Agnieszka Holland's powerful "In Darkness" is set in 1942 in the eastern Polish city of Lvov at a time when it was occupied by the Germans and their Ukrainian allies. The city's Christian inhabitants, battered and war-weary, are still far better off than the Jews, whom the Nazis randomly shoot in the streets and ghettoize en route to their eventual deportation to concentration camps.
Leopold Socha (Robert Wieckiewicz) is a Polish sewer inspector who also doubles as a scavenger. To provide for his wife and daughter, and also, we sense, because he likes the thrill of the hunt, he and his accomplice (Krzysztof Skonieczny) loot the abandoned buildings of Jews. Because of Socha's knowledge of the sewers, the local Ukrainian Nazi officer offers him an added financial incentive to root out the Jews hiding underground.
Unlike most Holocaust-themed movies, even some of the strongest (like "Schindler's List"), "In Darkness," which is based on true events and is Oscar-nominated for best foreign film, doesn't draw clear lines of demarcation between the righteous and the venal. Socha initially keeps several Jewish families hidden away, not because he is noble but because the Jews make him a better offer – a richer bribe. And the Jews crammed into the blackness and the stench are not sentimentalized. One man, for example, has abandoned his wife and daughter for his mistress, whom he likewise abandons when she becomes pregnant. With the exception of the group's leader, Mundek Margulies (Benno Fürmann), who is portrayed in classic stalwart-hero mold, none of the Jews are given the star treatment.
This is as it should be. Holland and her screenwriter David Shamoon (whose parents fled Baghdad to escape Iraq's persecution of Jews) understand that suffering isn't necessarily ennobling and that sometimes goodness emanates from the unlikeliest sources – in this case, Socha. The movie's power comes from its uncompromising take on his heroism. This man who dislikes Jews and initially thinks only of his own profit, gradually, fitfully, is transformed by the end into someone who risks even the lives of his own family, whom he loves, in order to save the people he calls "my Jews."
Holland has made excellent movies in this vein before, especially the 1991 "Europa Europa," but "In Darkness" is her most unremitting achievement. The reason we feel so close to Socha, a man who at first seems nothing more than a racist scoundrel, is that his moral odyssey, with its advances and retreats, is so emotionally believable. Holland could not have chosen a better actor to play Socha, whose burliness and blank eyes are, as it turns out, camouflage for the valiant human within. (Wieckiewicz has been amply honored in Poland for his stage and film work, almost all of which is maddeningly unavailable in the United States.)
There are sequences in this film that are almost impossible to take, such as the one in which the cries of a mother's newborn risks exposing the entire group, but for the most part Holland avoids depicting the full horror of the Jews' entrapment. (The assumption is that we already know the horrors.) When the story is periodically brought above ground, into the daylight, the effect is both exhilarating and unsettling. The bright, wide world looks like freedom after all that blackness, but this is an illusion: Death is here, too.
In the film's climax, the rain pouring down from the sky threatens to turn the sewers into a death trap. This is when Socha demonstrates his true mettle. He is possessed beyond reason by his need to save the Jews. Like few other movies, "In Darkness" gets at the mania of those who would risk everything to save others. Socha is bewildered by the man he has become, and exultant, too. He astonishes himself – and us. Grade: A (Rated R for violence, disturbing images, sexuality, nudity, and language.)