It's probably true that Holocaust stories can never be exhausted. While it might be difficult to keep them interesting and different, "In Darkness" manages it well, with an alternately harrowing, frightful and yet very human-level story that moves so quickly there's little time to do more than keep up with it. Mostly suspense- and emotion-driven, the film offers enough shades of character to make it a worthy and recommended addition to the subgenre.
It opens with two men robbing a house in the dark, when they're surprised by the return of the homeowner. Escaping, the thieves happen upon a bizarre sight in the woods, a pack of nude women screaming and running through the night. They're being herded by soldiers holding machine guns who eventually open fire. Splitting up, one of the thieves, Socha (Robert Wieckiewicz), makes his way to his apartment, where he has sex with his giggling, fleshy wife (Kinga Preis) before waking up to go back to work. He's in charge of the city sewer. This schizophrenic opening predicts what's to come.
We learn that Socha is a thief only as much as everyone else going through this mass European conflict. He's an opportunistic individual willing to do whatever necessary to survive amid bloody chaos, which is already in motion by the time the story begins. The Germans are clearing out the Jewish ghetto in the Polish city of Lvov, shooting some Jews and sending others to a nearby camp. If there's reasoning behind the selection process it's impossible to tell.
One group of Jews has finished digging through a basement into the city sewer system, where they hope to hide. But as soon as they make it down for the first time, they find Socha and his employee, who demand payment to help find hiding space, and bring down food and other supplies while these underground refugees wait out the war.
If you didn't think Holocaust films could get more sad, brutal and chaotic than "Schindler's List" and "The Pianist," you haven't seen one set in a sewer. At least one refugee decides it's better to take her chances with the concentration camp. But the adversity witnessed by the film demonstrates the elasticity and strength of the mind as well as the degradation of the body. The profusion of rats, for example, begins as an unimaginable fright, but becomes, after months in the sewer, so mundane that even the younger women barely bother to disentangle them from their hair.
There are many other things to worry about. Hiding in a sewer isn't foolproof. Someone cooks onions, and the smell creeps up through a woman's toilet above. Army irregulars are sent in to investigate. And sent in again. The Germans investigate everything and everywhere for Jews, even the toilets. Another group hiding in the sewers are caught and killed, but the film's primary group, the protagonist band, manages to hang on longer, and their survival, and what it reveals, provides much of the film's interest.
"In Darkness" recognizes that life goes on in hiding, in all its variety, even in the dankest, dreariest holes. People still eat, pray, sing. They have sex. They give birth. They make terrible mistakes. Their dogged survival wears on Socha, touched to see small children playing in their wretched self-captivity. Many times he gives up, claiming that it's not worth the money, but his conscience brings him back, and what he witnesses transforms him. How could it not?
"In Darkness," an Oscar nominee, was directed by Agnieszka Holland, born in Warsaw a few years after World War II, the film is based on the Robert Marshall book "In the Sewers of Lvov," a city now part of Ukraine, which explains a lot and adds to the breadth of sadness attached to this terrible chapter of history. If this had been only another story of Holocaust survivors the film might get monotonous, especially at 145 minutes. But Holland, famous for "Europa Europa" (it's on Netflix and worth checking out), frequently takes us above ground, where the situation is hardly less grotesque. In one scene, one sewer refugee (Benno Fürmann) and Socha are surprised by a German soldier — not a looming devil in a swastika-laden uniform, but a fresh-faced, young blond kid trying to do his duty. His duty is wrong, but the dismal moment when they kill him demonstrates there are no victories in places like this, except staying alive. (R) 145 min. SNote: The date for this film's Richmond opening has been moved to March 30.