Thursday, February 9, 2012

Agnieszka Holland's IN DARKNESS, Best Foreign-Language Film nominee, opens

There is a scene at the beginning of award-winning filmmaker Agnieszka Holland's new yet-another-look-at-the-Holocaust movie, IN DARKNESS, that has already stamped itself on my permanent memory: A group of women run naked in slow-motion through what seems like an open space in the middle of a forest. The time must be early morning, as the barely-daylight colors are muted blues and grays against  the dark green of the trees and the lighter green of the grass beneath them. Their pale white bodies are impressively voluptuous -- large hips and full breasts -- but we can't enjoy this because, from what we can see of their facial expressions, they are in terror. Then we see the German Nazis, guns at the ready, chasing them. We don't witness the massacre; we hear it, and then see the women's sprawled bodies on the grass. As I say: etched in memory for all time. This single scene, in its weird combination of beauty and horror -- Picnic on the Grass meets The Scream -- is all we need to place the film firmly in the realm of memorable Holocaust movies.

With this scene, Ms Holland (shown at right, and who has given us her share of fine films over the years) nails the awful "special-ness" of the Holocaust -- the horror, humanity and inhumanity all rolled into one -- so that we don't need our noses rubbed much further in atrocity. Not that this movie is any kind of lark. No, it tells a narrative tale based on a true event, of a Polish man who helped a small group of Jews survive the death of almost all their friends and families by hiding them in the sewers under the city of Lvov, where he worked in sewer maintenance.

This man, Leopold Socha, memorably played with a fine combination of Christian entitlement and greedy sleaze by Robert Wieckiewicz (above), only very slowly warms up to his hostages, who've agreed to pay him all they have. One of  the movie's arcs is that of a man changing enough to discover his humanity via that of the "other." His sweet, sometimes sassy wife seems more understanding than he early on, as she reminds him, to his surprise, that Jesus was a Jew. But even she, very well-played by Kinga Preis (below), has terrible misgivings when she learns what he is doing.

The movie's other arc belongs to those Jews, hidden in the dank, sloppy grime of the sewers, having to give up everything to hold on to what's left of life. In one devastating scene, a wife must watch and hear as her husband makes love to his mistress just inches away from where she and their daughter are/were sleeping. Just as Leopold becomes more human, these people seem in danger of completely losing their humanity. So much happens to these "refugees," in fact, that much of it would seem unbelievable had not Ms Holland and her fine cast (including Benno Fürmann and Maria Schrader) made it so immediate and involving.

Upstairs, meanwhile, Leopold, his wife and daughter entertain an old pal (who is now one of the prime Nazi helpers) as he orders a sewer search to find any remaining Jews. Other incidents pile up -- the most suspenseful of which involves that Nazi symp, Leopold and his too-talkative daughter -- making us tremble and fear that we can stand no more (this is the feeling that all genuine Holocaust movies ought to provoke).

If you know history, you'll know the outcome -- but not the specifics that Holland and her writer David F. Shamoon (from the book by Robert Marshall) have provided. These glue us to the screen so that when at last that literal light at the end of the tunnel appears, you'll know you've lived through something. What happens, who survives and who does not provides both the suspense and excitement of films like The Poseidon Adventure but also some important history and food for thought.

While I can sympathize with the belief of A.O.Scott in his NY Times review that the fact that the film "is touching, warm and dramatically satisfying" is -- given the subject matter -- exactly its problem. But no: In Darkness is much more than touching, warm and dramatically satisfying. It is also dark, ugly, horrifying and not always predictable. If it makes a couple of slightly more melodramatic choices than it might have, given all it does right, this is forgivable.

The friend who saw the screening with me found the movie well-done but said that he was tired of seeing countries such as Poland, from where the film comes, trying to co-opt the Holocaust. I understand what he means, but since Leopold Socha existed and did pretty much what the movie has him doing, we have to give that country credit for producing at least a few "heroes." Plus, what we learn from the end credits reduces some of Poland's good marks in the hero department.

Will In Darkness win Best Foreign-Language Film? Possibly. A Separation is more unusual and nuanced -- plus it's from Iran, so it would seem particularly gracious of the American Academy to bestow such an honor on that country at this particular time. We'll see. Meanwhile, view the movie and judge for yourself. After its one-week qualifying run in both cities toward the end of last year, the film opens, via Sony Pictures Classics, this Friday, February 10, in New York (at the Angelika Film Center and the Lincoln Plaza Cinema) and in Los Angeles on February 17 at Laemmle's Monica 4-Plex, Town Center 5 and Playhouse 7.

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