discovers a beleagured bunch of Jews hiding out in the sewers in an attempt to escape from the Nazis, who are intent on destroying the Lvov ghetto and shipping its inhabitants off to concentration camps.
Socha has already learned from a friend, Bortnik, a slimy Ukranian army officer collaborating with the Nazis, that there is a bounty to be earned by tracking down Jews in hiding. Socha plays a double game with Bortnik, promising to help him even as he secretly begins to aid the Jews. There's no morality or compassion in this act; the Jews are simply willing to pay more than Bortnik is offering.
The Jews are led by a wealthy German-born doctor, Ignacy Chiger (Herbert Knup), and an ex-playboy, Mundek Margulies (Benno Furmann). It's they who must deal with Socha and decide just how much to trust him. In turn, Socha comes under ever-increasing pressure as he tries to stay one step ahead of Bortnik's growing suspicion that he is harboring a secret. He must weigh the money he's making against the possibility of being put to death should Bortnik catch him out.
IN DARKNESS takes place over a span of twelve months. Though there are some external scenes, the story mostly happens underground. Production designer Erwin Prib and art director Niels Muller faced the challenge of building a set that would resemble the dank, watery sewers of Lvov, yet could still accomodate cameras, lights and actors in a variety of settings. Together with director of photography Jolanta Dylewska, these craftsmen created a subterranean world that is astonishingly intimate and tangible. You truly feel as if you are hiding in the sewers yourself.
The darkness, of course, stands as a metaphor not just for the fate of the Jews during the Holocaust but for the dark side of human nature, the part of us that's capable of cruelty and evil.
IN DARKNESS was written by David F. Shamoon, working from a book, In the Sewers of Lvov by Robert Marshall. "As the son of parents who had to flee Baghdad to escape Iraq's persecution of the Jews, the story spoke to me on a very deep level," Shamoon said. "It had every aspect of great drama in it: a flawed hero, nerve-shredding suspense, romance, heartrending tragedy, real characters caught up in a desperate situation. It even had dark comedy: Socha, the thief and sewer worker, had earlier robbed a jewelry story belonging to the uncle of Paulina Chiger, one of the Jews he was protecting! As a screenwriter, the story was irresistible."
At the heart of IN DARKNESS is the evolution of Leopold Socha, his journey from opportunist to hero, a man who risked his own skin to save the lives of a bunch of strangers. Socha was recognized (after his death) by Israel as a Righteous Gentile.