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Film Review

In Darkness

Eastern Europe became a vast charnel house for Jews during the Holocaust, especially Poland, the Ukraine, the Baltic States, and Western Russia. A culture that had existed for a millennium was turned into ashes. After the Nazis invaded Poland in 1939, and continuing with the invasion of Russia in 1941, the extermination of the Jews was one of the highest of Nazi priorities. They were efficient, establishing massive death camps such as Auschwitz, Treblinka and Belzec in Southern Poland and relying on the local police and militias to help round up the Jews and uncover hiding places. The civilian locals were usually eager to cooperate from a combination of hatred and cash rewards. These countries had a long history of virulent anti-semitism, with murderous pogroms common from 1880 to 1920. The extent of this deeply embedded Jewish hatred is evidenced by a pogrom in July, 1946, (one year after the end of WW II) in Kielce, Poland, in which over 40 Jews were killed, hundreds injured, and many houses and businesses burned. This, in a country that already had 94% of its Jewish population of over 3 million murdered in the forests, ghettos, and death camps. Yet a courageous few gentiles risked death (harboring Jews was punishable by death, and some were executed) and attempted to help Jews. Some actually provided hiding places, others brought food, and some who knew of their hiding places kept silent. But they were a very tiny minority, and often criticized after the war by their neighbors. Yad Vashem has honored about 6,000 Poles who risked their lives to help save Jews.

Artists have responded to the Holocaust in many ways, but film makers have produced some of the most important and powerful works. The challenge of dealing with something so horrible and unimaginable, yet bearing witness honestly, is considerable, and more than one film maker has described months of depression after finishing their film. More than 170 films (including documentaries) that deal with the Holocaust have been produced since 1946, with those from Europe generally the most profound. Some have been exploitive, unintentionally to be sure, using the Holocaust as background for their own story. But a few have truly born witness and come as close as is possible to portraying the reality. One of the first films was Alain Resnais' "Night and Fog" (1955), which was highly influential on his and subsequent generations of film makers. Later, Claude Lanzmann's "Shoah" (1985), but Louis Malle's "Au Revoir, Les Enfants" (1987) and Max Ophuls' "Hotel Terminus" ( 1988) were also highly influential. Others, in a more accessible style, such as Alan Pakula's "Sophie's Choice" (1982), Steven Spielberg's "Schindler's List" (1993) and Roman Polanski's "The Pianist" (2002) were box office successes. Still others, like Roberto Benigni's "Life is Beautiful" were widely criticized for their black comedic or sanitized depictions.

Agnieszka Holland, a noted Polish director and screenwriter, whose father's parents died in the ghetto and whose mother fought in the Warsaw Uprising, has revisited (initially in " Europa Europa", 1991) the Holocaust with her adaption of a survivor's account, "In the Sewers of Lvov". It tells the harrowing tale of a small group of Jews from the Lvov (originally Polish, now in the Ukraine) Ghetto, who escaped into the sewers, hiding until the Russians liberated Lvov in 1944. They were helped by an unlikely angel, a anti-semitic Polish sewer worker, who was also a burglar. Helped is too weak a word as it is clear they could never have survived without his assistance, at great personal risk to him and his family. The Jewish population of Lvov was estimated at 220,000 when the Nazis seized the city. Less than 500 survived. "In Darkness" begins with two men burglarizing a seemingly empty house. They are confronted by two young people in Nazi Youth uniforms, one with a pistol, but the burglars subdue them. As they leave, the leader says to the young woman: "Next time fuck a Polish man". After leaving the house, they pass through a forest, and witness a scene from hell, which has been much commented on by reviewers. This is our introduction to Leopold (Poldec) Socha, the Polish sewer worker who ultimately helped save a small band of Jews. Shortly thereafter, as he is hiding his stolen loot, he encounters a group of Jews in the sewers. He sees a chance to make money, and offers to help them for a price. They agree, and Socha guides them to a different part of the sewer system. Much of the film takes place in the sewers, filled with sewage, where food and potable water are scarce, and hungry rats everywhere. Holland's Jewish characters include every type of person, men, women and children, from the brave to the weak, from the selfish to the kind, to the highly educated secular to the religious. Most are suspicious of Socha and wonder when (not if) he will turn them in for the large cash rewards. Socha has a junior partner in crime, a younger man, who is very afraid that aiding the Jews will end up getting them both shot. Socha's wife also plays a key role. Holland alternates scenes of the misery underground with life above ground, which give the viewer a form of relief. There are brief but poignant codas at the end that say much in few words.

The acting is outstanding throughout. Robert Wieckiewicz, a well known actor in Poland, plays Socha. None of the actors are familiar to American audiences, but all are very fine, especially the children. The cinematography here is extraordinary. Rarely has so much been done in such dim light. It runs for 143 minutes but seemed well paced and edited. Adding to the authenticity of the film is that the characters all speak their native languages: Polish, Yiddish, German and Ukrainian. "In Darkness" is a very fine film, and I loved it for its power and authenticity. Yet the ultimately hopeful ending is inauthentic in terms of the Holocaust. Very few Jews survived the killing machine and even fewer were "righteous gentiles". "Where was God?" is often answered with "Where was man"? We meet one or two. "In Darkness" is the Polish entry to the Academy Awards, and was selected as one of the five nominees for best foreign language film. Just opened at the Embarcadero.

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