Holocaust culture has proven to be essentially infinite: Nearly seventy years since the end of World War II, and untold stories of decimation and survival are still hitting the mainstream, with no light at the end of the tunnel. Agnieszka Holland's new film, In Darkness, opens a scab perhaps only familiar to Holocaust Museum devotees — the tale of a handful of Jewish families, aided by a reluctant Polish crook-slash-sewer-worker named Leopold Socha, who lived in the Lviv sewers for more than a year during the Nazi liquidation.
Like Andrzej Wajda's existentialist-resistance classic Kanal, Holland's is an underground movie, but it begins in the filmmaker's best off-kilter mode, with Socha (beady-eyed Robert Wieckiewicz, soon to be Lech Walesa in Wajda's upcoming biopic) looting an evacuated house, getting chased out by a young brownshirt, and passing by a crowd of naked women being herded through the forest. Patiently, we watch the city's occupation clamp down until an entire small community of Jews starts digging through the floor and into the tunnels underneath, where they happen onto Socha. Always scheming, Socha offers to guide them to a safe corner in the sewer system and provide them with food at the cost of essentially every karbovantsi and heirloom jewel in their pockets. Eventually, the money runs out, but Socha keeps returning because, as he says, they're "my Jews."
By now, practically everything touching the Nazis' project has become metaphor, and there's no way to think about the decaying sewers of Europe except as a kind of special Beckettian hell, flowing with feces but nevertheless providing refuge from the inferno on the street above. Skirmishes, catfights, rat invasions, marital and family embitterment — Holland ramps up the discomfitures and also the tiresome squabbling that seems obligatory whenever a movie sequesters its characters in a closed space. (Strangely, there's also a lot more fucking going on than you would think the circumstances would allow, culminating for chiseled star Benno Fürmann in a coed shower-in-the-runoff.) But as the Jews struggle to survive and stay off the grid and Socha weighs his conscience against his family's safety, the film spins its wheels. As it must: Inertia is part of the scenario's tangible, horrible absurdism.
Holland does skirt the ethical entrapment of Schindler's List (over-lionizing the Aryan rescuer) by contemplating the details of the sufferers, particularly the scalding fate of a newborn baby (whose single cry could destroy everyone) and an Easter Sunday rainstorm that overflows the sewers. But another break in the tension is the inescapable fact that every Holocaust movie, however hair-raising, essentially thrums the same self-sacrifice-versus-self-preservation chord. It's not fair, but there it is: We've been here before.