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Although films about the Holocaust have long been well-established fare in popular culture (as early as 1946, Orson Welles’ thriller, The Stranger, was among the first films to broach the subject of Nazi war crimes against Jews, and actually included striking documentary footage of concentration camps), some filmmakers have struggled uphill over the decades to keep the subject fresh and innovative. In 1993, Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List seemed to establish a new genre of Holocaust movie, the tale of a rescuer of Jews—here, war profiteer Oskar Schindler, who undertook to shelter some 1,100 Jews as factory employees. But one wonders if Spielberg’s well-crafted and celebrated box office hit would have been possible without eminent Polish director Andrzej Wajda’s superb 1990 film Korczak (like Spielberg’s film, shot in black and white), which depicted Janusz Korczak (pen name of Henryk Goldszmit), renowned Polish-Jewish physician, educator, and author, whose Warsaw Ghetto orphanage was a quixotic effort to keep alive a small island of humanity amid the desperate life conditions of a doomed community. Korczak, who had the opportunity to leave Poland, chose instead to accompany the children of his orphanage in their deportation to Treblinka, where he died with them in August, 1942.
Clearly, “rescuer” is a relative term, one that can include even those who fail to rescue, but the real-life events on which these films were based had a certain resonantly heroic dimension that have made Schindler and Korczak into historical icons. It is against such a background that Agnieszka Holland’s film In Darkness can be said to break new ground. Holland, a half-Jewish Pole who began her career as an assistant director to Wajda (and who has more recently directed episodes of two respected HBO series, The Wire and Treme), is best known for her 1990 film Europa, Europa, the tale of a Jew who hid amongst Nazis. In Darkness is similarly a tale of hiding, but also the story of a real-life rescuer, Polish sewer worker and sometime burglar Leopold Socha (well played by Polish stage actor Robert Więckiewicz, who will play Lech Wałesa in a forthcoming film by Wajda), who, in the final months of the War, hid eventually eleven Jews in the sewers of Lvov, a city on the Polish-Ukrainian border (today the Ukrainian city of Lviv).
Of special interest about this film is precisely the unspectacular nature of the small-scale rescue it portrays, and the improbable nature of the rescuer. Socha has no love of Jews, and initially plans to hide this group for whatever bribes he can extract from them before eventually handing them over to the Nazis. Unlike Schindler, who presumably became a rescuer after witnessing the horrific liquidation of the Kraków ghetto, Socha warms to his dangerous undertaking only gradually. Some rescue exploits have a way of generating their own momentum and meaning, discovered one task at a time, day by day. Each task slowly necessitates a deeper commitment to the chore, and eventually works a change in the rescuer. Socha begins to take a personal interest in his charges. When they run out of money, he continues to help them uncompensated, and when they finally emerge into the blinding daylight at the end of the War, he calls them “my Jews,” and takes pride in what he has carried off.
It would almost seem irrelevant what sort of Jews are at the receiving end of Socha’s help. They are quite ordinary—flawed, unsaintly folk whose predicaments engage our interest without occupying the core of the story. One becomes pregnant in an adulterous union, consummated in the presence of the others, and eventually bears her offspring in the sewer. Another is thrown into grief by the disappearance of her sister to the streets above. Another manages to hold on to the remnant of a religious life. Two among them are children.
But all who survive the ordeal are remarkable for their ability to adapt to the nearly impossible realities of life in a sewer: cold, boredom, darkness, putrefaction, rats, a labyrinthine maze of tunnels, a nearly fatal rainstorm flood—this bleak terrain is strangest of all for becoming a home to them for fourteen months. The children even manage to befriend the rats. Life underground forms a curious counterpoint to the more familiar hell above. But the quietly metamorphosing soul of the middleman who, at his own peril, brings the Jews food is the story’s real terrain. In rescuing “his Jews,” he rescues himself. Filmmaker Holland carries this tale off without sentimentality or cliché, and thus honors the very best in cinema of the Holocaust.
Joel Rosenberg teaches film and Judaic studies at Tufts University. His articles on the cinema of Jewish experience have appeared in various journals and collections, and he has recently completed a book, Crisis in Disguise: Some Cinema of Jewish Experience from the Era of Catastrophe (1914-47).