Judge Clark Douglas wishes this mournful film had lived up to its potential.
An extraordinary story of survival.
"These are my Jews."
Facts of the Case
Leopold Socha (Robert Wieckiewicz, Courage) is a slippery businessman living in Nazi-Occupied Poland. He has little interest in the manner in which the Nazis are re-shaping his country; he's simply adapting and looking for new ways to make money. One day, an intriguing business opportunity falls into his lap: a group of Jewish refugees need someone to hide them from the Nazis, and they're willing to pay a handsome fee for protection. Socha agrees and sets about the complicated task of hiding the Jews within the depths of the city's complex sewer system. However, when the money runs out, will Socha's conscience outweigh his desire for personal gain?
One of the most common mistakes made by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences is mistaking films about very important subjects for films that are actually very important. As such, films that simply focus on real-life subject matter that is inherently deeply affecting are often given credit for generating a level of emotional power the filmmakers had nothing to do with (what else can explain the execrable Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close earning a Best Picture nomination?). To be sure, there have been great films made about real-life tragedies: Hotel Rwanda, United 93, Schindler's List…the list goes on. Alas, there are also plenty of mediocre films that touch on these subjects which are generally mistaken for high-quality cinema, and Agnieska Holland's In Darkness (which received an Oscar nomination for Best Foreign Language Film) sadly falls into the latter category.
While In Darkness is certainly a well-intentioned and occasionally artful film, it has almost nothing to say that hasn't been said more effectively elsewhere. The film it most explicitly mirrors is Schindler's List, which told another story of a Gentile stepping in to aid a group of Jewish people. Sure, the businessman presented in this film is a little more corrupt than Oskar Schindler, but it doesn't take long for that mild corruption to disappear as our protagonist becomes an earnest activist. It hits a lot of the same beats as Spielberg's masterpiece, but Holland doesn't have Spielberg's dramatic instincts. There are entirely too many lengthy stretches in which In Darkness simply seems to be killing time between its better moments.
The other key influence on the film, oddly enough, is Neil Marshall's The Descent. There are countless moments in which the dark, cramped sewers visually resemble the eerie caverns of Marshall's film, though the attempt to convey horrifying claustrophobia is far less effective in this case. What seemed hauntingly spare in Marshall's film simply seems murky in this one. Holland deserves credit for finding horror in unexpected places without ever turning exploitative, but this aspect of the film doesn't quite live up to its potential.
For the most part, the cast doesn't leave a huge impression. The villain is a particularly unmemorable baddie whose anger slowly escalates as the film proceeds but whose memorability certainly doesn't. Sadly, the film's Jewish characters largely end up seeming pretty anonymous given that the film basically gives everyone the same set of emotions and doesn't offer enough distinctive moments of humanity to tell us who these people are outside of their status as victims. At least Wieckiewicz fares pretty well in the central role, playing his character with purposeful vigor that occasionally gives the material a much-needed boost.
In Darkness (Blu-ray) has received an exceptional 1080p/1.85:1 transfer that does a nice job of recapturing the film's gritty, muted palette. The digital cinematography turns excessively noisy during some darker scenes, but to a degree that you have to think the effect is intentional. During some particularly grim scenes, there are moments that almost look as if they could have been shot on 16mm. Of course, there are also plenty of moments that benefit from crystal-clear detail, and depth is impressive throughout. The DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio track is tremendous, doing a spectacular job of recreating the eerie atmosphere of the sewer and the strange sounds that are heard within and without. It's an exceptional track that never falters in any area and which is consistently immersive. Supplements include a half-hour interview with Holland, another half-hour interview featuring Holland and Holocaust survivor Krystyna Chiger and a trailer.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
I have to give In Darkness credit for one thing: it offers a handful of haunting moments that are bound to linger with the viewer for a long time. Consider the fleeting subplot about one refugee's affair, which adds yet another unexpected degree of tension within the group, or the horrific scene in which a group of spiteful Nazis yank a Jewish man's beard off his face. There are certainly moments littered throughout the film that have a way of hitting you in the gut, but they're surrounded by a movie which is largely contented with treading well-worn territory.
In Darkness certainly isn't a bad film, but it does seem like an unnecessary one. There are uniquely compelling aspects lurking within this story, but the film fails to highlight them. Too bad.
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