As the events of World War II slide deeper into the past -- its youngest veterans are now in their late 80s -- filmmakers continue look to that impossibly vast historical canvas to either mythologize ("Inglourious Basterds") or, more frequently, to remember ("Flags of Our Fathers," "Defiance," "City of Life and Death"). The most recent entry to this growing list is Agnieszka Holland's latest movie, "In Darkness," which was nominated for a best-foreign-language Oscar.
Based on a true story, the movie follows Leopold Socha (Robert Wieckiewicz, in a brilliant performance) who makes his living maintaining the Ukrainian city of Lvov's underground labyrinth of sewers by day -- which he claims to know better than he knows his own wife -- and working as a thief by night. And what better place to stash loot than in a sewer? Right at the beginning of the movie, we see him (along with his younger partner, Szczepek, played by Kryzysztof Skonieczny) ransack an SS officer's house before dashing off into the woods. There he witnesses a group of naked, presumably Jewish, women fleeing from German soldiers just before they are gunned down and left for dead. Though Socha seems unaffected by the surreal, horrific sight, it's worth noting that Lvov found itself on one side of the war's bloody Eastern front and then the other. Most of its citizens were in survival mode, while the city's Jews -- few of whom survived the war -- were walled off in squalid ghettos. Their plight barely seems to register with him until they literally enter his world. Figuring that remaining in the ghetto would mean certain death, a group of Jews, led by huckster Mundek (Benno Furmann) and the wealthy Ignacy Chiger (Herbert Knaup), manage to burrow through their tenement floor into a storm drain below. Socha discovers them and offers to help them find a place to hide ... for a price.
What follows should be familiar to anyone who's seen "Schindler's List": This morally dubious petty criminal first exploits the Jews for financial gain and then risks his neck to save them. Thankfully, Holland is too smart a director to let this turn into a morality play. Socha isn't a simple hero; he's opportunistic and filled with the prejudices of his time. He's not shy about throwing epithets in the face of his wards. The refugees themselves are far from being virtuous victims. In fact, they are a remarkably untrusting, ungrateful bunch. But then, spending month after month in the murk and stink of a sewer would do little for anyone's mood.
The last time Holland received an Oscar nomination was for her 1990 opus, "Europa Europa," about a blond-haired, blue-eyed Jewish kid who could almost pass as Aryan, even to the point of joining the Hitler Youth, except for the fact that he was circumcised. Twenty years later, that movie remains memorable, though less perhaps for its moving storyline than for a couple of deeply uncomfortable scenes that had me crossing my legs and cringing. Since then, she's collaborated with Krzysztof Kieslowski to make his masterful "Three Colors" trilogy and then came to the States to shoot, among other things, some of the better episodes of "The Wire." In the intervening time, her handling of the camera has become lighter, even as the subject for this movie is both literally and figuratively darker. That rat-filled sewer becomes a visual metaphor for the horrors enfolding above. Holland frequently pushes the film stock to its limit, creating grainy images of the terrifying hideaways that look like something from David Lynch and feel like something from Dante. Fortunately, Holland is mindful enough of the audience to know when to cut to the light.
See the trailer for 'In Darkness':