Based on true events which took place in the Polish city of Luvov in WW2, this gruelling arthouse film revisits the emotional and factual territory familiar from Anne Frank’s diary and Schindler’s List. It seeks out rare fragments of human integrity and benevolence which have been all but extinguished under the Nazi boot in occupied territory. It is not a nice film, and the story is frighteningly familiar.
When the Jewish ghetto in the city is liquidated, and the people are either shot on the spot or shipped to a labour camp, a group of Jews flee into the city’s sewers. A neer-do-well sewer worker (who moonlights as a looter) discovers them and strikes a bargain: he’ll feed and find a safe haven in the rat-infested, stinking hellhole for a dozen of them. And they must pay him to stay alive.
So begins an appalling underground incarceration which lasts for over a year and which rasps away every aspect of sophistication from the disparate group. At first the sight of a rat is enough to cause shrieking hysterics. Later, the children pluck the animals from their shoulders without a second thought. Yet despite the relentless tension and misery, the majority of the refugees retain their better qualities: on the whole they seek to protect, to nurture and to survive as a unit. They may indeed be starving in darkness, but their lives are not without light.
Although ‘In Darkness’ makes for stressful and occasionally grim viewing, it is not without its lighter moments of humour and blackly comic insight. In particular the scenes between Socha, the sewer worker who turns out to be the Jews’ saviour, and his wife are entirely life-affirming. Acts of momentous bravery pass become almost unnoticed, when the most basic act of procuring food might reveal the secret and condemn another dozen lives.
There are also some heart-stopping segments where the Ukrainian volunteers who serve within the occupying force or Nazi officers come close to discovering the truth. And the film throughout is punctuated with explicit violence, nudity, death and sex, handled in an entirely matter of fact manner. Anyone could be killed at any time: that’s exactly how it was. And the film’s portrayal of that fact shockingly stark.
This isn’t a comfortable film to kick back and watch for relaxation. It reflects the grim determination of the protagonists to keep on living against all odds and inhuman cruelty. The filming and acting are so accomplished that they scarcely intruded into the audience’s consciousness, we were so wrapped up with the fate of the hidden and their protector.
You’re guaranteed an emotionally-charged encounter, if not an exactly enjoyable evening.
Reviewed by Rowena Hoseason
In Darkness is available to download, rent or buy from Amazon