In Darkness – Movie Review

Agnieszka Holland’s strong, confident yet heartbreaking personal films are less well known than her work on American films and series TV dramas, but nonetheless, Holland is one of Poland’s greatest living directors. 

Her work is imbued with politics unique to her homeland and its painful, turbulent history.   Her films are strongly influenced by mentors Krzysztof Zanussi and Andrzej Wajda and a shared history of state sanctioned repression and violence.  Holland’s films are never sentimental; they offer intellectual, realistic insights into life in Eastern Europe and particularly during WWII and its aftermath.   
Holland returns to frequently visited universal themes in her latest Holocaust drama In Darkness, Poland’s official entry in the Academy Awards’ Best Foreign Language category. 

In Darkness describes the lives lived by Jews in Nazi occupied Lodz, Poland. Society has been turned on its ear under Hitler’s Final Solution and the Jews who survive mass murder flee their homes, leaving everything behind to hide for their lives.

In Darkness is based on the true story of Leopold Soha (Robert Wieckiewicz), a gruff and anti-Semitic Roman Catholic city cleaner who offers to provide a safe haven for displaced Jews in return for money.  He guides them to the city’s underground maze of sewers where they set up and live, in darkness, squalor and filth. 

He brings them food and moves them when necessary, always on the lookout for impending trouble.  His initial bias towards them seems to odds with his mission, which is ostensibly carried out for money.

Life goes on underground; people get sick, die, have babies, do good deeds and commit crimes.  It’s better than being above ground where the constant rat-a-tat of Nazi guns, hangings, bombings and other cruelties are gradually emptying the ghetto.   The hidden are like anyone else, there are bursts of anger, greed, and most of the deadly sins.  No one is perfect in this time and place.

Soha’s put himself in grave jeopardy; if he’s caught he’ll be executed.  His wife and daughter will be alone or meet the same fate.  But even understanding the dangers involved, he persists and gradually the layers of his bigotry start to fall away.  

As he falls deeper into danger, he becomes closer to his “people” through understanding and the shared proximity of death.  He becomes involved in their lives and develops affection for his sewer rats, they’re no longer Jews, and they’re family born of war and madness.

Holland’s cinematic strength is her passion for strength.  She shows the infallible human spirit at its lowest and highest.  There is no break from the misery people endured, or the endless sense of danger and death, but they still crave life and liberty. 

She gives them humanity with all its flaws and is respectful of them as characters.  This is not a sensationalized view of the Holocaust.  Violence is kept at a minimum, in favor of character told through superb acting and supple storytelling.

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35mm drama
Written by David F. Shamoon based on Robert Marshall’s book
Directed by Agnieszka Holland
Opens Feb 10
Runtime: 147 minutes
MPAA: Rated R for violence, disturbing images, sexuality, nudity and language
Country: Poland |Germany |France |Canada
Language: Polish |Ukrainian |Yiddish |German

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