The 2011 Best Foreign Language winner is “A Separation,” the official entry from Iran, a complex anti-feminist soap opera. Rival nominee, Poland’s “In Darkness,” is a true Holocaust survival tale about an Oskar Schindler-esque sewer inspector who risks his life to save Jews hidden in the toxic underground tunnels of Lvov during the World War II Nazi reign of terror. Epic in scale, yet intensely intimate, “In Darkness” is the better film.
Directed by Agnieszka Holland (“Europa, Europa”) with effective, though difficult, low-or-no-light cinematography from Jolanta Dylewska, “In Darkness” follows sewer king and sometime burglar Leopold “Poldek” Socha (Robert Wieckiewicz) as he first decides to help a handful of Jews for profit in their search for salvation under the city. Despite objections from his wife and burglary buddy, Socha continues to hide and feed those he comes to call, “My Jews.”
Based on the Robert Marshall book, “In the Sewers of Lvov,” the 2-hour-and- 23-minute narrative is never dull, not lagging a moment. The communal complications of the ever-shrinking survival group is confrontational and tough. They struggle with rats, methane fumes, excrement, drug addiction, pregnancy, sexual indiscretion, flash flooding, and, of course, Nazis. Their ordeal lasts for 14 months, reducing their number from 20 to 10, the last surviving member, Krystyna Chiger, now age 76 and living in Port Washington.
The key of hope is that Socha. Wieckiewicz gives a gut-wrenching portrayal of a working stiff with dubious ethics evolving into a genuine Robin Hood. The final scene where he leaves his child’s communion service to aid the drowning Jews in the torrential rain-filled tunnels is harrowing and high impact. That scene alone is Oscar-worthy, and it’s only one of many.
See “In Darkness,” and give it the due that the Motion Picture Academy of Arts and Sciences didn’t.