Surviving a descent into ‘Darkness’

In the run-up to the Academy Awards last year, when not a single domestic or foreign film entry touched on a Holocaust or Nazi-era theme, I speculated that this particular genre had probably run its course.

I now formally withdraw the hasty prediction after seeing “In Darkness,” whose emotions and settings are as dark as the underground sewers of Lvov, where a dozen Jewish men, women and children actually hid for 14 months during the Nazi occupation of Poland.

Their unlikely protector is a rough-hewn Polish sewage worker and part-time thief, Leopold Socha (Robert Wieckiewicz), who knows all the hiding places in the underground system, where he works and stashes his loot.

Socha dislikes Jews as a matter of course, and when he stumbles across the band of refugees in the sewers, his first instinct is to turn them in and collect the standing reward for such enterprise from the authorities.

However, when the Jews offer a substantial monthly payment if Socha will hide them and supply them with food, Socha figures he’ll give it a try.

At the helm of “In Darkness” is the superb Polish director Agnieszka Holland (“Europa, Europa”), whose forte is to delineate the shades of the human character. In her films, victims, heroes, villains and bystanders all have their strengths and weaknesses, depending on the time and circumstance.

Just watching the film for two hours, never mind the actual experience, is likely to induce acute claustrophobia. Wedged between stone ledges, the Jews are enveloped in complete darkness, except for flashlights.

Alongside flows a constant stream of refuse, excrement and occasional human corpses, accompanied by the scurrying of rats and all kinds of vermin. Their food and water is strictly rationed.

Further, the refugees are divided, not only by personalities, but also by different backgrounds and languages, speaking in different Polish dialects, German, Yiddish, Ukrainian and occasionally Hebrew.

One man is driven crazy by the constant crying of small children, another by the prayer chanting of a pious neighbor. Yet, somehow, the incredible human ability to find some order and routine amid impossible circumstances asserts itself.

Scarce food and water are fairly rationed, quarrels are mediated, men and women have sex, a baby is born, the kids put on an impromptu show, and there is even a Passover celebration, with Socha supplying some matzah and a (stolen) menorah and candles for illumination.

The strongest of the refugees is a German Jew and con man, Mundek Margulies (German actor Bruno Fürmann), who forms a wary alliance with the sewage worker.

Socha is given to such casual platitudes as “Give a Yid a finger and he’ll take your arm,” but gradually he recognizes his charges as human beings and even develops a protective feeling for “his Yids.” It helps when his wife tells the Catholic Socha, to his intense astonishment, that Jesus and his apostles were all Jews.

One of the most striking scenes comes on the day of liberation, when Socha guides his charges out of the sewer and lifts the manhole cover to reveal the outside world. After 14 months in darkness, they blink at the unfamiliar daylight, they stagger and nearly fall as they take their first steps as free men and women.

“In Darkness” has no sadistic Nazis or piles of corpses, only complex and fallible human beings. The sole truly despicable character is a Ukrainian militiaman, who has joined the Nazis and is a relentless Jew hunter.

The film is not an easy one to watch and even harder to forget. My previous prediction notwithstanding, I now doubt that films dealing with the Holocaust will ever reach an expiration date.

I recall that when I interviewed Steven Spielberg before and after the release of “Schindler’s List,” he spoke of meeting hundreds of survivors, each telling him, “That was an interesting movie, but now listen to my story.”

As long as there are compelling Holocaust stories untold, there will be new books and movies.

“In Darkness” is Poland’s official entry for best foreign-language film Oscar honors. To qualify, it will open for a one-week run on Dec. 9 at Laemmle’s Royal Theatre in West Los Angeles.

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