Leopold Socha might be the most unlikely hero in the canon of Holocaust films.
The main character in the Oscar-nominated drama “In Darkness,” available today on Blu-ray and DVD, works as a sewer inspector and accepts bribes from Jews being hunted by Nazis.
Socha’s transformation from a selfish, low-level worker to someone willing to risk his life to save Jewish refugees is an unmistakably beautiful portrait, one based on actual events.
Director Agnieszka Holland acknowledges the horrors of the Nazi regime but refuses to cast any of the film’s key players, even the Jewish characters, in simplistic shades.
The result is a bold vision that can stand tall next to more familiar features in the genre like “Schindler’s List.”
Robert Wieckiewicz, in a sober, unsentimental performance, plays a Polish sewer inspector who supplements his income with the occasional bribe. So he’s more than willing to take what a group of Jewish residents offer him to keep their location a secret from the Nazis intent on liquidating the local Jewish population.
Wieckiewicz’s Socha doesn’t feel a particular bond with the family cowering in the sewers. They, in turn, endure the repulsive conditions while handing over what remains of their money. Socha is their last hope, and a series of events forces him to put aside prejudice and self-interest to make sure they live to see the end of the war.
“In Darkness” understands we bring a certain awareness of the Nazi atrocities to any Holocaust film. So Holland works within that restraint, illustrating a few horrors such as a line of bodies hanging in broad daylight, and the fervor to which the Nazis sniff out their “prey.”
The frightened Jewish survivors huddle and support each other as best they can, but not everyone can handle the pressure of being hunted. Tragedy strikes without any direct help from the Nazis.
“In Darkness” is difficult to process during its most disquieting moments, and the images of dripping water and scattering rats makes every scene uncomfortable. Holland refuses to offer many small rewards for our patience, although she stages a finale that blends the drama’s necessary resolution with thrills that outpace more conventional features.
The Blu-ray comes with a pair of extras – “An Evening with Agnieszka Holland” and “In Light: A Conversation with Agnieszka Holland and Krystyna Chiger,” the last surviving member of the Jews who endured the sewer system ordeal which lasted 14 months.
The film’s narrative is powerful on its own, but we learn during the Q&A that Holland was unaware that Chiger was still alive when she tackled the film project. The director assumed everyone had long since passed on.
The well spoken Chiger says she didn’t want her story to be told by Hollywood, but rather “by somebody who lived in Europe, who knew the story and could feel it.”
Chiger’s hopes were realized by “In Darkness,” which earned an Oscar nomination for Best Foreign Film last year. The first time the retired dentist watched the finished film she was “crying and shaking,” she recalls, but she found it an authentic retelling of that chapter in her family’s history.
“I didn’t have anything to correct,” she says.