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In Darkness

Title: In darkness
Director: Agnieszka Holland
Cast: Robert Wiêckiewicz, Benno Fürmann, Maria Schrader, Herbert Knaup a.o.
Released: 2011, on DVD in 2013
Playing time: 138 minutes

The clear voice of a young girl singing a nursery song echoes through the dark caverns of the sewers in the Polish city of Lvov. Together with her parents, brother and other fugitive Jews the child has found shelter here to escape Nazi persecution. It is past June 1943. During that moth, the ghetto in the town, now in the Ukraine, has been liquidated by German troops. Its inhabitants have been deported to the labor camp Janovska in the outer suburbs of town and from there to extermination camp Belzec, facing certain death. Various Jews manage to escape from the ghetto through the sewer system but only a small number would survive the war in there, including the singing girl. Without the help from the Polish sewer supervisor Leopold Socha they would never have managed it. The Polish movie "In Darkness" of 2011 is about his equally courageous as unexpected role during the Holocaust.

The role of the Poles during the persecution of the Jews is still a delicate issue which becomes clear from the commotion that erupted after the release in 2012 of the German mini series "Unsere Mütter, unsere Väter" (our mothers, our fathers). The film makers, portraying Polish partisans in the production as rabid anti-Semites who did not care about the fate of the Jews and were not afraid themselves to kill Jews went against the grain of the Poles. It is not entirely incomprehensible as the image that unjustly emerges here makes the Poles just as bad as the Nazis. The horrendous suffering of the Poles by the German occupation is not shown at all and neither do we see anything of the many Poles who helped their Jewish fellow men. The Israeli Holocaust Institution Yad Vashem acknowledge (as per January 1, 2013) 6,394 Poles as Righteous among Nations, an honorary title awarded to non-Jewish persons who have helped Jews during the Nazi era. Not a single country counts so many inhabitants who were awarded this title.

One of those "Righteous" is Leopold Socha, born in 1909. He is anything but an unblemished hero. Looking at his previous history, one would sooner conclude he was predestined for a role as scoundrel. Although in the movie, hardly any attention is being paid to it, he was a thief, specializing in shop lifting and burglary. After having been sentenced for a raid on a bank, he spent a long time in prison. His legal work also takes place in the underworld in the literal sense of the word: as supervisor of sewers, he knows the sewer system inside out. After the ghetto has been evacuated, he stumbles upon a group of frightened Jews who are looking for a safe hide out in the maze of tunnels and pipes. Together with two colleagues (in the movie only one), the money hungry villain uses the opportunity to his advantage and offers to take care of them for 500 zlotys a week. He takes the fugitives to a safe place and provides them with food he has bought with their own money.

Yad Vashem allows no misunderstanding whatsoever: in order to be named "Righteous" the recipient of this honorary title is not allowed to have acted in self interest. Initially, Socha does act like this but gradually, a bond emerges between him and the fugitives that goes beyond their business relation. The Catholic Pole who previously did not care about his Jewish fellow men at all (who murdered Christ after all), takes pity on their fate. The Jewish girl, Krystyna Chiger, manages to mollify him. When all of their money has run out and their valuables exchanged for food, he continues helping "his" Jews risking his own life and assisted by his wife. Among the rats and the stench of excrements, the Jewish fugitives remain underground for 13 months. Only when the city is captured by the Red Army in the summer of 1944, do they emerge from their hide out. They belong to the small group of a few hundred Jews who have survived the Holocaust in the city, once densely populated by Jews.

The singular story of survival was noted down by British author and BBC producer Robert Marshall in his book "The Sewers of Lvov", published in 1990 on which the movie is based. The book entitled "The Girl in the Green Sweater" by survivor Krystyna Chiger published in 2008 came just too late to be used by the script writer. Therefore, the movie is not about her but in particular about the Polish sewer inspector. Actor Robert Więckiewicz displays the metamorphosis from a blunt and money hungry villain to a caring and unselfish hero in a convincing way. A comparison between the German industrialist Oskar Schindler, played by Liam Neeson in "Schindler’s List" (1993) is inevitable. Perhaps the courage of the Polish savior of Jews may be greater: as Schindler is protected by his party membership and his contacts within higher Nazi circles, the Pole acts entirely on his own in a world which is equally unsafe for him, being a member of an "inferior" race.

Although "In Darkness" could be considered the umpteenth Holocaust tragedy, this description does not do justice to the movie. Naturally, there are similarities with other movies in the same genre but the story in itself is unique. Both the unexpected hero’s role of Leopold Socha as well as the peculiar hiding place of the group of Jews have been recorded in a searching way without melodramatic side effects. A raw picture is being painted, such as the violent evacuation of the ghetto and the mutual relations between the Jewish fugitives. For instance, one of the Jews leaves his wife and daughter for his mistress with whom he has intercourse in the subterranean hide out without bothering about his fellow fugitives. Unfortunately, the fear and the tension the fugitives must have undergone and the claustrophobic environment they had to live in are less clear to the viewer. There are however exiting moments elsewhere in the movie. A movie that adds something to the genre and which shows that even in war time, common humanity among the Polish population had not disappeared entirely.

Rating: Very good


Translated by:
Arnold Palthe
Article by:
Kevin Prenger
Published on:
Last edit on: