Out Friday 16 March, In Darkness is the latest release from Oscar nominated director Agnieska Holland. BEVer Sonia Zadurian gives us an exclusive review.
In Darkness is the latest feature film from Polish director Agnieszka Holland, who is perhaps best known for her critically acclaimed feature Europa Europa (1990), which told the story of a Jewish boy in Nazi Germany who attempted to conceal his religion by joining the Hitler Youth. Holland returns to somewhat familiar territory with her latest film, which is adapted from Robert Marshall’s powerful book In the Sewers of Lvov.
Set during the Nazi occupation of the former Polish city of Lvov, In Darkness is based on the real life story of sewer worker Leopold Socha, who managed to successfully hide a group of Jewish refugees in a sewer system for 14 months. Socha’s initial motivations are less than pure and he charges exorbitant fees for his services, threatening to abandon the group if they fail to meet his demands. However, as the film progresses, Socha’s beliefs are significantly altered and he slowly ascends to the level of true hero.
The film begins with a robbery, as the viewer is introduced to the main character by watching him break into an empty house. After being caught in the act, Socha flees the scene and heads for the safety of a wooded area. However, all is not as it had seemed as screams soon split through the forest. The audience then observe a large group of naked women running through the foliage alongside Socha, whose only concern is to evade capture. In under a minute, the dead bodies of the women lie strewn across the floor and the audience have one particular thought instantly cemented into their consciousness; that the inhabitants of Lvov are used to living alongside horror.
This first sequence quickly establishes the horrendous normality of life in Lvov whilst simultaneously pointing towards the larger scale of the holocaust. However, a great contributor to the success of the film is its succinct storytelling and intimate portrayal of the experiences of a small group of people, without feeling obligated to also aim for wider coverage. Examples such as this ensure that whilst the wider implications are never forgotten, the story can remain around those underground.
Another key contributor to the intensity and intimacy of the film is Holland’s refusal to portray the story in an easy or stereotypical manner. From the outset, the audience will feel an absence of allegiance amongst the variety of characters in the film. In a crowded room a Jewish man conducts an affair in the presence of his wife, whilst on a more general level each of the Polish, German, Ukrainian and Jewish groups in the city seem to despise one another.
In Darkness is a tale of human beings reacting to one another in a society with a broken moral core, where the majority of people behave as they can, rather than as they should. Ignoring any easy categorizing of characters or actions as black or white, Holland opts to challenge audience perceptions of the way in which the Holocaust was experienced by portraying shades of grey. This ensures that In Darkness lacks the sentimentality of many other films which are set during this time. The film never uses music or other aspects of filmmaking explicitly to pull at the heartstrings of its audience, with the result being that nothing feels as if it has been forced. This contributes to the honesty of the story and the subtlety of Socha’s gradual transformation into the savior of the piece.
The greatest triumph of In Darkness is the overwhelming visceral impact that it has on its audience. A certain amount of claustrophobia is implied in the content, as many of the central characters spend almost the entirety of the film in the sewers, but Holland actually manages to elicit physical responses in the audience which mimic those of the Jewish characters.
As the title would suggest, much of the film takes place in the darkness of the sewers, with tightly framed shots used to communicate these cramped conditions. The result is an utterly immersive experience which the audience long to escape from. This feeling is exemplified when the camera follows Socha from the sewers to the city streets, as the viewer breathes that little bit deeper than usual and desperately wants to remain in the light.
During extended sewer sequences, Holland often blasts the camera with bright torchlight, disorientating the audience and causing them to involuntarily blink. The film is also very quiet, whilst seeming to amplify every footstep. These factors contribute to a change in the audience as they shift from passive spectators to tense, claustrophobic victims of the films power.
In Darkness is a harrowing portrayal of a particularly horrendous time in history, made with an honesty and integrity that will inspire viewers to think and feel in ways which they are so rarely encouraged to by mainstream cinema.
In Darkness will be out in UK cinemas 16 March.
Check back for Sonia’s exclusive interview with Agnieszka Holland tomorrow!