Friday, February 24, 2012

In Darkness

Surviving The Darkness Of Humanity In Nazi Lvov, 1943

Cast members of the epic drama "In Darkness", written and directed by Agnieszka Holland. 
Sony Pictures Classics


Omar P.L. Moore/        Follow popcornreel on Twitter FOLLOW                                           
Friday, February 24
, 2012

Agnieszka Holland's compelling "In Darkness" propels us headlong into the nightmare of real hell suffered by Jewish people trying to flee the ghetto of Poland's city of Lvov, occupied by Nazis in 1943.  Based on a true story, Ms. Holland's epic drama is set there and tracks career thief Leopold Socha (Robert Więckiewicz), a Catholic Pole who hides loot in the sewers but comes across throngs of Jews who have escaped a purging of the ghetto and are hiding there.  He's offered money to keep hiding them despite instant execution if he's caught aiding them.  The motivation is only money, then becomes something more.  The group of Jewish people Leopold hid stayed for 14 months in the sewers until it was safe to leave.

Seventy percent of "In Darkness" occurs in the dark of the sewers, so meticulously designed, as is the rest of the film, by production designer Erwin Prib.  The sewers themselves mark the twists and turns of life and death, a vital character serving as a subterranean and metaphorical hell of the human pecking order in the 1940s: Jewish people beneath Nazis, who are just inches above ground exterminating every last Jewish person they can find.  Thieves like Leopold stand uncomfortably between the Nazis and the Jews, precariously, sometimes trivially but in history very importantly.

As she does so palpably in her work, particularly the great film "Europa Europa", Ms. Holland investigates the duality of and deception in humans in their most trying hour.  Here, crisis is at its most dire; the darkness is representative of humanity's worst hours and creates unnerving conflicts among those hidden, as well as a strange kind of neutrality and rebirth in people -- in some instances literal birth.  The director films gritty, natural, powerful scenes in a low light and captures the immediacy and urgency of a plight of people whose fortunes -- in the hands of a thief whose are tenuous -- hang in the balance.  Leopold's conscience may as well be a pendulum.

"In Darkness", which expanded its release to additional U.S. cities today including San Francisco, doesn't scream for your understanding, it puts you squarely and viscerally in the shoes of people who are at the mercy of a dishonest man's heart.  Ms. Holland throws a harsh spotlight on a confined people and investigates the human heart's will on all sides.  At all times a total awareness of life and death and the line separating them is abundantly clear, but at the same time Ms. Holland's film blurs this line so finely that to be living means to be dying inside.  Consciences inevitably shift: Leopold knows that the money he accepts will soon mean little, and character will mean more.  He uses the guile of his own status to curry favor with his friend Bortnik (Michał Żurawski), a Ukrainian officer allied with the Nazis.

The drama in the sewers is tense and arresting.  There's understandable desperation among those trapped.  Unpleasant decisions are made.  Power struggles between families and loved ones play out.  (Faith and the invocation of God are scrutinized, and Ms. Holland editorializes on those matters too.)  What I saw in "In Darkness" was indelible and unforgettable.  The faces in the dark -- the darkness penetrating the mind and representing the forgotten and despised -- were so expressive; the urges and motivations so present.  The situations and people existing live and breathe so deeply with as much clarity as murkiness.  There's a earthy, musty even sensual beauty in the people and the atmosphere lurking in those life-saving and death-trapping sewers that grabbed and transfixed me.  Many of the performances in "In Darkness" are outstanding, notably Mr. Więckiewicz's fine work as Leopold.

Ms. Holland chronicles pain, pleasure, joy, conflict and dilemma so acutely in a film superbly shot by cinematographer Jolanta Dylewska.  "In Darkness", which could have rambled, stays on course, balancing the tensions above ground between Leopold and his family with the suspense of the activity between the people trapped below.

I was struck by how vivid and alive "In Darkness" was, considering both its subject matter and the environment it is filmed in.  It's an unremittingly grim experience, as one would expect, but it is more than just that.  Left in the darkness, what do we have?  Our souls, our instincts, our beliefs, our passions and our will to live.  What separates us as humans when the lights are out?  When the darkness is the only thing we see?  We are all the same. 

Humanity in the darkest hours becomes more raw, clearer and primal than ever, and what Ms. Holland captures in "In Darkness" so adeptly is the division of self: that clash between conscience and fear, and the internal battle to overcome the temptation of doing what is easy over the fear of doing what is hard.  She uses the most trying of circumstances to bring out the best and worst of the human character, which after all, is what pure, real drama is all about.

With: Benno Fürmann, Agnieszka Grochowska, Maria Schrader, Herbert Knaup, Julia Kijowska, Oliwier Stańczak, Milla Bańkowicz, Marcin Bosak, Krzysztopf Skonieczny, Kinga Preis.

"In Darkness" is rated R by the Motion Picture Association Of America for violence, disturbing images, sexuality, nudity and language.  The film is in the Polish, German, Yiddish and Ukrainian languages with English subtitles.  The film's running time is two hours and 25 minutes.

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