Friday, 8 June 2012
IN DARKNESS - Review By Greg Klymkiw - Now on DVD and Blu-Ray Via Mongrel Media and Sony, Agnieszka Holland's Academy Award Nominated Polish-Canadian Co-production tells the harrowing tale of Jews hiding in the sewers of Lviv during World War II
In Darkness (2011)
dir. Agnieszka Holland
Whenever a new film about the Holocaust appears, the oft-heard refrain is, "Not another one!" It's as if the subject itself is enough to inspire such dismissive reactions - which, frankly, I've never understood. Genocide is one of the greatest blights upon mankind as a species and given the especially horrific events of the 20th century, stories such as In Darkness must be told.
Set in the Ukrainian city of Lviv during World War II, we're introduced to the Polish plumber and sewer-worker Leopold Socha (Robert Wieckiewicz) who supplements his livelihood during the Nazi occupation by thieving and black marketeering. A group of people in the Jewish ghetto have burrowed into the sewers in order to escape the impending horrors that await them. Socha happens upon the Jews and agrees to hide them beneath the old city where nobody will find them - for a price, of course.
A major payday awaits when Socha's old friend Bortnick (Michal Zurawski), a member of the Ukrainian SS, mentions the substantial reward available for pointing officials to Jews in hiding. Socha gets the bright idea of soaking his Jewish charges until their money runs out and THEN betraying them for the bounty.
War, however, has different effects upon different people. Some take the easy road, while others face up to who they really are and make sacrifices with their very lives.
Much of the film takes place in the dank, dark sewers of Lviv and we are privy to the horrendous conditions the Jews must live in order to survive. While we follow Socha's adventures above ground, life for the Jews is presented in clear juxtaposition.
Here is where David F. Shamoon's screenplay adaptation of Robert Marshall's book really shines. Given the number of characters, above and below ground that must be juggled, he presents a series of evocative portraits on both sides of the divide. Above ground, not everyone is a villain, whilst below ground, not everyone is a saint. The screenplay provides humanity with a layered dramatic resonance.
The fine script allows for a flawless cast to deliver a series of performances that will burn in your memory long after seeing the film. Holland's direction is precise and classical. She doesn't miss any dramatic beats and it's finally a movie that never lets up - it's compelling, surprising, shocking and finally, profoundly moving from beginning to end.
I have one major quibble, however. I will admit that it would probably not even be a problem if I was NOT of Ukrainian heritage, but luckily I am, because it allowed me to pinpoint a missing political element that might well have added an even deeper layer to this fine film.
Here's the problem, as I see it. The city of Lviv was, prior to the Nazis marching in, already an occupied city. Poland had claimed a huge portion of Western Ukraine as its own and parachuted (so to speak) huge numbers of Polish citizens to populate and run the city. Many Ukrainians were forced out and eventually settled in outlying areas of the Oblast. Being in the midst of researching my own family tree, I have discovered that a great many of my blood ancestors were driven out of Lviv by the Poles. Ironically, many of them formed their own village which also bore my surname. The village was subsequently destroyed by the Poles when they decided to build a dam and flood the whole village. From there, my ancestors split up and settled even further West in and around Ternopil.
I have to admit that in light of this research I was troubled that the script ignored the fact that this "Polish" city was, in fact, already an occupied city prior to the Nazis. I was further disturbed that the only Ukrainian character in the tale was portrayed as a vile Jew-hating pig who doesn't collaborate with the Nazis for the usual reasons Ukrainians collaborated (many were duped into believing the Nazis would be their liberators from both Polish and Russian oppression). These are issues of ethnocentric ignorance that are hurtful, but let's cast them aside for a moment and think about this otherwise compelling story if it had added the element of Poles being an occupying force to begin with who were, in turn occupied. From a narrative standpoint, I'd argue this might have made the piece far more interesting and added an additional layer of complexity to one in which the filmmakers do not present easy Hollywood-style answers to the dilemmas facing all the characters.
It's the fact that the screenplay so diligently creates drama and conflict by presenting a myriad of complexities within the characters that it disappoints me the film did not take the time or effort to explore this avenue also.
This will no doubt be seen as an easily dismissed and biased quibble, but the fact remains that World War II and the Holocaust are fraught with horrendous sufferings and issues that are not black and white.
Some biases, it seems, are acceptable, while others are not.
The bottom line though, is that it's a terrific film. That said, even great pictures have potential to be greater and I believe my "bias" might well have improved the tale considerably.
"In Darkness", 2011 Oscar nominee for Best Foreign Language Film is currently available on Blu-Ray and DVD via Mongrel Media. The transfer is especially exquisite - capturing every detail and the deep blacks. Though a commentary by a WWII history specialist and Holland seems kind of a no-brainer for a picture like this, no such additional featur exists. We have to suffice with a half hour video Q and A with Holland and a pretty interesting half hour video doc wherein Holland meets one of the actual survivors of the story.