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Phil Mellows is a freelance journalist living in Brighton


 In Darkness


Directed by Agnieszka Holland (2011)

In Nazi-occupied Lvov, as the overcrowded ghetto created for them was about to be destroyed, a group of 20 Polish Jews, men, women and children, escaped into the city’s sewers.

They were soon stumbled upon by sewer worker-cum-burglar Leopold Socha, who held their lives in his hands. He could have given them up to the Nazis and claimed a reward, but instead he went for a steady regular income. They paid him to keep them hidden and bring supplies.

In Darkness tells the story of their 14-month survival in the damp labyrinth. Joining them there is a claustrophobic experience. The film was shot in a real sewer and Holland lights it just enough to let you glimpse what’s going on.

And it’s a symbolic place, too. A place where those decreed to be sub-human, to be vermin, are driven down to live among the rats.

Yet, after a while, Socha (Robert Wieckiewicz) is touched by their humanity and takes huge risks in order to continue helping them, putting his own family in danger and indirectly causing the death of his friend.

Not all the action happens underground. In one episode Mundek (Benno Furmann), a bit of an action hero, smuggles himself into a concentration camp to rescue another sewer-dweller’s sister.

He gets in, but without his hat. Being hatless is punishable by instant death, but an officer stays the guard’s gun. He’s noticed that Mundek is unusually fit – the sewers are much healthier than the camp – and worth slightly more than the bullet. Which he directs instead at the poor chap standing next to him. Mundek is given the dead man’s hat and allowed to live.

Such is the cheapness of life for the Nazis, and it’s the kind of thing we’ve seen before in films about the Holocaust. But the strength of In Darkness lies firstly in Socha’s wrestlings with his conscience, and secondly in the way the people in the sewer hold onto their humanity and try to carry on a normal life.

There’s quite a bit of sex, for instance, including an erotic shower scene. There are moments of peace in every war, they say.

In Darkness is dedicated to Marek Edelman, a survivor of the Warsaw ghetto (he died only in 2008, aged 90). He wrote a book, The Ghetto Fights, about that city’s Jewish uprising against the Nazi occupiers.

It’s a largely forgotten story, but in it you find the seed of an alternative history in which, thanks to some organisation, Jews rise beyond their victimhood and point to a different future. And, in a more subtle way, In Darkness does that too.

March 19, 2012

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