I know many people who will not see a foreign film with subtitles. Though they give many and varied reasons, the singular truth to them remains that a foreign film is just too much work. They have to read while watching the film and somehow it takes away from the experience. I find that idea a bit hard to comprehend. Some of the greatest films ever made are from other countries with subtitles. One of the best movies of 2011 and nominated for the Oscar in the Foreign Film Category is finally opening in limited release. It is In Darkness, and it is a film that should not be missed.
Based on a true story of Leopold Socha, a sewer worker living in Lvov Poland during the Nazi occupation, as the film opens we see Socha (Robert Wieckiewicz) robbing a home. It is established that he is a very unsavory character. Taking ill-gotten loot into the underground of the city, Leopold hides valuables until the conflict is over so he can make a profit.
One day he hears a banging in the sewer system. He discovers a group of Jews in the ghetto are trying to tunnel into the sewer in order to make their escape. Since he knows the sewers better than any individual above ground, Leopold makes a deal with them. For a large amount of daily cash, he will help them to hide and bring them supplies. Eventually the day comes when the Jews have to go into hiding; the Nazis are clearing out the ghetto and sending the Jews to the concentration camps. Any Jew who refuses is killed instantly.
On the surface, the Nazis are exterminating all the Jews left in the city. An acquaintance of Leopold works with the Nazis and tells him that they’re are offering a huge amount of cash to bring out any Jew in hiding. Leopold considers making this deal but his conscious just won’t let him turn these people into the authorities. He goes from being just a guy trying to make a profit to a protector of these people.
Everyone suspects that Leopold knows more than he is letting on about the underground Jews. The Poles hate the Jews, even though they are fellow Poles. Leopold finally realizes that even though the people are Jewish, they are still people. His humanity is awakened by helping others. Some notice that Leopold is buying more food than needed for his small family. He is not sure who is watching and reporting him. The film goes through the entire occupation of Poland and the struggle to keep these people hidden.
Agnieszka Holland has created a brilliant film, full of all the emotions of mankind. She captures the desperation of the situation while showing the hope of human resilience. Working with such cramped corners, one would think that the film would become a redundant exercise in limited shot selection. Her camera never becomes complacent as she follows these desperate people.
Robert Wieckiewicz plays Leopold with a certain deft charm. His awakening becomes our awakening. His realization of what needs to be done is a very slow process but is that much more. There is this sadness in his eyes that transcends the material, a spirit that moves to the core. In a word, it is a brilliant performance.
In Darkness would have made it on my best of 2011 list if I had seen the film earlier. It is a shame that such a brave and moving film is being released so late in the season. It is the kind of film like Shindler’s List in that brings a dark part of history to light. This is one of the strongest cinema occurrences one will experience.