The title says it all, really. In Darkness – the absence of light. This rather bleak, Oscar-nominated WWII drama (is there any other kind?) from Agnieszka Holland (Europa Europa) very literally presents a world that is so dark there are times where it appears we have no hope of ever seeing the rays of the sun again. Thankfully, despite an excessive runtime, over nearly two and a half hours, the way darkness is shown on the screen is at least captivating and mesmerising. The real star of this Polish/Canadian/German co-production is cinematographer Jolanta Dylewska, who performs a delicate dance of shadow and light within the claustrophobic confines of the Polish sewer system in the final year of German occupation. Even when the work of Holland screenwriter David F Shamoon – adapting In the Sewers of Lvov: A Heroic Story of Survival from the Holocaust by Robert Marshall – feels like it’s stretching itself too thin, In Darkness never loses its visual strength.
Following a raid on a Polish ghetto, a dozen Jewish citizens sought refuge in the dank confines of the sewers beneath the city of Lvov. Thanks to the crafty work of a man whose conflicting loyalties see him at odds with himself and his family, they spent 14 months in the foul-smelling pipes under the city. Not all of them survived, but the uncertainty that looms over these refugees is a constant reminder of the soul-destroying conditions that people found themselves in during this moment in history. That any managed to make it out alive to tell the tale is some kind of awe-inspiring feat.
Nominated for this year’s Best Foreign Language Oscar (it rightfully lost to A Separation from Iran), there’s probably not all that much to the film outside of its stellar craft elements and fine acting ensemble. It’s certainly a tale that will give audiences a new look at the war, but it generally follows a traditional pattern that we’ve seen before. Full marks to actors like Benno Furmann, Agnieszka Grochowska, Maria Shrader, Robert Wieckiewicz, and Kinga Preis for delivering performances that stand out amongst the ensemble. Credit, too, to the precise production design both in and out of the tunnels, as well as the fine costumes and finely-tuned sound design.
Still, In Darkness’ greatest asset is indeed that exceptional cinematography. As light rebounds and reflects off of the damp walls, Dylewska’s camera captures it in stunning ways. The screen is frequently left dark except for flickers of light off to the side, and the golden light of a lantern makes patterns against the brick walls. Keen viewers should pay attention to the background as the actors who aren’t the focus of any given scene are sometimes given lovely little moments of character work that adds to the communal feel of the group. In Darkness will doubtlessly have an effect on many viewers, but anything to do with WWII is bound to bring up powerful feelings in anyone. It’s Holland’s job to take the material to the next level, but it’s the actors and the technicians that perform most of the heavy lifting.
In Darkness is in cinemas now
Director: Agnieszka Holland
Cast: Robert Wieckiewicz, Benno Furmann, Agnieszka Grochowska, Maria Shrader, Kinga Preis, Herbert Knaup, Marcin Bosak, Julia Kijowska, Jerzy Walczak, Oliwer Stanczak, Milla Bankowicz and Krzysztof Skonieczny