In Darkness is aptly titled. This film is incredibly dark, both in a lighting sense and its subject matter. Based on the book, “In the Sewers of Lvov: a Heroic Story of Survival from the Holocaust,” In Darkness joins a long line of films which document Jewish ghettos during World War II. The story follows an individual group of Jews who evade the Nazis once the ghetto massacre begins. The group dug a hole from one of their small apartments which led down into the murky mess of the Lvov, Poland sewers.
The resident lord of the sewers is Lvov’s sewer inspector, Leopold Socha (Robert Wieckiewicz). He is a blue collar worker who is just trying to get through the German occupation as best he can. Along with his assistant, Socha ransacks houses formerly occupied by Jews to steal whatever he can and sell the stolen goods to help support his wife Wanda (Kinga Preis) and his young daughter. One day while working in the sewer, Socha comes upon a group of Jews who have just completed digging a hole from the Jewish ghetto into the sewer. Socha has no love for Jewish people but he has no direct animosity towards them either. In exchange for a hefty sum of cash, Socha agrees to keep mum about the hole and if the time comes, will help a small number of them evade the Nazis and find good hiding spots.
Naturally, the storming of the ghetto comes sooner than expected. The scene of the in-the-know Jews who attempt to flee into the sewer is ridiculous. They fight among themselves on who should go first, physically stuff those into the hole who do not want to go, and in a completely absurd aside, a wife and her daughter refuse to escape with them because her husband has been cheating on her. Socha is true to his monetarily purchased word and leads this infighting rabble to an out of the way location in the sewer.
The sewer maze is an impressive set design with the disgusting atmosphere to match. It is incredibly dark, dirty, rat infested, cold, and full of unimaginable pestilence. However, compared to the massacre occurring right above their heads, the sewer is safe. Unfortunately, the sewer will not accommodate the amount of people in their group. Socha says he can only safely hide ten of them and in a brutal scene, the overseer of the group chooses the chosen. The others are left to their own volition. The group’s leaders are the strong and able Mundek (Benno Furrmann) and the financier Ignacy Chiger (Herbert Knaup).
The Nazis and their Polish sympathizers know there are Jews hiding out in the sewers; some residents can smell boiled onions coming up through their toilets. There is a bounty for whoever turns them in and if Socha is caught, he will be shot right along with the captured Jews. The rest of In Darkness is a series of scenes of infighting amongst the Jews who are cramped in very tight and disgusting quarters and infighting between Socha and his wife and Socha and his assistant, who is sometimes in on the scheme.
These seemingly unending episodes of fighting and sniping become truly tedious after awhile. Scene after scene of this will eventually get under the audience’s skin and they’ll welcome the eventual end after its 145 minute run time. Breaths of fresh air are provided by Mr. Chiger’s two children who are a welcome respite from the malicious adults in the room and Socha’s gradual metamorphosis from a financially motivated shelter provider to a man who realizes he has a soul which cares about these human beings.
The cinematography and art direction of these sewers are really remarkable as is the contrast in lighting between the action which takes place above ground opposed to the events happening underneath. Unfortunately, the script does not match the shadowy mise-en-scene and In Darkness suffers for it. This Polish film earned an Academy Award nomination for Best Foreign Film but it is clear why it did not win — the muddled sequencing of events and episodic turmoil morphs from a harrowing World War II story to one of near irritation. A more adept script would have catapulted this film to much more notoriety.