Watching films that take place during WWII—or deal with it in any way—often stir mixed feelings in critics who assume that what they’re watching should be analyzed under a different light because of the topic. Are you a bad human being if you don’t have anything good to write about a movie dealing with genocide? It doesn’t help that the “importance” of the subject matter has made WWII films the genre of choice which awards organizations shower with their year-end accolades. But is this because they feel they “have to” or because these movies fulfill artistic qualities which these organizations deem praiseworthy? The question that lies at the bottom of this is: do Holocaust movies get a free pass from critics?
WWII movies are as common as superhero movies, but is that specifically because artists feel like there are still endless stories to tell and different ways to tell them? Or merely because they know for a fact that few critics will trash their movies and they’re pretty much guaranteed at least one Oscar nomination, regardless of their movies actual artistic value?
Take In Darkness for example, Agnieszka Holland’s dramatization of the rescue of a group of Jewish refugees in occupied Poland, which seems to have been made using a checklist of requirements needed to comply with the clichés demanded by the genre. Her film tells the story of Leopold Socha (played by Robert Więckiewicz), a real life sewer maintenance worker who helps hide a group of Jews being hunted by the Nazis. The film immediately recalls Schindler’s List, because they both deal with how people who would’ve otherwise remained unaffected by the genocide provoked by the Nazis, suddenly become involved with the persecuted Jews, and risking their own lives.
While both feats are admirable from a humane perspective, In Darkness in particular seems to have forgotten that movies are more than morality tales and should also be treated like artistic pieces. Holland relies on excessively manipulative devices to make us feel for her characters, when in all honesty the essence of the tale being told is already moving enough and should get across the idea that, other than watching the horrors executed by the Nazis, this is also a tale about the lengths people will go to in order to survive.
Most of the movie takes place within the underground sewers (we learn that “Socha’s Jews” lived in hiding for more than a year) and at first it seems as if the movie will concentrate on the fascinating sociological practices that these people carry and follow through, despite of their condition. It’s devastating to watch them celebrate Shabbat while rats and other vermin run around, and it’s even more surprising to see how more mundane dramas unfold within this micro-universe. A marriage is destroyed when the husband begins an affair with another refugee, leading to one of the movie’s most tragic twists. A child is born in the sewers and we watch these people try to adapt to what is their new “daily life”.
Holland perhaps assumed that her movie would be captivating because of its resemblance to the story of Oskar Schindler, but she always seems to be underestimating the power of Socha’s personal experiences. Perhaps mistrusting the plot’s appeal, she overdoes it on the affectedness scale and recreates moments from much better Holocaust movies. She sets key points to classical music, as if to force us to realize just how important and tragic the events onscreen really are. Why would she not allow the story to speak for itself and why would she think her audience needed special emphasis on already dramatic points?
Her use of Henry Purcell’s “Dido’s Lament”, during one key scene, is nothing if not ludicrous and actually manages to take you out of the scene it’s meant to compliment. Holland’s overall work (including the affected technical aspects of the film) makes you think that she overcompensates, as if she’s the one who’s not yet convinced of the magnitude of the Holocaust or was merely fishing for awards recognition.
The high definition transfer of In Darkness is absolutely flawless. The movie was recorded using the famous Red Digital Camera, which proved to be more demanding for the unique cinematographic needs of this film, because of its lower sensitivity to light. therefore the work of color correction, which lets us “see” in the darkness is breathtaking.
Also included on this edition are a theatrical trailer and two conversations with Holland. One where she discusses the movie in front of an audience and a much more personal one where she has a conversation with Krystyna Chiger, the only remaining survivor of Socha’s Jews. Chiger released a book about her harrowing experience in the sewers but wasn’t Holland’s inspiration; in fact, the director didn’t even know she was alive. Their conversation is fascinating, where the film is forced, and actually seems to be an enlightening experience for Holland, who must’ve wished she met her before doing her contrived movie.