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Tuesday, March 20, 2012

In Darkness

Finding salvation in gritty Holocaust drama

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“Poldek” Socha is a meaty-faced, crude man who cusses like a sailor as he navigates the sewers of Lvov, a Polish city under German occupation during World War II. He's nobody's idea of a hero, but, like a blue-collar Schindler with dirt under his nails, he eventually saves a group of Jews from the relentless machinery of the Holocaust.

In Darkness
is based on the true story of Poldek's gradual transition from foul-tempered sewer inspector (and part-time criminal who supplements his income by burglary) into unlikely candidate for Righteous Gentile. Played with grimy authenticity by Polish actor Robert Wieckiewicz, Poldek scurries through the woods with loot from a break-in when he sees pale bodies in the twilight—naked, screaming women running across the uneven ground under the gun-barrel prodding of the SS; although he later glimpses their corpses in a field, the persecution of Jews is no concern of his. He doesn't like them and, more importantly, he's always looking out for No. 1.

Polish director Agnieszka Holland (Europa Europa) achieves great realism for refusing to show any specific crossroads moment or self-explanatory soliloquy from Poldek. As the film begins, the crooked sewer inspector, who cares almost as little for the “Krauts” as for the “Yids,” nurses the usual resentment against foreign occupiers. A practical man of no apparent ideals beyond a tribal attachment to Roman Catholicism, Poldek is willing to work for the occupiers to feed his wife and daughter, for whom he has genuine affection. His drinking buddy Bortnik is the commander of a pro-German Ukrainian militia, the Nazis' willing helpers in the Holocaust. But Poldek shrugs off the political blah-blah and raises another glass of vodka. Drink up, for tomorrow, or the day after, we may all be dead.

Motivated by money, not compassion, Poldek aids a random assortment of Jews who fled the ghetto into the sewers, where they hide in darkness and filth, waiting for an escape or a miracle. Although he could have made more money by betraying them to the Nazis, he extorts a weekly fee from the tenants of his sewer in exchange for silence and provisions. It must be said that many of the Jews he encounters are neither particularly nice nor noble; Poldek's unreflecting prejudices are reinforced at first by what he sees as their willingness to haggle with a hangman as the noose tightens at their throats.

Poldek sticks his neck out for nobody, yet is moved in small steps toward genuine sympathy for the victims of a prejudice he more or less shares. In Darkness shows that the darkness of the human spirit comes in many shades across a spectrum that ranges from ignorance to absolute evil. The film's memorable scenes catch the satanic madness of the Nazis in contrast to the ordinary vulgarity of Poldek's anti-Semitism. He's surprised when he is informed that Jesus was Jewish by his wife, whose anxiety for survival denies her the expected role of heroine. Little by little, Poldek recognizes the humanity he shares with the Jews he had always despised, while the Nazis pursued their resolute denial of that common humanity to the bitter end of Auschwitz.