Stories about the Holocaust lead to questions at the heart of our humanity. Beyond what it means to be human — Dr. Cornel West’s assertion that the human urge is to engage in the fierce struggle to live with the inevitability of death — what is it that we, in any given moment or situation, would be willing to do to survive or to protect the life of another? What would we subject ourselves to?
Each story, each new angle of reflection, casts light on another facet of the human condition. Life in the ghetto wasn’t much about living. Self-indentification, which could lead to imprisonment or death, meant constantly hiding, in attics or basements or in sewers, as is the case in Agnieszka Holland’s Best Foreign Language nominee at this year’s Academy Awards, In Darkness. Every option seemed to have the same tragic end, but somehow there were survivors. Individuals joined together, Jews did whatever they had to do, while others, a precious few, stepped up to the challenge and proved that some shard of their humanity still lived, buried deep inside.
In the Nazi-occupied city of Lvov in Poland, Socha (Robert Wieckiewicz) works in the sewers, but he also uses his knowledge of the intricate system to run a for-profit black market exchange. He is poor, living with his wife in one small room with barely enough to eat and the stench ever on his person. He lives with the stereotypes and labels assigned to the Polish, but he has his pride and his wits.
Into his life comes Mundek (Benno Fürmann), the leader of a group of Jews in hiding who stumble into the sewers as the Nazis make an exterminating run through the ghetto. Several Jews crowd into the tunnels, but many others, fearing the stench and disease and the rats, remain to die by the bullets or surrender and get herded off to the camps. Socha offers them sanctuary, for a price, because he is no sympathizer with either the Nazis or the Jews; he is merely caught in the middle trying to survive himself.
It would be easy to compare this story to that of Oskar Schindler, another man driven at first by profit before his conscience took over, and then by extension to contrast Steven Spielberg’s Oscar-winning film about Schindler with Holland’s. But such a critical journey is fraught with pitfalls. Spielberg certainly captured the conditions, the harsh realities, but Schindler was a man of means, a gambler who saw the stakes and wagered much before the threat of loss became real and immediate.
In Darkness traffics in the more familiar thanks to its focus on its Everyman Socha. He has connections with the Polish Nazis, but he quickly comes to realize that they will not save him; he will still live and die by his wits and he recognizes that same spirit in Mundek. Socha slowly transitions from being a man invested in his own self-interests to one willing to take risks for others. But through him, it is likely that we can appreciate the effort.
And Holland dunks our heads into the murky waters of the sewers. She makes sure we feel the grit and grime under our nails. But there is a surreal beauty in those man-made caverns. The tunnels take on the impression of the ancient ruins from Werner Herzog’s Cave of Forgotten Dreams, minus the drawings. We see the bodies of those who aren’t strong enough as they drift by and we realize that this watery grave is the end for them.
Death is above and below. It is ever-present, but thanks to Socha we know that some of “his” Jews will survive. They will escape Poland after the Soviets enter and head off to Israel, Europe and the United States. Death will remain on their trails, but they will know that they survived all those months in the sewers and Socha, too, will know something — that he did his part to save them. In him we are given an example that we can relate to, an Everyman who did what was right during these dark times.Grade: A