*In Darkness (R)
Are you ready for another Holocaust story? If you'd thought that surely they'd all been told at this point, think again, and prepare for another grim journey to the most horrendous scheme ever concocted by bitter human ingenuity, salvaged for our collective soul by a tiny bright blip of compassion and empathy.
Hey, perhaps that's why we keep telling these stories over and over again, even when they're not radically different from those we've already been told: We need constant reminding that humanity can coexist alongside unspeakable horrors.
The not-so-radically different tale of In Darkness is basically The Diary of Anne Frank, only with sewers. And it's more about the hidee than the hiders.
This is the true story of sewer inspector and small-time criminal Leopold Socha (Robert Wieckiewicz), who in Nazi-occupied Poland in 1943 agrees to hide a small band of Jews in the dank underground tunnels of the city of Lvov. He knows the tunnels well not only because of his legit work, but because the sprawling urban underworld is the hiding place for his thieved loot ... and in the bleak calculus of Nazi occupation, hidden Jews count as loot, too.
Socha is not working for "his" Jews, hidden away in a dark alcove and surviving on food he brings them, out of the kindness of his heart. They're paying him a not-so-small fee. And he may at any time turn them in for the hefty bounty the Nazis are offering on escaped Jews anyway.
Getting paid is just fine in Socha's mind because all Jews are rich, and eventually turning them in would be fine, too, because they're not even grateful for what Socha is doing for them ... or so he believes. Will he learn the errors of his bigotries and discover that Jews are people, too?
If you don't know the answer to that, you haven't seen any previous Holocaust films and will likely appreciate this more than those of us more weary of what has become a sub-genre of historical storytelling.
Not that I mean to deter you from watching this film. In Darkness, a nominee for Best Foreign Language Film at this year's Oscars, is elegantly presented, chock full of moments of dreadful suspense in a horrible milieu in which everyone is ready to take advantage of anyone at a moment's notice, and buoyed by strikingly naturalistic performances.
Polish director Agnieszka Holland — who's mostly been working in American TV lately, having directed episodes of Treme, The Killing and Cold Case — and screenwriter David F. Shamoon — working from Robert Marshall's book In the Sewers of Lvov — take great care to present a complex scenario peopled by complex characters. The Jews in hiding are not paragons but messy, complicated human beings. One arresting sequence sees a domestic squabble flare up in the middle of a massacre they're meant to be escaping.
Still, In Darkness just barely escapes being all about Socha's transformation into a better man via his "magic Jews," because there's also Mundek Margulies (Benno Fürmann), whose experience as a Jew in hiding is transformative enough to qualify as an actual character arc. But only just barely.