By Joan Ellis
A long time ago I took an oral history of a woman who drove her five children in a hay wagon from her farm in the Russian Sector of Germany to the safety of Berlin at the end of World War II. They traveled at night to avoid the Russians who were pillaging and raping as they moved in as occupiers. “I had to go. I had a teenage daughter,” she told me. With 19 hours of tapes in hand, I expressed admiration for her courage and she said something very quietly that I’ve never forgotten: “Every one of us who survived that time had a story; every single one.”
As these stories surfaced over the last sixty years, they expanded our understanding of the chaos that enveloped Europe as the war ended, but few had the power of the stories told by survivors of the Holocaust. One of these has been made into a disturbing new film: In Darkness by Agnieszka Holland, the distinguished Polish-born director (Europa, Europa) who had always wanted to make a film that centered on the Warsaw Ghetto. She fastened on the true story of Leopold Socha (Robert Wieckiewicz), a petty thief and sewer worker who hides his plunder in the sewers beneath Warsaw. Socha makes a deal with a group trying to escape the transfer of Jews from the Ghetto to the certain death of Janowoska. They will pay him cash in return for his protection of them in the sewers.
This movie is the harrowing passage of fourteen months spent in the underground dark on rat-filled ledges next to a fast flowing stream of raw sewage. Stench, sickness, birth, human frailty, betrayal – all these unfold in the dark; and the dark fuels suspicion, jealousy, fury, violence, and envy – of a warm coat, of a piece of bread. These emotions scream out from interior places unvisited in a nicer world. These people saw not one ray of daylight for fourteen months. Filmed in six languages, the movie is both unrelenting and wrenching in its realism. You will barely breathe as you watch.
Socha’s journey from petty thief to reluctant savior becomes our focus. Above ground he must cope with Bortnik (Michal Zurawski), a Ukrainian officer who suspects Socha of harboring a secret; below ground he must contend with Mundek (Benno Furmann) who suspects Socha’s loyalty. In the prolonged darkness a beautiful pivot pierces Socha’s character when he sees a child lying still, staring without emotion or expression and he acts.
Director Holland has asked, “Are these events and actions the exception in human history or do they reveal an inner, dark truth about our nature?” Her movie explores this question in a probing, personal kind of depth against the fully realized darkness of the story. There is no end to the value of forcing us to ask, as Agnieszka Holland does, “How did this happen? Where was Man in this crisis? Where was God?”