I finally started writing about this movie two and a half months after watching it but despite not remembering all but one name, this movie demands attention not just because of its subject but how it handles that and the conflictophile characters within it.
Sophie Ziewatowska gives a bittersweet goodbye with a Southern writer. Rachel Stein commits to a Nazi official, who knows why she’s trying to hide her brunette roots. Hanna Schmitz, in close-ups, teaches an underage kid to be more gentle. Movies in the past thirty years have focused on the woman and her entitlement to her own to encapsulate the victimization that has occurred in the WWII. But here comes In Darknesse were so scared about it winning and jinxing the chances of ‘better’ movies we liked, as well as the vitriol targeted towards a movie with a subject automatically deemed as Oscar bait and even criticizing it for justifying the Holocaust. That criticism, valid or otherwise, is because the movie has characters whose meanness to each other doesn’t just cross racial lines but there are enough schisms and verbal and physical violence within both groups. It’s not a problem that its protagonist, Polish sewage worker Leopold ‘Poldek’ Socha (Robert Wieckiewicz), is a man who happens to be a working-class anti-Semite, hiding Jews under Lvov, Poland’s tunnels. This is war, its more modern incarnations discard honour between the occupier and the colonized. He’s doing it for money but eventually his motives become a mix of honour code to keep what’s secret secret and of, surprisingly, good old benevolence.
We can also put this movie as the latest entry in the ‘sexy, borderline tasteless Holocaust movies’ canon. Well, there is a some of nudity devoid of sexuality, as shown through other Holocaust movies and archive photos. Leopold sees line-ups of running, naked women within a forest, lit as if they’re a dream within the surreal, violent world in which he participates. But eventually nudity would imply sexuality. A scene where a refugee named Mundek (Benno Furmann), after infiltrating and miraculously escaping a concentration camp to find his friend Klara (Agnieszka Grochowska) sister, finds Klara naked under a sewage waterfall and kisses her, which is actually more sweet than anything, and less romantic one where another man Yanek (Marcin Bosak) commits adultery in the same room where his co-refugees are staying, including his wife and child. But the movie’s climax – ahem – that made me decide that this is too much, is a scene days into these characters’ stay within the underground tunnels, where the Yanek and his new girlfriend Chaja (Julia Kijowska) have sex and Klara, as the third woman, quietly masturbates while watching them. Round of applause, everyone! Not even Jolanta Dylewska’s glinty cinematography can disguise these scenes or make them a bit more subtle, showing us what would happen when people have to crap where they and their friends eat and sleep.
But I suppose director Agnieszka Holland has a point in fleshing out their story this way. This movie, adapted by Canadian David Shamoon, is based on Krystyna Chiger’s experiences, written in book form as “The Girl in the Green Sweater,” which I have yet to buy and read even though I do have the money to. So instead, after watching the movie I expertly Googled about the refugees hidden by Socha, which only succinctly hints at Chaja suffocating her own baby and Klara marrying Mundek who was hiding literally underground with her. The former subplot is almost indefensible, but why couldn’t they have violently fallen in love in the sewers? Does showing these characters kissing make them less honourable or more? Are the filmmakers striving for authenticity or are they exploiting the people they’re fictionalizing?
Besides, this movie doesn’t just show the needs of the refugees which, to be honest, has to be attended to somehow. It also shows the lives on the Polish side, as one of the movie’s first scenes have Socha having sex with his wife Wanda (Kinga Preis) while their daughter is sleeping in a different bed in the same room, a scenario that despite its grossness is more probably realistic than the rest of the scenes in this movie. So what, they love each other. Leopold’s coworker spits on a Jewish man who gypped him as if there isn’t a wooden boundary between them, not taking the apartheid and massacre that cones next. Claustrophobia is the norm. The movie suggests this across-the-board crowded arrangement as intolerable, but that’s because I’m seeing it in a North American perspective, one that relishes bounty, privacy, expansion, etc. I can’t necessarily speak for a European perspective and how they deal with the kinds of people with whom they share their land. Again, this movie is one of those cases where I don’t agree with its argument but it’s strong enough to put into consideration.
- In Darkness: Yet Another Holocaust (seattleweekly.com)
Despite the title sequence in the beginning of Robert Bresson’s A Man Escaped, he limits the scope of his story, about a German-run French prison during WWII, incarcerating thousands, including our protagonist Fontaine (Francois Letterier). I’m not saying it’s a worse movie for that but it’s unconventional, the form loyal to its cagey content. It’s a pathway connecting different eras of European cinema, the bare walls and close-ups evoking Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc while its narration is a precedent for Truffaut’s episodic storytelling. This undecorated approach however doesn’t stop its audience from finding details, helping us scrutinize the world that the movie presents as well as the characters within it. Assuming that the Germans are using French prisons, why aren’t they improving on the infrastructure to keep the inmates in? Does this mean that French prisons are easily breached at the time? This movie also presents questions on what would happen if this kind of subjugation, God forbid, happens again, and whether and how it would help both the guard and the detained.
That doesn’t mean that the weak security is doing most of the work. Much of the film are close-ups of Letterier and his gaunt yet brilliant face. He’s our voyeur, looking at the objects and people around or outside him to decide which ones will help him escape. And as he forges and bends metal with his own hands this movie also turns into a love letter of proletarian ingenuity and he makes it look both effortless and skilled.
With his actions and bragging to the other prisoners come the expectation for his escape, that pressure escalating when, as more French men get captured, the inmates have to bunk up including Fontaine. His roommate (Charles Le Clainche) is an overgrown urchin. The two are symbolic of the dual reactions occurring within a conquered people. Fontaine sticks to his guns as the elder man attached to his nation’s sovereignty while the younger, more malleable man chooses resignation, that this situation can happen, accepting his inevitable death. His character’s introduction also subverts the Darwinist pecking order worldview that most war/apocalyptic movies have. In any other movie this cellmate would die like any character showing weakness. It instead follows the adage that who people know is as important as what they know. Their unlikely friendship actually helps the cellmate’s education, giving him the instinct to fight that he couldn’t have learned otherwise.