With my circle of friends, it’s usually pretty easy to find a guest when I attend early screenings of films. Even when the film is foreign and rather dark, I can generally find someone to accompany me, especially when the film has some notoriety or importance. But when I asked my friends to join me for In Darkness, the Polish submission to the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film, all of them responded with something resembling “Another two-and-a-half-hour film about the Holocaust? No thanks.” So I walked into director Agnieszka Holland’s In Darkness alone, unsure of what I was getting myself into. Fortunately, my friends were all wrong, and In Darkness is not quite what you might expect from “another two-and-a-half-hour film about the Holocaust.” That’s not to say that the film is exactly pleasant, but for film aficionados who value strong filmmaking, In Darkness is definitely worth checking out, and based on the reactions of those around me, I think it has a very likely chance of at least making it to the shortlist in January.
At its heart, In Darkness is another true story about an unintentional hero who concealed a group of Jews from the Nazis. In this case, the story is set inPoland, and our hero is Leopold Socha (played with great humanity by Robert Wieckiewicz), a sewage worker who happens upon a small group of men breaking into the sewers from the Jewish ghetto. After bribing them for his silence and weighing the financial benefits of charging them for help versus the prize for turning them in (perhaps I should have called him an antihero?), Socha is forced to make a choice when an invasion of the ghetto by Nazi forces leads to a rather large assembly of men, women and children under his protection. And as those people are split up and forced to live together in inhospitable locations, their relationships become more and more complex, including arguments, sexual relationships, and newfound respect.
But the focus of In Darkness is more on Socha’s choices, not all of which are honorable or likeable, and Wieckiewicz’s performance really sells the film. He’s not necessarily a good or bad man; he is looking out for his own family first, and trying to help some others where he can. The movie-star-handsome Benno Fürmann also turns in a strong performance as Mundek Marguilies, the more proactive and helpful of “Socha’s Jews.” The rest of the cast, while not as noteworthy, are strong enough to stand out as unique characters while not overpowering the overall film.
Meanwhile, the filmmaking itself is also admirable, albeit uneven. When the film is at its most intense, it brings you alternately to the edge of your seat or to tears. The cinematographer’s use of light, shadows and darkness is impressive in moments of great tension, such as when Nazi guards are outside of a room filled with Jews attempting to hold their breath. I was actually positively reminded of horror film The Descent at times. However, outside of these few great moments, the filmmaking too often goes back to conventional lighting and camera work, preventing the film from having the unique and cohesive feel that would have made it both more terrifying and powerful. In addition, as many true stories are apt to do, the screenplay becomes a bit too mired down in the events that actually happened, so time is spent clarifying specific actions that have no real implication on the overall film. Between the 1.5-2-hour marks, In Darkness noticeably drags, causing myself and other audience members to shift in our seats a bit.
So why would I think that this somewhat overly long film with some highlights has a chance at the Oscar? Because Oscar voters are required to see all of the films, and in addition to being a touching Holocaust movie (pure Oscar bait), the ending of In Darkness has a miraculous humanity to it that has to be seen to be believed. Almost too emotional to evoke tears, I had a similar reaction to the final minutes of In Darkness as I had to Herzog’s powerful Land of Silence and Darkness. It’s a moment of profound beauty, where a simple handheld camera captures intense emotions that transcend what most films can do, and if you’re willing to work your way through the often uncomfortable In Darkness, the ending is worth the effort.