World War II films focused on the Holocaust are usually excellent flicks because they are disturbing, entertaining, based on true stories, have the greatest cinema villains we love to hate (Nazis), and are moving because audiences from all over the world can connect to these stories. These films are also good for Hollywood business because WWII was the most recent war that wasn’t interpreted as being so vague – everyone knew who the bad guys were and everyone knew who the good guys were. Many wars after WWII have caused people to discuss them in a more disagreeable fashion – usually debating whether a war was necessary or not, including controversial topics such as “this war was wrong, this war was right, for oil, for weapon manufacturing businesses, good for economy, one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter, etc.” I understand why there is an overkill amount of WWII movies, but sometimes enough is enough – I would love to see more films based on historical events that haven’t been covered yet on screen. Since Hollywood has flooded us with so many Holocaust movies over the years, even as good as they usually are, I have still grown a bit weary of seeing filmmakers go for the easy Oscar win. So with any new Holocaust film, I keep in mind, “Why is this Holocaust movie different from all other Holocaust movies?”
Fortunately, In Darkness is not your typical Holocaust film. A cross between Neil Marshall’s The Descent and Czech Republic’s Divided We Fall (another Holocaust film nominated for Best Foreign Language Film in 2000), this film directed by Agnieszka Holland (Europa Europa) is based on the true story of a group of Jews who survived the Holocaust by living for fourteen months from 1944 to 1945 in the sewers beneath Lvov, Poland (now Lviv, Ukraine). The real-life hero of the story was anti-Semitic sewer inspector named Leopold Socha (played by popular Polish actor Robert Wieckiewicz) who at first saw helping the Jews as a way to rip them off for what little money they had left but gradually he realized that the Jews-in-hiding were just like everyone else. When their money ran out, Socha and his wife continued to care for the hiding Jews and paid for the food out of their own pockets. Eventually, Socha transformed from a greedy scumbag into a generous humanitarian and became a true hero in Eastern Europe, being recognized by Righteous Among the Nations (an honor used by Israel to describe non-Jews who risked their lives during the Holocaust to save Jews from extermination by the Nazis).
One of the main unique aspects found in this Holocaust film that is not depicted in other Holocaust films is that life continues even in the deepest bowels of hell. Hiding in the sewers for over a year did still not stop these Jews from enjoying life. Too many Holocaust films just show the Jews as always suffering and being miserable. Rarely has a Holocaust film depicted how they still tried to enjoy some pleasures in life while they were in hiding or in the camps. In Darkness shows couples having sex, children playing with rats as if they were pets, and even one woman giving birth to a baby. When they finally were able to leave the sewers at the end of the war, one little girl did not want to leave because all she knew was her life in the sewers. One year for a young child is like a lifetime – why leave that life? So it’s no surprise that she did not want to start a new life above the sewers.
Many may not admit this, but there are two entertaining characteristics that I look forward to seeing in a Holocaust film. The first one is enjoying seeing Nazis suffer. Either portrayed in movies based on history or in fantastical Indiana Jones-type films, I love Nazis as villains and seeing them eventually get punished. Historically, Nazis are as bad as any other evil group – it’s not like they are the most evil beings ever in world history. But film-wise, I can’t think of a better movie villain than a Nazi. The second characteristic that I enjoy seeing in a Holocaust film is the amazingly constructed hiding space. I can’t think of any other cool “secret-room-behind-a-wall” scenes besides Q’s many headquarters in James Bond films and Holocaust films. In Darkness has a bunch of these satisfying scenes – Nazis that get their comeuppance and Jews that create impressive hiding spaces.
When the majority of a movie is filmed in the dark, I get a bit nervous for the video quality of its Blu-ray. Sony completely erases that fear and gives us an amazing 1.85:1 1080p image. In the deep, dark tunnels of the sewers, this transfer really flatters the director’s realistic vision of the sewers. There is no exaggerated lighting here – the video quality perfectly complements the ambient light and reflective wet tunnels. Faces are as crisp and clear as the director intended – no emotional scene gets lost due to the darkness. This transfer is an extraordinary example of how dark colors and contrast should be handled on Blu-ray. Forget about the presence of any artifacting or pixilating here!
For a movie that takes place almost entirely underground, it’s important to have a sound mix that plays with the soundscape of the tunnels. The Polish DTS-HD 5.1 is a nerve-wracking experience and really heightens the tension. We are in the tunnels too and feel the characters’ sense of dread. The surrounds and subwoofer come to life during flooding tunnels, gunfire, and explosions. Dialogue is clearly defined, and the musical score is nicely distributed throughout the channels to give an encompassing feel.
English and English SDH subtitles are also included.
An hour’s worth of extras of interviews with the director and one of the survivors is very educational. The survivor Krystyna Chiger kept on thanking the director how all aspects of the movie matched her memories of her experience under the sewers. In other words, a survivor basically gave the director her stamp of approval that In Darkness is not some Hollywoodized Holocaust film! Some deleted scenes are mixed into the interviews as well.
– An Evening with Agnieszka Holland (29:23)
– In Light: A Conversation with Agnieszka Holland and Krystyna Chiger (28:01)
– In Darkness Theatrical Trailer
Agnieszka Holland is exactly right when she said, “the story of a survivor is like a movie.” Sometimes we think that these movies based on real-life stories of survivors sound exaggerated, but that’s not always so – a survivor is someone who typically avoids ridiculous amounts of deadly obstacles. Dealing with a steady stream of dangerous conflicts sounds like a Hollywood screenplay, but that’s the truth about the stories of survivors.
In Darkness is an excellent Schindler’s List-lite film that is quite entertaining and rewatchable. The Blu-ray quality is super so if you are in the mood to watch a unique Holocaust film, In Darkness is your film!