In Darkness: Agnieszka Holland’s remarkable moral tale

April 17, 2012

Money note: In Darkness opened last Friday in Little Rock, but I didn’t get the screener in time to write my own review. It opens in Northwest Arkansas this Friday, and this review will run in that edition of our newspaper, But I thought I’d also post it here, just for the record. And see Dan Lybarger’s conversation with Agnieszka Holland here.

In Darkness
Grade: 91
Cast: Robert Wieckiewicz, Benno Furmann
Director: Agnieszka Holland
Rating: R, for violence, disturbing images, sexuality, nudity and language
Running time: 145 minutes

In Polish, German and Ukrainian with English subtitles

Philip Martin of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette

Polish director Agnieszka Holland’s In Darkness, which was nominated for a Best Foreign Language Academy Award (it lost out to Iran’s A Separation) is based on the true story of Leopold Socha , a Polish municipal worker who, during World War II, sheltered Jews in the sewer system of German-occupied Lvov.

I understand that synopsis may not inspire you to see the film. I imagine a lot of you are like me, in that the prospect of seeing yet another movie about the atrocities perpetuated by the Nazis and their collaborators leaves you vaguely empty. I have my doubts about whether such movies even ought to be made — I have misgivings about Schindler’s List as much as Life is Beautiful; however seriously intentioned, the Holocaust seems too huge and terrible to be rendered as a show of light and sound.

Yet In Darkness is an extraordinarily well-made film, one that manages to effectively convey small truths about the nature of being human. How true it is to the real story of Socha I have no real clue, but it feels plausible, faithful to the fuzzy gray nature of the universe. Holland’s Socha (Robert Wieckiewicz) is a no hero, he’s an ex-con and petty thief who augments his small salary through all manner of black market dealings. He’s nominally a Catholic, but he is presented as a pragmatic survivor, a schemer and chiseler.

When he is approached by a group of Jews asking for his help, he mines their desperation and fixes a price. He considers turning them into the occupiers.

But he doesn’t. He hides them away in the labyrinthine system, among the rats and the reek. He brings them potatoes for Passover. He cleans their clothes. He gives them food. He takes their money, but it is not all for money — the risks are great.
Why does he do this? Holland doesn’t provide an answer, and Wieckiewicz stubbornly refuses to break, to give us a glimpse of the shining soul within his mean peasant. It’s an extraordinary performance that’s brave in so far as that it allows this strange hero to remain an enigma.

And Holland affirms her station as one of our most meticulous and deeply moral storytellers, a worthy heir to the legacy of Polish masters Andrzej Wajda and Krysztof Kieslowski.


  • Comment by arknurse — Apr 17,2012 at 12:24 pm

    Have you ever been considered for a Pulitzer? I think your writing is consistantly the most readable and intelligent in the newspaper. Thanks for sharing it with your readers. Eileen Neukranz, Fayetteville

  • Comment by Philip Martin — Apr 17,2012 at 12:35 pm

    Aw shucks. Yes, I’ve been nominated for a Pulitzer but that’s no big deal; anyone can be nominated by anyone. (So beware whenever you see the terms “Pulitzer-nominated” in someone’s c.v. — chances are they nominated themselves.)

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