An astonishing Holocaust tale told too tidily
"In Darkness’’ is a disaster movie, and the disaster is the Holocaust. In the space between the two halves of that sentence, you have what works about the film and what’s a little creepy.
Based on actual events (commemorated in Robert Marshall’s 1991 book, “In the Sewers of Lvov: A Heroic Story of Survival From the Holocaust’’), the film tells the story of Polish Jews who lived for 14 months, until the end of the war, in the water mains and waste-lines beneath the city. They coped with cold, filth, lice, rats, abject terror, mind-numbing boredom. An infant was born to one of the women; she suffocated it. When they finally emerged, one little boy wanted to go back underground because the sun scared him.
It’s an astonishing tale, horrifying and inspiring in equal measure, and the film boxes it up rather neatly. (Coincidentally or not, “In Darkness’’ was one of this year’s five foreign language Oscar nominees.) The drama is twofold: On one hand, we have the Jews who flee from the Lvov Ghetto down into the sewers in the summer of 1943, as the Nazis are packing everyone off to the death camps. Twenty-one go below and 10 come out, and there’s a touch of “Ten Little Indians’’ to the suspense of who has the nerve or the strength or the luck to survive.
The main characters are the strapping young Mundek (Benno Fürmann), nicknamed “Pirate’’ because of his daring and street-smarts; the elegant Klara (Agnieszka Grochowska), who’s attracted to Mundek and mourning the disappearance of her younger sister (Maria Semotiuk) into the camps; and the family Chiger, father (Herbert Knaup), mother (Maria Schrader), and two young children (Milla Bankowicz and Oliwer Stanczak). For moral opprobrium, there’s the sneaky adulterous husband (Marcin Bosak) and his shallow mistress (Kinga Preis).
The script by David F. Shamoon lets these character types collide amid a regular series of threats the group must face and surmount. When heavy rains come and the waters in the sewers rise to the ceiling, all that’s missing is Shelley Winters as a former swimming champion. Ironically, the scenes in “In Darkness’’ that stay with you aren’t moments of high peril but small details of survival - of how a sensory-deprived child might keep his mind active through a year and a half of night, or how a woman might cope with sexual longing in the middle of a crowd.
The film’s secondary drama takes place above ground. Throughout their trial, the Jews were protected, moved about, and fed by a Polish sewer worker named Leopold Socha (Robert Wieckiewicz). “In Darkness’’ presents him, appealingly, as a sort of accidental Schindler - a thuggish part-time criminal who undergoes a moral rebirth and increasingly risks his life for “his Jews.’’
Wieckiewicz has a great broad workingman’s mug - he’s starring as Lech Walesa in a film to be released this year - and his slack expression in the early scenes convinces us Socha could easily be one of those WWII-era Poles who looked the other way, or worse. But he doesn’t, and the most compelling moving part of “In Darkness’’ - which is, after all, a movie about immobility - is Socha’s almost shocked discovery of his own decency.
The film certainly helps him along, making sure the character turns up at the right moments to avert disaster time and again. It’s those narrative conveniences that make “In Darkness’’ feel slick and worked over - the sense that an immensely powerful story of survival has been cut to fit the cloth of a by now well-established genre.
Director Agnieszka Holland (“Europa Europa,’’ “The Secret Garden,’’ “Copying Beethoven’’) is nothing if not a pro. The film looks fine, is structured intelligently, measures out the horror in pragmatic amounts. In the end, though, it’s that professionalism that gets in the way. Nothing in this movie may affect you as overwhelmingly as the plainspoken words of 11-year-old Krystyna Chiger recalling her ordeal two years after the war - and you can read that just by Googling her name.