American audiences have become dulled by the depiction of the Holocaust in Hollywood movies that are increasingly celebrity filled and philosophically bland. But viewers familiar with Agnieszka Holland’s spellbinding and justly acclaimed “Europa Europa,” and her less well-known Oscar nominee, “Angry Harvest,” know that her portrayals of characters and their relationships to each other during the Holocaust are morally and emotionally complex. Holland’s films, which grapple with human behavior during the barbaric years of the Third Reich, are not propped up by commercialism and, though touching, avoid simplistic clichés of good and evil.
Now between limited theatrical releases, her latest film, “In Darkness,” is on the shortlist of five nominees for an Academy Award for best foreign language film. In it, Holland, a Polish-born writer-director, depicts the true story of Leopold Socha, a Polish Catholic petty thief and sewer worker in Lvov. Socha’s story starts out like that of opportunistic Oskar Schindler; Socha’s initial motivation is to benefit from the plight of Jews fleeing the liquidation of the Lvov ghetto by hiding them — for money — in his sewers. It soon emerges, however, that, as was the case with Schindler, Socha is more than merely venal; he develops a deep relationship with “his Jews” and is ultimately their rescuer.
“In Darkness” is an adaptation of Robert Marshall’s 1990 book “In the Sewers of Lvov,” skillfully condensed for the screen by David F. Shamoon, and revised again during the course of production. A number of characters in the film are composites; some are omitted entirely. While the details of the narrative were modified by the filmmakers, and scenes were added for dramatic effect, the film’s basic accuracy was confirmed by Kristin Kerem, who was a youngster in the sewers.
To shoot a film mostly in dark tunnels was a challenge for Holland and for Jolanta Dylewska, her director of photography. Her ingenious directing, together with Michal Czarnecki’s spot-on editing, skillfully moves the story repeatedly from darkness into light and back again into darkness. This darkness protected the hiding Jews not only from certain death, but also from seeing the cruelty that was pervasive in life above the sewers: the humiliation of the Jews, the random killings of both Jews and Poles, and the hunting down of Jews for 500 zlotys apiece.
When Socha comes to the sewers to bring his Jewish charges food, water, news and dry clothes, the flashlight he uses to go through the tunnel is symbolic of the light and hope he provides in the darkness.