In Darkness is certainly an apt title for the latest from Europa, Europa director Agnieszka Holland: It describes the film on every level, from the physical to the emotional and spiritual. Set in 1943 German-occupied Poland, amid the liquidation of the Jewish ghetto in Lvov, it follows a mob of frightened Jews into the sewers, where they hope to escape the slaughter above ground. The broad strokes of atrocity, danger, soul-searching, ethical exploration, and lost-and-found courage are familiar from many Holocaust-related and other wartime films. But the details—taken from real events, chronicled in Robert Marshall’s In The Sewers Of Lvov and Krystyna Chiger’s memoir The Girl In The Green Sweater—give the familiar elements a fresh intensity, while the cramped, lightless, sewage-filled surroundings fill the film with choking claustrophobia.
Robert Wieckiewicz stars as a Polish sewer inspector and part-time housebreaker who happens across a group of men drilling a hole from a ghetto home into the sewers; he quickly comes to terms with them, smelling money if he accepts their bribes, more if he serves as their guide, and still more if he decides to turn them over to the Germans at some point. Meanwhile, their group—particularly capable tough guy Benno Fürmann, prim upper-class father and husband Herbert Knaup, and lusty Marcin Bosak, who chose to rescue his mistress rather than his wife and child—debates whether to trust Wieckiewicz or kill him outright. When the massacre begins and a mob retreats to the sewers, desperate need decides the issue for the refugees. Wieckiewicz, meanwhile, still has to contend with increasing danger from the Nazis, the demands of a reward-hungry Ukrainian friend on the hunt for hidden Jews, and the disapproval of his wife (Kinga Preis), who chides Wieckiewicz for his inhumanity toward Jews until she learns he’s actually helping some of them. Then she metastasizes into one of cinema’s stock “Why won’t you stop doing the right thing? You’re tearing our family apart!” machines.
But while In Darkness sticks to formula, it brings across that formula effectively. Wieckiewicz gradually surrenders to his own humanity, but with a strong current of self-preservation, and no cloying sentiment; even as he expresses affection and concern for Knaup’s young children, he’s still charging them for his help. The refugees tend to blur together at first—they’re a large group, and it can be hard to tell them apart in darkness—but Holland gives them time to distinguish themselves, and portrays them as quarrelsome, selfish, realistic people, rather than noble paper saints. Holland is no stranger to grimy authenticity, having transitioned from gritty arthouse films to directing episodes of The Wire, The Killing, and Treme, and here, she focuses on emotions without overselling the uplift, and without losing sight of the little details, like how the sewer refugees amuse themselves and their children, or how they become casually inured to the rats as the months pass. In a genre where the broad details have become this familiar, it’s the small, needling ones that count.