Tuesday, February 07, 2012

Agnieszka Holland’s In Darkness

Compared to the sewers of Lvov, Anne Frank’s attic would have seemed comparatively bright and airy. Nevertheless, those inhuman living conditions led to a greater survival rate than the famous house in Amsterdam. Master Polish filmmaker Agnieszka Holland dramatizes the true story of a roguish sewer worker who became one of the righteous by sheltering a small group of Jews beneath the city’s ghetto in In Darkness (trailer here), Poland’s ninth Oscar nomination for best foreign language film, which opens this Friday in New York.

An ex-con working amid Lvov’s sewage, Leopold Socha hardly cut a heroic figure. Nor were he and his crony above a bit of wartime plundering. However, his heart was never with the prevailing powers, as the audience learns when a young fascist interrupts their extracurricular activities. Since no proper German would debase themselves in the sewers, it makes a perfect hiding place for their loot. As it happens, a small band of Jews about to be deported to the concentration camps had a similar idea.

Although there is a standing bounty for any Jews he might discover, Socha initially extorts protection money from them. However, as he comes to know them as individuals, Socha starts to protect them in earnest. Thrown together under unimaginable circumstances, “Socha’s Jews” as he comes to think of them, are an often contentious lot, carrying the baggage of their jealousies and resentments.

Indeed, Holland and screenwriter David F. Shamoon repeatedly emphasize the point one need not be a saint to do the right thing. Likewise, the messy character flaws on display in no way mitigate profound injustice of their situation.

A former assistant to Andrzej Wajda, Holland returns to the grim, naturalistic aesthetic of her early Polish films, like A Lonely Woman. She captures a vividly sense of that dark, claustrophobic existence in the sewers. Even the relatively long 145 minute running time is a deliberate strategy to convey the sensation of confinement.

Again, Holland clearly handled her cast with finely attuned sensitivity, coaxing nuanced performances from them while they were restricted to dank, murky spaces. As Socha, Robert Wieckiewicz convincingly conveys his moral awakening. Arguably though, the breakout star turn comes from Benno Fürmann (probably best known to American audience for the historical mountaineering drama North Face and the Wachowskis’ unfortunate Speed Racer), truly dynamic and intense as Mundek Margulies, a former criminal among “Socha’s Jews,” who might be an even greater scoundrel, but directly prods the reluctant protector to unforeseen heights of courage.

Granted, Darkness might not hold a lot of surprises in store for historically aware viewers, but Holland adroitly expresses the tragedy and bitter irony of Poland’s wartime and immediate post-war experiences. It is often a tough film to watch, but it is not merely well intentioned. It is also well executed. In fact, it is probably the only foreign language Academy Award contender with an outside chance of upsetting Asghar Farhadi’s A Separation. A worthy companion to Holland’s Europa, Europa, Darkness definitely deserves an audience when it opens this Friday (2/10) in New York at the Angelika Film Center.