Like “Schindler’s List” (1993), “In Darkness” tells the story of a gentile who saves a number of Jews from the Nazi holocaust. But while Oskar Schindler’s humanitarianism was evident from the very beginning, that’s not the case with two Polish sewer workers who at first try to profit from the situation.
Aside from the hiding place, that’s the only difference, really, between the two premises, and maybe director Agnieszka Holland should have played it up more. I was interested in these looting and profiteering sewer workers in the Polish city of Lvov. But when the film got—too quickly, I thought—into the business of sewer workers as saviors, it became much less interesting because we’ve seen it all before. To go down the same path as “Schindler’s List” with a less talented cast and a film that’s shot mostly “in darkness” is to court disappointment. “In Darkness” may have been nominated as Poland’s entry in the Oscars, but “Schindler’s List” won seven Academy Awards—including Best Picture. Steven Spielberg told his story with a kind of lyricism that stood in sharp contrast with the dark themes and visuals. That’s not the case with this 2011 film.
Don’t get me wrong. “In Darkness” is worth watching. But if you’ve seen “Schindler’s List,” it won’t have nearly the same effect on you.
For one thing, “In Darkness” isn’t as complex a film. The script by David F. Shamoon is based on the book In the Sewers of Lvov: A Heroic Story of Survival from the Holocaust, by Robert Marshall. And while the Jews that Marshall writes about stayed in the sewers for more than a year, you don’t get that same sense of time here. Aside from a few superficial relationship bumps and a philanderer who will have sex in a room with other Jews or in the sewers, everyone in the film seems there as a chess piece to be moved from scene to scene.
The book may be full of examples of sadistic Nazis, but when they’re compressed into a 145-minute film it feels like the writer and director are going out of their way to demonize Germans—with several of them posing with a Yiddish man as they cut off his beard and then rip whole clumps off his face. Surely there were a few Germans who didn’t throw themselves into torture and killing with such relish.
In “Schindler’s List” the nudity felt organic to the film. That’s not the case in the opening of “In Darkness,” in which the two sewer workers are running away after looting the house of a Jew and see Nazis herding naked women, who run and then are shot en masse. It feels oddly gratuitous, disconnected from the rest of the film.
“Schindler’s List” was filmed in black and white, but “In Darkness,” shot in color, offers a script that portrays the world in black and white. A few more shades of grey would have helped, and that brings me back to those looting sewer workers. I was fascinated by Leopold Socha (Robert Wieckiewicz) and his pal, Mundek Margulies (Benno Fürmann), but not because of their personalities or their dilemmas. It was the whole idea of stealing and scrounging and storing away loot behind a wall in the sewers for a “rainy day” that was intriguing. And when they surprise a group of Jews who had dropped into the sewer through a tunnel they’d dug, that the two blackmail the leader, Mr. Chiger (Herbert Knaup), into paying to stay in the sewers, is more interesting than if they had a conscience that immediately kicked into effect.
But if you think about it, as tight a grip as the Nazis have on the city, and as prone as frightened residents are to report anything amiss, how is it that Socha and Mundek are able to get food and blankets and kerosene for lamps so easily? I mean, they enter the sewer not through some obscure and hidden drainpipe, but in the middle of a busy street, under a manhole. That too adds to the sense of superficiality that somehow pervades this film. It drags in the third act, and when you see an artful shot you wish there were more, but there’s still enough here to keep you watching.
“In Darkness” is rated R for violence, disturbing images, sexuality, nudity, and language.
Digitally filmed, “In Darkness” looks superb in HD—which is saying something, considering that most of the scenes are shot in low light. Detail is evident not only in close-ups, but also medium shots. But the colors are almost so desaturated at times that you have to remind yourself you’re watching a color film rather than a black-and-white one. Is that deliberate, or native to the master source? It’s hard to say. But because the level of detail is so strong and the black levels are enough to hold detail in low light, I’m ready to give the benefit of the doubt. “In Darkness” is presented in 1.85:1 aspect ratio, transferred to a 50GB disc via an AVC/MPEG-4 region-specific encode.
The featured audio is a Polish DTS-HD MA 5.1, but German and other languages are also spoken, with subtitles in English and English SDH. Like the video, the audio is solid, and you notice the crispness and movement across the sound field when gunshots are fired or screams are heard. Most of the film is dialogue-driven, however, and that means much of the sound emanates from the front and center speakers. There’s a decent amount of ambient sound that the rear speakers deliver, but nothing I’d call immersive or dynamic. Subtitles are in English and English SDH.
There’s not much here in the way of bonus features, which is surprising, given that the story comes from a book that’s based on considerable research. But what’s here is very good. The best is “In Light: A Conversation with Agnieszka Holland and Krystyna Chiger,” a survivor of the sewers. The director talks with her about the film and her own recollections.
In “An Evening with Agnieszka Holland,” the director talks about working with Sony Pictures Classics and just about every aspect of pre- and post-production. Anne Thompson asks the questions.
“In Darkness” is no “Schindler’s List,” and the film suffers by comparison. But it’s still a worthwhile experience.