Polish filmmaker Agnieszka Holland is probably best known for her 1990 film Europa Europa, which like In Darkness is a story set during the Holocaust that is based on actual events and depicts the extraordinary lengths that people went to in order to survive. It is also similar in the extent that it doesn’t offer an easy dichotomy between heroic and self serving behaviour.
The core narrative of In Darkness contains several similarities to Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List (1993). The Oskar Schindler-type character in In Darkness is Leopold Socha (Robert Wieckiewicz), who like Schindler was a real person. Socha worked in the sewers in the Polish city of Lwów when the Nazis occupied it and made money from a group of Jewish people who paid him to hide them in the sewers when the Nazis began liquidating the ghettos. A major point of difference between Schindler’s List and In Darkness is how the motivations of the two ‘war profiteer turned saviour’ protagonists are portrayed. While Schindler maintains a degree of nobility throughout Schindler’s List, clearly being affected while witnessing the atrocities that prompts him to save lives rather than make money, Socha is a grittier character. Unlike Schindler he is not a businessman, but a member of the working class who is himself struggling to survive in an occupied city. As a result, In Darkness is a complex film as the divisions between acting for mercenary reasons and ethical ones are often uncertain.
This uneasy representation of motivation is what makes In Darkness so interesting. The Polish characters are frequently seen to be indifferent or exploitive towards the Jewish characters. The Jewish characters possess a mix of character traits and early in the film it is established that even while in hiding there is infighting, selfishness, infidelity and tantrums. Rather than distancing the audience from the film, Holland draws us in closer by making the characters onscreen so identifiable and flawed. The characters in In Darkness are not broad archetypes representing positions on a moral spectrum, but recognisable people who are capable of the same petty and unreasonable behaviour as anybody.
Most importantly is that the range of behaviours and personality types on display in In Darkness allows for an extremely fulfilling emotional journey as the characters discover the value in looking after each other rather than just looking after themselves. There are no sudden shifts in attitude or perspective brought about by any single moments, but an organic evolution in personal values. While stories about acts of courage and kindness while in situations of extreme duress or trauma are common, In Darkness is more about the degree in which inhumane acts reveal the importance of humane behaviour that is too often taken for granted. Rather than presenting a bleak vision of humanity with the number of mercenary characters, Holland presents something extremely hopeful by revealing the extent in which people who otherwise may seem selfish, possess enormous potential to become so much more.
Holland extends many of the themes of the film through the film’s visual style. In the early scenes the Polish spaces and the Jewish spaces are clearly delineated and divided, but when the characters move underground into the sewers this distinction soon fades away. The same bleak grey and brown colour scheme is used above ground and below ground as the life Socha’s is covertly living in the sewer bleeds into his life above ground. The only major difference is the use of light, which becomes strikingly brighter in the above ground scenes as the film progresses and the characters spend more time living in darkness. The cinematography in the sewers is very impressive, conveying the impression of the characters living in pitch black conditions while still illuminating enough onscreen elements for the audience to follow what is going on.
In Darkness doesn’t possess any stylistic grandiosity, nor does it indulge in the portrayal of atrocities nor does it present itself as a definitive Holocaust film. Stanley Kubrick once declared that an accurate film about the Holocaust was beyond the capacity of cinema (although Alain Resnais’s 1955 Night and Fog comes close to proving otherwise). As with some of the better recent Holocaust films such as The Counterfeiters (Stefan Ruzowitzky, 2007), Fateless (Lajos Koltai, 2005) and The Pianist (Roman Polanski, 2002), In Darkness focuses on one particular story to reflect upon a much bigger story that is arguably unimaginable when considered in its entirety. Films like In Darkness need to continually be made not just so that all the different facets of the Holocaust are explored and preserved cinematically, but so that no generation ever risks not being informed about what took place and the conditions that allowed for it.