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Movie Review: In Darkness (W ciemnocsi)

‘In Darkness,’ a glimmer of light
In Darkness (W ciemnocsi)
Genres: Drama, War
Running Time: 145 min
Release Date: 2012-01-27
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By "Lawrence Toppman"
The Charlotte Observer

To paraphrase the adage, some are born good, some achieve goodness and some have goodness thrust upon them. Leopold Socha’s transformation places him in the third group in the Holocaust drama “In Darkness.”

We meet Socha (Robert Wieckiwicz) as he burgles the house of a deported Jew. He’s a sewer worker in Lvov, and though he has nothing against Jews – he probably interacted easily with them before World War II – he has found ways to prosper during the Nazi occupation of Poland.

This obedient Catholic is surprised to learn from Wanda, his wife (Kinga Preis), that Jesus was a Jew. He’s more surprised to see a wealthy scholar (Herbert Knaup) leading a passel of his fellow Jews into the sewers, one step ahead of deportation or execution by the Nazis. He’s most surprised to find himself guiding a dozen to safety.

True, Socha can make more money charging them for food, water and protection than he can by turning them into the Nazis for a one-time reward. His financial motive satisfies him for a while. But as he becomes emotionally involved in their struggle, he starts thinking of them as “my Jews” instead of “the Jews.”

What makes him heroic is our awareness that he and anyone who shares his knowledge may be killed. Wanda’s too shrewd to believe that his new fortune comes from a raise in pay, so she joins the circle. (Now the refugees become “our Jews.”)

Socha’s maintenance partner would prefer to be uninvolved but takes a cut. And a Nazi officer who knew Socha before the war becomes an unknowing accomplice by vouching for him and keeping authorities off Socha’s back.

Polish-born director Agnieszka Holland is best known for another Nazi-era drama, “Europa Europa,” which earned her a screenplay Oscar nomination. (“In Darkness” was Oscar-nominated as a foreign film.)

She has always dealt with flawed, reluctant heroes or heroines, and the Jews of “Darkness” come off scarcely better than Socha at times: They have adulterous sex – in one case, while the wife lies alongside! – betray and steal from each other. Only Mundek (Benno Fürmann), who’s brave enough to sneak into a work camp to find his girlfriend’s sister, is completely strong, kind and decent.

Screenwriter David Shamoon, who makes his debut adapting a nonfiction book by Robert Marshall, falls into melodrama at times. Another sewer worker sees the concealed group underground; though he immediately runs into Nazi-patrolled streets, shouting about Jews in the sewers, the refugees have time to move without a trace. (Or maybe nobody comes to look, which is less likely.)

That’s a small flaw, and it scarcely detracts from the tension. Though the film seems a bit long at almost two and a half hours, Holland needs that time to make the huddled cluster of Jews distinguishable as individuals.

Fürmann’s riveting, but the acting honors go to Wieckiwicz. He’s exactly right: robust, earthy, slightly stupid at first but roused to a keener understanding of humanity. He’s like Sancho Panza, ennobled by his part in a quixotic voyage and almost embarrassed by it – a reminder that not everyone who has goodness thrust upon him wants it.

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4/19/2012 - The Charlotte Observer - Lawrence Toppman

Jews hide in the sewers of Lvov during World War II, dependent on the kindness of an ambivalent maintenance worker. This drama earned an Oscar nomination.

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