In Darkness is perhaps the bravest setting for a film in recent years: not because of its social context (although in dealing with the ransacking of a Polish ghetto by German forces, it certainly stakes a claim), but because it is set almost entirely in the dark and fetid confines of a sewage system.
When news of an impending attack spreads through the ghetto of Lvov, Leopold Socha agrees to aid a group of Jews into the city’s sewers. Socha is the only man left in Lvov capable of looking after the sewers, and is trusted by the local authorities and their German overseers to maintain the labyrinth of tunnels and caverns that burrow beneath the crumbling city. His decision to aid the group is born out of a need for money (he dislikes “Yids” as much as the rest of his country folk, and has no qualms telling Chiger to turn some of his group away to their certain deaths). But as the months wear on, and the money runs out, Socha must decide whether he is the sort of man who will stand back and watch evil run its course, or risk his life and the safety of his family to save an innocent group of people he barely knows.
Working under Poland’s cinematic talisman Andrzej Wajda – followed by stints directing episodes of The Wire, The Killing, and Treme – has given Agnieszka Holland a mature confidence and masterful touch. The opening is gripping; choreographing vast numbers of extras across a large set to perfectly capture the panic and hysteria of an impending Nazi invasion. The scope of the scene condenses to a small room with a rabble of desperate Jews attempting to escape into the sewers: and all that energy is packed into the room with them. Moving further, we find ourselves trapped and disorientated in the darkness of the sewers, racing through the muck and mire.
The cinematography down in the tunnels is wonderful: using limited lighting to great effect. In moments of great tension, the darkness is interrupted by sudden bursts of action and light. Torchlight that seems a great way off suddenly ruptures the entire screen; blinding us momentarily in the darkness of the cinema and leaving us preying not to be caught. At other times the lighting is cruel and cold: projecting a sickly, Francis Bacon pallor across the fetid sewers as we come face to face with the constant, plodding degradation. But then somehow there are also moments of great warmth: bathing the characters in a homely glow as they find brief glimpses of humour and humanity in their plight.
The performances are equally astute. Fraying nerves, desperation and utter grief are boxed up in the confines of this dank, dripping hell. It is almost inconceivable that such horror could be composed and structured into a meaningful emotional journey shared by so many individual characters, yet somehow Holland and her cast have succeeded spectacularly.
Despite it’s many merits, the story drags, and at 145mins it is perhaps too long. Of course it should be moving and melancholy; but other films have used the Holoca ust as an excuse to be just that. This film is trying to do more – it wants to be visceral, and energetic – and with a more confident cut it could achieve it in bundles.