Out of the darkness and into the light

It starts as a simplistic, sanitised take on the Holocaust, but finally In Darkness becomes the humanising film it needed to be.

Tom Slater

Tom Slater
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In the 67 years since the end of the Second World War, writers, artists and filmmakers have tried to come to terms with that most sorrowful of chapters in human history, the Holocaust. Yet, dealing with an event so incomprehensibly horrific has often led many to oversimplify and aestheticise the tragedy.

In 1949, Theodor Adorno famously proclaimed that ‘to write poetry after Auschwitz is barbarism’. As he later elaborated in his 1962 essay, Commitment, he felt that capturing the Holocaust in an aesthetic form ran the risk of making ‘an unthinkable fate appear to have had some meaning’, leaving it ‘transfigured, something of its horror removed’.

Fervent criticism led Adorno to retract his earlier statement, but there is still something to take away from his notion that imposing meaning onto historical events only distances us from the real truth. Agnieszka Holland’s In Darkness is a film very much guilty of such dehumanising reductionism in its depiction of Leopold Socha, a sewer worker who helped a group of Jews escape from the Lvov ghetto in Poland.

At the beginning of the film, Socha (Robert Więckiewicz) greets the atrocities that are taking place with detachment and indifference. Upon finding that a group of Jews have tunnelled into one of the sewers he inspects, he briefly considers turning them in, but decides instead to help them in exchange for a hefty fee.

Much like Oskar Schindler, Socha was a gentile who first sought to profit from the war but, witnessing the effects of his compliance with the Nazi regime, was driven to heroic acts. Bringing them food and supplies, Socha kept their existence a secret for over a year, and as time wore on and their money ran out, he continued helping them unpaid and at great risk to the lives of himself and his family.

It is a story of indomitable humanity that deserves to be told, but unfortunately Holland feels compelled to sanitise the narrative by placing it in a stridently religious frame. Throughout the film, she constantly emphasises Socha’s Catholic background. For example, in the opening scene, while burgling a German house, he stops his accomplice from stealing a gold crucifix. The main turning point in his opinion of the Jews comes when his wife informs him that Jesus was Jewish. More shamelessly, Holland begins to bend the truth for the sake of maintaining this theme. Finding himself with more people than he can possibly conceal, Socha insists he can only hide 10 of them at most. After much debate, they finally settle on 12, purely because it mirrors the 12 apostles, when in fact the number the real-life Socha managed to conceal was something closer to 20.

While religion undoubtedly played a role, both in being used to justify the Nazis’ treatment of the Jews to the Christians of the occupied states and in the decision of many god-fearing people to defy such hateful rhetoric, the constant gesturing towards Socha’s Catholicism only does him a grave disservice. Although performed with gruff sincerity by Więckiewicz, the characterisation the script puts forward is that of a mindless individual, who decides to help out his fellow man only after he double checks that God would be okay with it. Where many works reduce the Holocaust to notions of good vs evil, this film discusses them in terms of religious ignorance and religious tolerance. It may be a less common route to take, but it remains just as offensively simplistic.

Naturally, such a rickety framework eventually collapses. It is only when Holland leaves religion behind that she is forced to focus solely on the remarkable predicament of her characters and this produces some valuable insight. Flitting without warning between the eye-straining, lamp-lit scenes below and bleached, sun-drenched shots of the world above, Holland pummels our retinas and confronts us with the inhuman, subterranean life these people are forced to endure in order to survive.

When the Russians drive out the Nazis and Socha uncovers the manhole, letting light into their world for the first time in 14 months, watching them climb to the streets above is incredibly moving. Not because it represents the transcendence of religious boundaries, but because it shows us the triumph of the human spirit over insurmountable odds.

We should never stop trying to understand the events of the Holocaust, but the attempt to reconcile them to simplistic notions merely distances us from the lessons that need to be learnt. It is only when In Darkness inadvertently rids itself of its chosen narrow framework that it becomes at all valuable, and the devastatingly humanising film that it needed to be.

Tom Slater is spiked’s film reviewer. Visit his blog here.

Watch the trailer for In Darkness:

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