In Darkness: How a Swindler Became a Schindler

Agnieszka Holland's Oscar-nominated film tells the true story of a Polish-Catholic sewer worker and thief who kept Jews alive in Nazi-occupied Lvov

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Jasmin Marla Dichant / Sony Pictures Classics

Maria Schrader as Paulina Chiger

The Nazis’ Final Solution — their plan to kill all Jews under the aegis of the Third Reich — was meant to have a genocidal efficiency. Good old German craftsmanship: Send these faceless enemies of the state to concentration camps and gas them to death. Yet in Angieszka Holland’s In Darkness, a chronicle of the last years of World War II in Lvov, Poland, it’s the acts of petty sadism, the random indignities, that carry the strongest sting. On a crowded street, a German soldier forces a Jewish man in religious garb to stand on a barrel and dance the hora. The number six million has a sick grandeur; but one man captiously humiliating another makes the evil personal, turns the macrocosm to microcosm and reveals that, by treating anyone as an animal, we forfeit our own humanity.

Leopold Socha (Robert Wieckiewicz), as he is at the beginning of Agnieszka Holland’s In Darkness, would have walked past such a scene without caring. A sewer worker and petty thief, he’s no one’s idea of a mensch. In 1943, Poland was deep into the Nazi Occupation; if Socha gave the matter any thought — and he might have, however briefly, as he watched soldiers herd naked, elderly Jewish women through a forest toward their death — he would say that in war bad things happen and people behave brutally. Like most Poles, he is a Catholic; like many, he’s no fan of the chosen people. Yet he knows they have money and jewelry, to barter for their lives. And so, strictly as a business proposition, he agrees to let a dozen or so live in what might be called his office: the sewers under Lvov.

Holland, born to a Catholic father and a Jewish mother, has been a light of the international film scene for more than 40 years. Contributing to screenplays for the great Polish directors Andrzej Wajda (Danton) and Krzysztof Kieslowski (Three Colors), Holland has spent most of the past quarter-century making films in the West, including adaptations of Frances Hodgson Burnett’s The Secret Garden and Henry James’ Washington Square.

She is best known for her two previous Holocaust films: the 1985 Angry Harvest (Oscar nomination for Foreign Language Film) and the 1991 Europa Europa (Oscar nomination for Best Adapted Screenplay). In Darkness, which completes the trilogy, has been nominated for an Oscar in the Foreign-Language Film category, where it will compete against the excellent father-son Israeli feature Footnote and the clear favorite, the Iranian drama A Separation.

(MORE: See Corliss’s review of A Separation)

The theme of a reluctant gentile trying to save Jews from Hitler’s minions should be appealing to Academy voters, who named Schindler’s List the Best Picture of 1993, but may induce Holocaust fatigue in some viewers. So many movies have been made about this appalling tragedy that it has become its own genre — the writer and artist Art Spiegelman dubbed it “holo-kitsch” — populated with noble victims and flinty, finally heroic enablers, and too easily reduced to sanctified, sodden cliché.

In Darkness, though inspired by actual events and real people, doesn’t mind flirting with those stereotypes. The rib-poking score tells audiences when to cry — as if, under the circumstances, they’d need prodding. Most of the actors playing Jews have handsome, sensitive faces; the flashlight Socha shines on them in the murky sewers creates halos around their chiseled features. You are cued to believe that the Jews must be saved for the reason any Hollywood weepie thinks that lovers must be united: because they are beautiful.

(MORE: See Corliss’s review of Defiance: “Beyond Holo-kitsch”)

A casting director would take one look at In Darkness‘s star, Wieckiewicz, and think he was there to fix the pipes. His face is stolid, meaty, neither iron-jawed nor glamorously gaunt. If he were in a Hollywood movie, it would be as third thug from the right. Yet beyond the gift of beauty is the skill of bringing a character to vivid, complex life, and that’s what Wieckiewicz does in his role as a swindler who became a Schindler.

Contradictions bubble within Socha, finding a purging synthesis over the film’s two hours and 23 minutes. He’s a caring husband and father who eagerly fleeces the Jews of their last possessions in return for his patronage. If he were what was considered a good citizen in Nazi-occupied Poland, he would have reported them instead of hiding them; he is essentially running a protection racket. Bred in bigotry, Socha must be taught to care for men and women of a libeled faith, and to see their value beyond their riches. When first bargaining with them, he observes, “Give a Jew a finger and he’ll take your arm.” But when one of those in his care accompanies him on a dangerous mission, he has to be impressed: “And I always thought all Yids were cowards.” Illumination comes slowly but surely.

Holland shows the similarity of the Jews and their abettor in rhyming scenes: one of Socha and his wife having quiet sex so as not to wake their child, another of a Jewish couple making love silent, urgently, surrounded by their sleeping colleagues. As he becomes humanized, needing to protect himself as well as the Jews, he realizes that no good deed goes unpunished. Collaborating with the Jews was just as toxic an epithet as Nazi collaborator would later be, and more dangerous: his life as well as theirs is at stake. He also finds that a good deed can have dreadful consequences. To protect his brood in the sewers, he kills a German soldier; the Nazis think the Jews committed the crime and execute ten in revenge.

Real life brims with startling atrocities as well as clichés, and this film is full of both. Ultimately, it melts a skeptic’s resistance and satisfies for the intensity of the performances and for the artful contrasting of life on the teeming streets of Lvov with life and death in the dim, rat-infested sewers. Transcending Holo-kitsch, In Darkness is often a thrilling adventure picture — as if Anne Frank had found an Inglourious Basterd to help her make The Great Escape.