October 7, 2012
Even as we near the 70th anniversary of VE Day, the Holocaust remains a sensitive and difficult subject to portray on film. Merely talking about a perceived 'Holocaust film genre' cheapens the pain and sacrifice endured by those who survived one of humanity's lowest points. Such ... a term risks turning said pain and sacrifice into a series of generic conventions, to which all subsequent depictions of the Holocaust must bend in place of telling the truth.
But despite the familiarity of both its narrative and subject matter, In Darkness avoids most of the traps into which 'Holocaust films' are liable to fall. Agnieszka Holland has experience in the 'genre', having made her name in Europe as the director of Europa Europa, a compelling drama about a Jewish boy who survives the war by pretending to be German. In her most personal film since that time, she presents a gripping story of human triumph and tragedy which manages to be respectful, insightful and dramatically engaging.
On first impressions, In Darkness merits a very close comparison with Schindler's List. Both films have the same central idea, of good deeds being able to emerge from bad intentions in a time of great crisis. Both have central characters, in Oskar Schindler and Leopold Socha, who begin as questionable, business-minded individuals who undergo a transformation and embrace compassion and sacrifice. And both films, in their own way, attempt to offer some kind of hope for the audience in the midst of undeniable tragedy.
One's opinion of In Darkness will therefore be swayed by one's opinion of Schindler's List. If you regard Steven Spielberg's film as a masterpiece, which deserved every award and kind word that it got, you will probably look upon this film as a well-meaning but ultimately second-rate version of the same character study (the phrase "Schindler's List-lite" doesn't seem appropriate). If, on the other hand, you regard Spielberg's film is an admirable failure, whose good intentions were never fully realised, then this is the film that takes the same emotional arc and gets it right.
The central problem with Schindler's List was the mismatch between the sombre, serious subject matter and Spielberg's sensibility as an entertainer (or, as Dan Aykroyd put it, an "artist-industrialist"). Spielberg had nothing but the best intentions behind making the film, not even taking a fee for his troubles, and sections of Schindler's List are appropriately bleak and grim. The trouble is that he is unable to sustain the ambiguity needed to make Schindler a truly compelling character, resorting to sentimentality through the girl in the red dress when being clinical would have worked much better. As his good friend Stanley Kubrick put it: "Schindler's List is about success. The Holocaust was about failure."
In Darkness succeeds for this very reason: there is a great deal more ambiguity surrounding the characters, and more legwork for the audience to do as we try to pin down their thoughts and motivations. We are meant to spend a sizeable part of the film either distant from Socha or actively disliking him. His appeal comes not just from his emotional transformation, but the way that Holland humanises him so that we understand his position, just as we care about Harry Lime in The Third Man in spite of the horrors he has perpetrated or allowed to happen.
Like The Third Man, a sizeable part of the film takes place in the sewers. But while Carol Reed's film made the place seem faintly artistic, shooting them in a vaguely expressionist manner, there is no such glamour in Holland's film. The sewers of Lvov (which Socha knows "better than his own wife") are as dark and rancid as you would expect, with every square inch either filled with rats, stagnant water or excrement. But because the film's tone and performances are so naturalistic, we never feel like we are being forced into repulsion at the squalor, and thereby being made to sympathise with the Jews. The film is shot so simply and yet so evocatively that you can almost feel the grime on the walls, or the freezing, filthy water swirling around your ankles.
The cinematography of In Darkness is pale and washed out in such a way that both evokes the period and assists the storytelling. Jolanta Dylewska fills the screen with greys, browns and other pale colours to recreate the burden being placed on the city by German occupation. The only bright moments (at least, in terms of lighting) come in the bar where Socha and his Nazi colleague are drinking, and for a few early moments of intimacy between Socha and his wife. Holland's camerawork compliments these choices very well, especially in one well-judged pan from the squalor of the sewers to a low shot of some polished shoes on the cobbles just above them.
Being a film about the Holocaust, and a 15 certificate like Schindler's List, there are moments in In Darkness which are harrowing or uncomfortable to sit through. One such moment involves a character called Mundek (Berno Fürmann) attempting to enter a camp to find one of the Jewish women who ran away rather than take her chances underground. When he is found to not have a cap, with which to doff to the officers on horseback, the man next to him in shot and his cap is given to him. This scene treads close to a similar one in Schindler's List, but it is still pretty shocking in its own right.
Another example which proves Holland's mettle as a filmmaker comes when one of the women in the sewers give birth. We see the characters debating as to whether she should have the child, which is the result of an affair, and the mixture of joy and trauma on the woman's face when she holds the baby in her arms. Soon that trauma turns to despair, and she ends up smothering the baby rather than let it grow up among the horrors that surround them. It's a truly heart-breaking scene, not only for its content but for its symbolism: the death of a child in cinema often represents a loss of hope, and the ease with which the mother takes such a decision conveys just how desperate their circumstances are.
Although I began by comparing this film to Schindler's List, one could argue that scenes such as this, which focus on endurance and survival, put the film much closer to The Pianist. The distinguishing factor between these films is largely one of ends: Schindler's List is about reaching a hopeful resolution, while The Pianist celebrates survival as the embodiment of hope, focussing on the means and not the end. Ultimately In Darkness falls short of Polanski's film in conveying this idea, but the extent to which it tries prevents us from labelling the film as melodramatic.
The two biggest strengths of In Darkness in such familiar territory are the central performance and its ending. Robert Wi?ckiewicz really inhabits Leopold Socha and does justice to his transformation, constantly pulling back from any big emotional outburst so that every subtle shift in his attitude becomes magnified in its impact. We believe his frustration with his family and co-workers, feel his terror when his daughter blurts out about the Jews, and experience his ultimate happiness in the final scene. It's a very engaging performance which anchors the film and all the horrors it throws at us.
Just as the film as a whole could be read as either a story of hope or of survival, so the ending can either be seen as a humanistic triumph or a spiritual one. Holland, a practising Catholic, is very careful to neither affirm nor rebuke the faith of either the audience or the characters, making the joy and rapture we feel all the more personal and powerful. The music is relatively understated in this section, as is the symbolism of the characters coming into the light, so that we can simply experience the joy of being alive as they would have done.
In Darkness is a very fine piece of work which succeeds where Schindler's List ultimately came unstuck. While it is too long at 2-and-a-half hours, and doesn't contribute any ground-breaking insight into the subject, it is more than engaging as a piece of drama and is highly compelling on an emotional level. The Pianist remains the benchmark for films which tackle this period in history, but Holland's film is a welcome addition to the 'canon', and will engage and satisfy anyone with an interest in the period.