Much to my surprise I found it necessary to see yet another holocaust film — In Darkness. I find that even among my Jewish friends that holocaust films are pushing the limits of saturation for just about everyone. Very few people can bear to sit through yet another gut punch that pretty much has to be the by-product of such films. I also notice that even while this film maintained a 91 rating on Rotten Tomatoes that the negative reviews often touch on this very issue. They wonder how many more times we can treat Nazi atrocities with the emotion they deserve? Does saturation bring a cold numbing of our senses to the whole idea?
Regardless I found this film fascinating and powerful. It’s not an easy ride. As the title suggests much of it takes place is near-total darkness. The main plot involves a group of Polish Jews who escape capture below the streets of the Warsaw ghetto with the help of a Polish sewer inspector. We’re told this is a true story finally written-out in 2008 in the memoirs of one of the children portrayed.
The main complication of the story deals with typical stereotypes of the day. The Polish sewer inspector has been raised to think the worst of Jews while the Jews are extremely hesitant to put their faith (and quickly vanishing funds) in a Pole that they’re not so sure won’t turn them in for cash as soon as he bleeds them dry first. It’s a key part of the story and it’s played to perfection here. We’re let in on the evolution a bit before the characters themselves as we’re, of course, able to experience their individual time apart from one another to see this maturation take place.
This is no Schindler’s List but it doesn’t need to be and, in fact, this seems more powerful in several key ways. It’s much more of a common man’s story from both sides. As mentioned, we’re dealing with a different dynamic than most other holocaust films. Typically you have the victimized Jew, who clearly deserves everyone’s sympathy and pity, saved by the seemingly rare good German. Here we get a story of two far from perfect factions that bring their own baggage to the film and that’s something rare in these efforts. The would-be hero is constantly battling his own conscience. At any moment he might just turn them all in or simply leave them to their own demise. The victims are continually their own worst enemies, making noise where they shouldn’t, continually trying to pretend they have some better choices than the only one they have and often acting ungrateful for the help they’re getting. It’s all quite riveting.
One oddity was the amount of sex and sexually driven nudity found in the film. At first it struck me as distracting and then I realized that it too was essential to the plot. Especially when there’s no hope left, people given no other option, will turn to sex wherever they can get it if only for a momentary escape from their horrible surroundings.
A strange by-product of this unique approach is that the viewer isn’t overcome with angst and emotion during much of the film. Only in its closing moments do you feel the pull of tears and anguish and that’s rather noteworthy and a compliment.
It’s not a perfect film. Following several of the characters is much more difficult than it should be and the acting isn’t anything special. Plus the endless necessary darkness does make it harder to stay connected. I suspect some viewers lost interest along the way as a result. Regardless, I’m glad I caught it and I can see why it was nominated for a best foreign film Oscar (which I learned after seeing it).