In Darkness

In Darkness


Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

Over time, it gets harder and harder to tell stories about the Holocaust. For all the importance of making sure people remember, there have now been so many films on the subject that new ones struggle to make an impact. There is a danger that they will compete with one another to be more gratuitously horrific. There's a scene early on here where our hero, Leopold, sees naked women driven through the woods with machine guns. But thankfully this film is sparing in its use of such imagery; director Agnieszka Holland understands that what really makes an impression is the internal experience of such extreme situations.

Leopold's is a true story. An ordinary Polish sewage worker, anti-Semitic by habit, trying to turn a blind eye to the horrors around him, he accidentally encountered a group of Jews trying to hide in the tunnels beneath his city. Though he could have turned them in for money, it seemed more profitable to extract payments from them first, in exchange for food and measure of safety. But spending time with people makes it harder to see them as less than human. Leopold softened, discovering a sympathy - and courage - he didn't know he had.

It's a powerful story. Like all tales of endurance - the hunted Jews spent months down there in the darkness - it needs to be long in order to take the audience on that journey. This presents challenges for any storyteller and scriptwriter David F Shamoon handles them well. As well as spending time in the sewers we see the world above; the contrast is sometimes startling. Whilst Leopold's refugees huddle in rags, his wife washes her sheets, cooks, runs baths, even entertains visiting German officers. Pedestrians walk or cycle by above the pit where others lurk in terror. Everybody is pretending nothing is happening.

There are big challenges here for the director, too, and not all these are handled as successfully. Down below, the only illumination comes from torches and small gas lamps. This creates a powerful sense of intimacy but the flip side is that it sometimes does make it difficult to follow which character is doing what. We never quite get to know the Jews as well as we should. Only a few stand out. Romance blossoms between two of them; others strive to protect their children, who are gradually stealing Leopold's heart.

Robert Wieckiewicz is solid and capable in the central role yet doesn't quite have the charisma to get the film through these difficulties. We identify with him but don't quite fear for him as much as we should, despite the huge risk he is running - for his family as well as for himself. That gruelling emphasis on endurance comes at the expense of sharper tension and sometimes this diminishes the overall effect of the film.

Despite this, In Darkness is an intriguing piece of work which offers a new angle on the brutality of the Holocaust. For those with an interest in the subject it is certainly worth going to see.

Reviewed on: 20 Jan 2012
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A self-centred, anti-Semitic, Catholic sewer worker shelters Jews from the Nazis, at first for money but gradually because he comes to care about them as a human being.
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Director: Agnieszka Holland

Writer: David F Shamoon, based on the book by Robert Marshall.

Starring: Robert Wieckiewicz, Bennu F├╝rmann

Year: 2011

Runtime: 145 minutes

BBFC: 15 - Age Restricted

Country: Poland/Canada/Germany


Glasgow 2012

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