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Milla Bankowicz as Krystyna and Robert Wieckiewicz as Leopold Socha
Photo by Jasmin Marla Dichant

Maria Schrader as Paulina Chiger
Photo by Jasmin Marla Dichant



by Rhonda J. Prepes, P. Eng., May 6, 2012

 [Editor's note: "In Darkness" was one of the many excellent films being shown during the Jewish International Film Festival put on by the Rady JCC and the Asper Foundation.]

Well deserving of its Best Foreign-Language Film Academy Award nomination, “In Darkness”, is a haunting story. It is reminiscent of Wajda's Kanal, about Nazi troops pursuing resistance workers through the Warsaw sewers in 1944, and Schindler's List, Spielberg's true story of the German industrialist who saved the lives of more than 1,000 Jewish workers in wartime Poland.

It is the true story of Leopold Socha (Robert Wieckiewicz), a sewer worker who hides terrified Jews in secret underground passageways to escape the liquidation of the ghetto. Socha also moonlights as a thief, hiding his loot in the underground sewer tunnels he knows so well. At first, Socha greedily takes all the money the desperate Jews offer him, but gradually he becomes their genuinely concerned protector. It is this transformation that makes the film so appealing and thought provoking. He ends up risking his life many times to protect them - a courageous act for which he was posthumously honoured by Israel after the war as a "righteous gentile" - one who puts aside self-interest and safety to rescue doomed Jews.

In June 1941, thousands of Jews living in Lvov, Poland were massacred by invading Nazi troops. By December 150,000 more had been thrown into newly established ghettos or exported to concentration camps. The city, which had been the third largest Jewish community in Poland and a cultural and industrial center, descended into the hellhole of war. In Darkness, directed by Agnieszka Holland, tells the story of how a group of Jews survived for 14 months by hiding out in the sewers of Lvov during Nazi occupation.

The film is a series of drastic contrasts. There are scenes of sex and masturbation followed by scenes of murder and death. In another scene a devout Jew prays while another one goes insane. The audience sits on the edge of their seats riveted to the screen as one scene is more shocking than the next.

The title “In Darkness” suggests the hell-like conditions in the dark, damp, and cramped sewers. The sewers are a maze of pipes and putrid water. Yet the group does survive in these impossible conditions. The group adjusts to sharing the space with rats, to the stench, and to the cold. The film shows us that humanity can endure even under the worst conditions.

“Darkness” also becomes a larger metaphor for the Jewish condition above ground, as well.

This film presents the question why a selfish conniving man would risk his life to save a group of Jewish strangers? Does he do it solely for the money they pay him? Does he feel for their pathetic existence in the sewers? Is it because there are two children among the group [seven-year-old Krystyna Chiger (Millo Bankowicz) and her four-year-old brother Pawel (Oliwer Stanczak)]? Does he see the absurdity in the Nazi’s final solution? Or is it the cumulative force of all that he experiences that alters him? The audience is left to decipher why Socha found compassion at a time when so many others did not.

This film is a tragedy, but also a story of survival. It depicts the horrors of the Holocaust but also displays the power of perseverance and of human endurance in the worst of times. It is one of the best films about the Holocaust that I have seen and ranks right up there with Titanic as a must-see epic drama.

The film is based on In the Sewers of Lvov: A Heroic Story of Survival from the Holocaust, written by Robert Marshall and published in 1991.


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Rhonda Spivak, Editor

Publisher: Spivak's Jewish Review Ltd.

Opinions expressed in letters to the editor or articles by contributing writers are not necessarily endorsed by Winnipeg Jewish Review.