‘In Darkness’ struggles against Holocaust-movie clichés

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In Darkness
Written by David F. Shamoon
Directed by Agnieszka Holland
Poland / Germany / France / Canada, 2011

When Claude Lanzmann was developing his landmark nine-hour Holocaust documentary Shoah, his greatest self-appointed challenge was to chronicle the facts and lasting legacy of the massacring of millions of people while avoiding even the slightest intimation that the events described could be easily encapsulated within a mere film, regardless of length or scope. Lanzmann’s film is still the object of study and appreciation is cineaste circles, but in general, filmmakers haven’t been nearly as skittish as Lanzmann in tackling what he considered to be insurmountable. In the nearly two decades since that film’s release, Holocaust movies have grown into an awards-season cliché, often derided as exploiting human tragedy in order to showcase performances in the service of awards-hungry studios. It’s in this context that one will inevitably view Agnieszka Holland’s In Darkness; in this instance. that skepticism turns out to be both warranted and more than a little reactionary.

The first differentiation between In Darkness and some of its holocaust-survival forebears is one of scale; this is a resolutely intimate tale. It’s based on the true story of Leopold Socha, a Polish sewer inspector / thief who reluctantly agreed to shelter roughly a dozen Jews beneath Lvov. Socha is played here by Robert Wieckiewicz as a man first motivated by pure self-gain until his better nature prevails. His wife (Kinga Preis), a devout Christian, is painted as even more reluctant, so long as his aiding the Jews puts their family potentially in harm’s way. Among the sheltered: ostentatiously handsome warrior Mundek (Benno Fürmann); sister-deprived Klara (Agnieszka Grochowska); and formerly prestigious but still covertly possessed of means Landsberg (Aleksander Mincer).

To their credit, Holland and screenwriter David E. Shamoon insert the sort of details that often seem purposely left out of period atrocity films: must the victims on the receiving ends of such horrific events be depicted as pearl-white saints just so that the aggressors can be demonized? Here, the sheltered Jews commit adultery, abandon pregnant partners, masturbate, assault, and generally behave like recognizable human beings. For his part, Socha is depicted as a bare opportunist for as long as such narratives will generally allow, milking the desperate survivors for every penny that can possibly be assembled.

“Despite some pulls in the opposite direction, though, the constraints of the modern “atrocity movie” narrative do wind up defining the film on a cellular level…

Despite some pulls in the opposite direction, though, the constraints of the modern “atrocity movie” narrative do wind up defining the film on a cellular level. Sochar must gradually come to see the error of his ways and aid his fellow man out of the goodness of his heart and in spite of imminent danger. The survivors must band together against all odds to weather the seemingly impossible. An improbable love story must arise from the brink of annihilation. A concluding intertitle must impart a crucial lesson. Most importantly, a principal antagonist must be established (here in the form of one of Sochar’s SS drinking buddies) in order to be satisfyingly dispatched. All of these criteria are met in fairly rote form amidst all of Holland’s striking scenes of grey. This inevitable absolutism even manifests itself on a visual level; the film routinely plays with flashes of white that seem to represent escape and redemption, in contrast to the sheer black that surrounds the survivors in their dank 14-month enclosure. It seems that wherever this true-but-tried story of redemption goes, old tropes must follow.

Simon Howell

1 Comment
  1. Peter says

    So cynical. When you write, “the survivors must band together against all odds to survive the seemingly impossible,” you seem to sound like you think of this turn of the story as just another movie cliche. But the movie is based on a true story, a story if told truthfully in all of its horror, would be unbearable to watch. But for those people in the sewers- they had no choice and the fact they survived is not a cliche but a testament to the human spirit. And there was no “must” about the real life Socha’s turn towards the moral, towards the good— he had many opportunities to walk away or collect a reward. This movie depicts the subtle but powerful journey away from a life posture of “who cares” and “what’s in it for me,” to a place where you care enough for the fate of another that you are willing to risk your life. And he did. May his memory be a blessing.

  2. Dan at MoviePlayoffs says

    Very well written. I haven’t seen it yet, but from what I’ve read here, it seems to be a lot like The Pianist (which I thought was excellent). Nice job breaking up the text with the pictures, by the way. It doesn’t only give us visual glimpse of what to expect; it also keeps up tied to the story.

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