Directed by acclaimed Polish filmmaker Agnieszka Holland In Darkness is set in Nazi occupied Poland as the resident Jews are hounded out of the ghetto of the city of Lvov. Keen to avoid imprisonment or death a group of Jews decide to hide where the Nazis won’t think to look, deep within the sewers of Lvov. Sewer inspector Leopold (Robert Wieckiewicz) seemingly has no loyalties; he is happy to scavenge what he can from the wreckage of the ghetto, yet when he finds the Jews hiding in his sewer Leopold does not immediately hand them in to the Nazis for a reward. Instead Leopold charges the Jews a daily rate for keeping their secret, helping them find their way through the sewers, and to provide food so that they do not starve down amongst the sewage. What starts as a financial arrangement slowly develops into something deeper as Leopold loses loved ones and risks everything he has to keep “his Jews” safe from persecution.
Any film dealing with the holocaust is not going to be a cheery one, and In Darkness with its death and destruction above ground and cowering refugees below is no exception. Above ground the outdoor scenes are shot with a harsh stark light, everything is cold and hard; fallen bodies in the opening scenes are blindingly white and the segregated city is mostly rubble filled with abandoned possessions and children’s toys. Death is everywhere. Below the ground everything is damp and dark, you can almost smell the sewage the persecuted Jews are forced to wade through and live alongside. The only light below the ground comes from torches or candles, a sharp contrast to the bright exposure above. Over time the sewers seem almost cosy in comparison to the atrocity filled world on the surface – you can see why the Jews would prefer to live in filth than amongst Nazis.
In a film with such unrelenting bleakness there is a real need for something positive to keep you engaged and from simply feeling depressed, and this is where Leopold and his Jews comes in. At the film’s start neither is particularly likeable; Leopold is a selfish man out to get what he can and the Jews are a wonderfully diverse bunch of characters with their own mixture of vices and virtues. As their relationship deepens the two sides come to care for and depend on each other. In Darkness is at its core a blossoming love story between a single man and the group of people who depend on him. Once you start to root for everyone involved, and Leopold starts to risk exposure to keep the group safe, you realise that the film has slowly drawn you in and with that you’re hooked.
There’s something all the more convincing about a film with great actors, none of whom you recognise. Brad Pitt will always be Brad Pitt while Robert Wieckiewicz could well have actually been Leopold the sewer inspector for all I know. The actors are uniformly brilliant and their performances all ring true. I was constantly worried that any number of the characters would die at any moment and when the death came I felt each one. In Darkness is a dark film set during a terrible time in our world’s history but the film does have its lighter moments too – there’s a reason the word “uplifting” is writ large on the poster.
In Darkness is a powerful, dark and ultimately beautiful film. It starts off cold and bleak, death all around and no one seeming to want to help anyone else without the promise of financial gain. By the end of the film it was clear that I’d been watching a love story, not one between two individuals, but one between a man and the collection of Jews he was trying to keep safe. A word of caution – the film is well over two hours long and I felt every minute, be prepared for plenty of reading too as this is a holocaust film in the original languages (at least four) used in Poland at the time. In short the film is great but also long and Polish so be careful.