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Friday, September 19, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 67.0° F  A Few Clouds
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In Darkness tells a devastating Holocaust story
Perpetual night
Like nothing you've ever seen before.
Like nothing you've ever seen before.

Based on actual events, the claustrophobic epic In Darkness is as emotional as they come: a Holocaust story shot through with darkness both literal and figurative. Set mainly beneath the streets of Lvov, Poland, In Darkness uses the dank, horrific sewers to great and terrible effect. Not since Carol Reed's The Third Man and Andrzej Wajda's Kanal has the underground been freighted with so much dramatic peril. This is an emotionally devastating portrayal of lives lived in terror, perpetual night and constant fear of discovery. As nightmarish as it is, however, there's a remarkable core of humanity.

It's 1941, and the Germans are hunting for the few remaining Jews in Lvov. To assist in their efforts, Bortnik (Michal Zurawski), a Nazi officer, conscripts a local sewer worker to help track their quarry. Leopold Socha (Robert Wieckiewisz), a.k.a. Poldek, is presented as no friend of the Jews - he's a rough character, a corrupt thief. When he encounters a band of Jews hiding in the labyrinthine sewer system, his first inclination is to turn them over to the Nazis and collect his fee. But the Jews make him a better deal. Cynically calculating the odds, he figures he stands to gain more by helping them elude the Germans.

Comparisons between Poldek and Oskar Schindler, who similarly risked his life to save Jewish lives, are to be expected, but Poldek feels more real. He is amoral, filthy and conniving, but as In Darkness progresses and the threats become graver by the day, he finds himself wanting to help, needing to help. Despite protestations from his wife and his interactions with Germans and Nazi sympathizers (particularly the weaselly Bortnik, an old prison buddy turned Nazi thug), Poldek finds his moral compass pointing toward some semblance of a conscience.

Shooting the film with flashlights, cinematographer Jolanta Dylewska has done a masterful job in uncompromising conditions. The Jews, among them a formerly well-to-do married couple (Maria Schrader, Herbert Knaup), a pregnant woman and children, are shown as being ruthless and potentially amoral in their own right. But given that their only chance for survival is hanging by a thread held by an opportunistic goon, their actions make sense.

Darker than even the sewers it uses as its milieu, this film by Agnieszka Holland (Europa Europa) is unrelenting in its exploration of the limits of cruelty and the birth pangs of humanity. It's a sorrowful film, to be sure, but it's also like nothing you've ever seen before.

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