Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Going underground

Based on Robert Marhsall’s In the Sewers of Lvov, In Darkness is a German-Canadian co-production, directed by Poland’s Agnieszka Holland (Europa Europa) and scripted by Canadian screenwriter David F. Shamoon. It chronicles the true story of Polish sewer inspector Leopold Socha and the handful of Jews he helped to shelter during the Nazi occupation. Boiled down to its protagonist’s arc, In Darkness could be summed up as your archetypical mercenary who recovers his humanity story. Socha begins the film a casually anti-Semitic cynic, robbing houses, looting vacated ghettos and shamelessly hustling the Jewish families who have nowhere left to turn; by the end he’s sacrificing his own safety to ensure their survival. The film is more complicated scene-by-scene, with self-interest, desperation and altruism—not to mention a surprising amount of lust—so thoroughly interwoven as to become inextricable, right up to the final scene, when those left alive return to the surface, squinting and confused, and are greeted by Socha and his wife with a lovely cake to nibble on as Socha proudly declares to all passersby that these pale creatures are “my Jews.” While Socha is necessarily the film’s protagonist, Holland and Shamoon steer clear of Schindler’s List bullshit, ie: making too much the hero of this courageous Aryan.

I’m torn when it comes to the proliferation of Holocaust films. So long as there are stories to be told, perspectives to be gained, part of me thinks, By all means, keep them coming. Yet there’s something precarious about these stories, at least in film form, accumulating to the point where we become inured to their impact by becoming to comfortable with what amounts to a “Holocaust genre,” a notion that strikes me as inherently appalling. Does In Darkness slip into Holocaust tropes? A little, I think. The very notion of hiding in the sewers, though grounded in history, feels more metaphorical than literal, more poetic than palpable. More subtly, yet more importantly, the draining of most colours from the film’s palate, besides feeling hackneyed by this point, is a too-obvious emphasis of the misery endured under occupation; it makes the world of the film feel stylized, and, crucially, less real. And if there’s anything that any Holocaust narrative should remain duty-bound to uphold it’s the sense that these events, even when fictionalized and wrangled up in filmic artifice, did happen, could happen, and remain fiercely, unbearably real.

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