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In War And ‘In Darkness,’ Our Worst And Best Emerge

Filed by KOSU News in Art & Life.
February 9, 2012

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Not much is known about Leopold Socha, a sewage worker and petty thief who protected a small group of Jews hidden in the pipes beneath the then-Polish city of Lvov, while aboveground the occupying Nazis methodically gutted the Jewish ghetto.

In Darkness, a visceral new addition to the burgeoning subgenre of Holocaust dramas from Polish-born director Agnieszka Holland, frames Socha as a minor Oskar Schindler, a war profiteer for whom virtue came to be its own reward.

Craftily played by Robert Wieckiewicz, whose snapping eyes and cratered features seem made to suggest multiple motives, Socha keeps the bedraggled band of Jews fed and watered — for a handsome fee — while he ducks and feints through a forest of perils that include German retribution, the festering resentment of fellow Poles and Ukrainians — whose casual anti-Semitism needs little encouragement from the Third Reich — and the wavering trust of the refugees themselves.

Holland and her gifted cinematographer Jolanta Dylewska extract a hideous beauty from the rat-infested, underground hell that is the Jews’ home for 14 months; In Darkness is a horror movie of sorts, which may seem vulgar or sacrilegious to those who believe the Holocaust should be off-limits to all but the most reverent documentary representation.

Yet it’s hard to imagine a genre more suitable to its terrible subject. Like Andresz Wajda (Kanal) and Roman Polanski (The Pianist), Holland — whose other World War II movies are Angry Harvest and the Oscar-nominated Europa, Europa — uses horror, action and suspense to uncover inconvenient truths. Here, courage and heroism are defined as much by ruthless cunning, dumb luck and the ability to screen out others’ pain as by any heroic derring-do.

Suffering, far from ennobling its victims, can bring out the worst in many, while in a few rare cases it brings out hitherto undiscovered strengths. As the film tells it, Socha, like Schindler, is one such compromised hero, in whom fear, greed and compassion duke it out until one overcomes the others.

Holland is properly unsparing about the casual sadism of the German military, but she resolutely sidesteps the sentimental oppressor-victim division that distorts so much pop-Holocaust narrative today. The Jews below ground include some valiant souls, but their numbers also include a couple of adulterers, one con man, and two cowards bent on saving their own skins at the expense of their fellows’. That, as illustrious survivors like Primo Levi and Bruno Bettelheim have repeatedly testified, is simple reality.

Yet, perhaps because she has worked in and around Hollywood, Holland slathers on the melodrama. David F. Shamoon’s nervously expository screenplay (“That’s just politics — the Jews are just like us”) is the movie’s weakest link. And though it’s true that the lives of fugitives can be read as nothing but event, a daily obstacle race against the unspeakable, life below the streets of Lvov turns into an incessant soap opera of illicit sex, romance and pest control, topped off by the birth of an illegitimate child in a scene that ought to have been snipped along with the umbilical cord.

The elephant in the room of any discussion of Poland and the Jews is that country’s less-than-glorious record of betrayal and collaboration with the Nazis. Holland, who is half-Jewish and whose mother was active in the Polish Resistance, doesn’t shrink from that legacy. But in telling the story of one man who risked a great deal to save a small number of his fellow Poles who happened to be Jewish, she may be holding out the possibility of conciliation, if not of closure. No wonder In Darkness was chosen as Poland’s Academy Awards entry for Best Foreign Language Film.

Still, Holland is far from dewy-eyed about the persistence of the human capacity for evil, even after Auschwitz. After Socha’s death in circumstances that suggest he was a man with a powerful savior gene, we’re told in a coda that he became one of 6,000 Poles honored as Righteous Gentiles by the State of Israel. At his funeral, another Pole insisted that Socha’s death was “God’s punishment for saving Jews.” To which a final coda adds, “As if we needed God to punish each other.” [Copyright 2012 National Public Radio]

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