In Darkness is bleak in both narrative and visuals, and tells the story of a group of Jewish refugees forced underground in Poland during the Nazi occupation. These men, women and children hid in the sewers beneath Lviv for over a year, with only a city worker to provide for their needs and safeguard them from prying Nazi soldiers. At times the individuals get lost amid the chaos, which is almost fitting, but Director Agnieszka Holland's film is frank and moving. In Darkness depicts an intense period of fear and uncertainty, but does not overlook the acts that allowed the hunted to retain their humanity.
When the Germans took Lviv (now part of the Ukraine) in 1941, they joined many non-Jewish citizens in committing atrocities against the Jewish population. In the darkest days of the occupation, a group of Jews hid underground in the city's sprawling sewer system to escape the Germans. In Darkness dramatizes a year in the lives of several Jewish families who were led underground by sewer maintenance worker Leopold Socha (Robert Wieckiewicz). Hidden from the chaos that reigned above but far from safe, this group suffered immense hardship in a filthy, inhospitable environment.
Socha does not set out to protect the Jews, as he has a wife (Kinga Preis) and young daughter (Zofia Pieczynska) at home to look after. He makes ends meet by stealing to supplement his city salary, and he decides to shepherd the group only when they offer to pay him for his trouble. This is certainly a risky endeavor, and Socha must evade prying Germans when visiting the group. In Darkness reveals that many Jews used the sewers as a hiding place, so the Germans often patrolled the tunnels. Socha must constantly move his flock into new, less-accessible hiding spots to avoid detection.
In one of the disc's supplemental features, Holland recounts the horror of the sewers as described in her research. Foul, unsanitary, cramped and crushingly dark, these sewers were not built to house anything but waste. Holland adds that despite the environment, the Jews that hid under Lviv managed to retain dignity and societal function. These prisoners loved, reproduced, socialized and wept together underground for a year. The sewer was like a horrible summer camp from which its inhabitants wanted to escape but which provided many memories.
In Darkness at times feels impersonal and chaotic, which is not surprising given its setting. Socha's Jewish dependants are forced to endure immeasurable hardship underground, but it is often difficult to relate to the characters on an individual level. In Darkness hits the viewer with so much ugly reality that it's tempting to shy away from the experience, but Holland ties things together well enough that the film is successful as a whole.
Socha is an interesting protagonist, and his flaws are immediately evident. In Darkness illustrates the difference between wishing the Jews well and actually doing something to help through Socha's wife, who is infuriated that Socha neglects his own family to protect others. In Darkness is as much about redemption for Socha as it is the people stuck underground. In one heartbreaking scene, Socha learns he is too late to save a new life born in the sewer. It is then that the people's survival becomes more to Socha than a business transaction.
There are many films about the Holocaust, and it's hard not to compare In Darkness to films like Schindler's List and Downfall, but In Darkness tells a fresh, important story. Holland's tale is at times oppressively bleak, but its depiction of such steadfast resolve to survive in hopeless circumstances is uplifting. In Darkness takes a faceless group under common threat and reveals that its members continued to fight as the world above passed them by.
The 1.85:1/1080p/AVC-encoded transfer is another stellar effort from Sony. In Darkness could have been a murky mess with a less competent transfer, but Sony really delivers here. The film is gritty and dark - very dark - as many scenes take place in the sewers, but black levels are rock solid. There is much to see amid the shadows, and the transfer handles the various degrees of blackness with a steady hand. Scenes can be pitch black and still without crush. Detail is exceptional, especially above ground, and the image is immaculately textured. Although much of the film is black and gray, pops of vivid color occur during several scenes. The image retains a light layer of grain but never becomes too noisy. This is quite an impressive transfer.
The Polish 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio track is quite strong. Dialogue is crisp and audible, and the mix places viewers down in the sewers by making excellent use of the surround speakers for ambient effects. Action effects like gunfire and rushing water are bold and set off the subwoofer, and the score is appropriately weighty. English and English SDH subtitles are available.
In An Evening with Agnieszka Holland (29:23/HD), the director recalls the film's inspiration in Robert Marshall's The Sewers of Lvov and describes the film's development and production. When asked about the film's numerous sex scenes, Holland recalls reading one man's account of his time in the sewers in which it was revealed that the man never stopped making love. Holland also discusses cutting the film down from four hours to a more reasonable 144 minutes. Holland had no idea there was a living survivor when she was making the film, but was later contacted by Krystyna Chiger, who was an adolescent girl during the year depicted in the film. In In Light: A Conversation with Agnieszka Holland and Krystyna Chiger (28:01/HD), the pair meets to discuss Chiger's recollection of the events and her reaction to the film. This piece also includes several interesting scenes cut from the final film. Sony also includes the film's theatrical trailer (2:02/HD).
In Darkness is certainly a bleak film, but it depicts a unique part of the Holocaust when sewer maintenance worker Leopold Socha hid a group of Jewish families in the tunnels under Nazi-occupied Poland. Director Agnieszka Holland's film shows these men and women fight to retain some normalcy as the world above seeks to eradicate them. In Darkness risks being compared with other Holocaust films, but tells its own powerful story. Highly Recommended.
William lives in Raleigh, North Carolina, and looks forward to a Friday-afternoon matinee.