"Yet another fantastically harrowing portrayal of the terrors of the second World War..."
When an upcoming release can boast the "Oscar nominated..." tag-line, it adds a real sense of pressure to a feature, where given the enormous amount of quality in world cinema over the past year, to be selected on the honoured 5-strong short-list for Best Foreign Language Film must mean that there is something special about Agnieszka Holland's In Darkness.
Entered as Poland's submission for the 84th Academy Awards, In Darkness tells the true story of a small group of Jewish refugees, hiding in the sewers for 14 months to avoid the Nazis who are wreaking havoc above their heads.
Set in the Nazi-occupied Polish city of Lvov during World War Two, twelve despairing Jews seek refuge with sewer worker Leopold Socha (Robert Wieckiewicz), to help shelter them and provide assistance whilst hiding in the murky underground sewage system, for an indefinite period of time. The wealthy Ignacy Chiger (Herbert Knaup) is paying Socha for his services and for putting his life at risk for the hopeless refugees, to help protect himself and his friends, which include his wife and two children.
Spurning questions raised by the Nazis, Socha despairs for what he affectionately labels as 'his Jews', and soon any initial inclination towards the protection of his their safety is washed away as he forms allegiances and friendships down below, including that of Mundek Margulies (Benno Fürmann) whom he had once disliked. Socha heroically looks after the refugees, although there is only so long they can survive in such conditions and on such rationed supplies.
In Darkness is yet another fantastically harrowing portrayal of the terrors of the second World War, as well as being incredibly bitter-sweet, as is often the case with morality tales from such a period. Although presenting a quite unique and warming tale, the heroic aspects of saving the lives of a small group of Jews is still counteracted with millions of others dying around them, and Holland masterfully manages to depict such a sentiment, combining the hopeful, uplifting aspects with quite disturbing and upsetting scenes.
The performances all round are exceptional, particularly by Wieckiewicz. The character of Socha is a complex one, as the thief and burglar is initially quite difficult to admire, and despite his helping of the Jews, you can't help but feel he is doing it simply for his own good, for money and the satisfaction of doing something worthy. Yet the transformation is clear to see, as Wieckiewicz manages to encapsulate the changing nature of his role, from being disliked to revered.
The filmmaking is also exceptional, as Holland finds the perfect balance between hope and despair, not emphasising any factor in particular. It isn't a film that craves sentimentalism or sympathy, as the fact children are in the sewers isn't dwelt on, as those living in such conditions represent the Jewish race as a whole from that time, rather than delving into their personal lives for cinematic effect.
Yet the film's greatest feature is how Holland manages to make the audience feel almost as if they too have been on a similar journey to the Jewish refugees. At roughly two and a half hours long, the film trudges along slowly, which can often be somewhat frustrating in cinema, yet the length proves a necessity in adding to the overall atmosphere of this film, as the tension mounts, almost imitating their 14 month stay in the sewers. Such a notion is also enhanced by the bleak and darkly-lit aesthetic, once again a poignant symbol of their predicament, as the darkness in which they are imprisoned, makes the audience feel as though in a similar position, as most scenes are presented via the light from a torch. You certainly have to adjust your eyes to the light as you walk out of the cinema and onto the street.
Such sentiments being etched into us by Holland simply add to the to torturous story, in what is a very disconcerting and thought-provoking piece of cinema. And although there being a couple of stand-out exclusions from the Best Foreign Language nominees this year, In Darkness has definitely proved to be a worthy inclusion.