Here’s the danger with Holocaust dramas: At some point, they run the potential of departing from themes of war, human suffering and triumph in the face of adversity, and tipping into standard horror fare.
Don’t see it? Rewatch Schindler’s List, imagining the Germans are carnivorous dinosaurs from Jurassic Park and every Jew is Wayne Knight’s character—you know, the fat guy who gets eaten in the Jeep.
At some point, one starts to feel that the suffering of the Jews has been exploited to tell horror stories (a recent exception is the not-great Defiance). And that doesn’t feel quite right. Things that go bump in the night work really well on, say, Elm Street. In the Lvov sewers, they seem like lazy plotting.
Such is the case with In Darkness, a well-acted and occasionally moving piece of filmmaking from Agnieszka Holland, director of the highly regarded Europa Europa, and several episodes of HBO’s series The Wire. Holland and screenwriter David F Shamoon did not set out to make a horror movie, but In Darkness has all the horror elements.
Monstrous German and Ukrainian soldiers herd helpless Polish Jews from the Lvov ghetto to the camps, killing many along the way. And then things get really tense. Leopold (Robert Wieckiewicz), a Polish sewer inspector looking to make a buck in the war, offers to hide Jews in the sewers for a hefty fee. As the German army begins killing Jews by the hundreds, Leopold smuggles about 20 people below ground.
Before long, that number is reduced to 15, then 12, then 10. By the end of the film, few people are left alive. And sometime between accepting money for his services and the end of the war, Leopold grows a conscience and begins hiding the survivors any way he can, even risking his own safety. The filmmakers never make it clear why Leopold has a change of heart, but Wieckiewicz’ performance is subtle enough to make one overlook the sudden change. He has a face that can register the slightest change in emotion with the smallest of moves, a sort of eastern European Stellan Skarsgård.
In Darkness was nominated for best foreign language film at the 2012 Academy Awards and lost to A Separation (which everyone should see). And In Darkness is a good film—one would have to be a cold, heartless bastard not to feel affected by the plight and suffering of all the people living literally tortured lives in the sewers of Lvov—but it isn’t a great film. The supporting actors do well with their limited characters, particularly Benno Fürmann as a tough German Jew who has lost his entire family and Agnieszka Grochowska as a woman who feels responsible for her sister even though she doesn’t like her much.
But the horror movie feel never quite leaves, even by the film’s end. When the sewer survivors finally emerge into the bright sunlight, met by Leopold and his wife, we can’t help but feel one last German soldier will jump from behind the bushes brandishing a weapon à la Jason Voorhees or Michael Myers.
Directed by Agnieszka Holland
With Robert Wieckiewicz, Benno Furmann and Agnieszka Grochowska