In Darkness (14th Kinoteka Polish Film Festival)

Lwów, Poland, 1943. Sanitation worker and sometime petty thief Leopold Socha (Robert Więckiewicz) and his friend Szczepek Wróblewski (Krzysztof Skonieczny) are persuaded, in exchange for a fee, to hide a number of Jews who has escaped the Nazis' liquidation of the Lwów. They continue to hide the Jews in the city's sewers, after their money has run out...

Andrzej Wajda's Kanał (1957), his second feature, has cast a long shadow over Polish cinema, so much so that few filmmakers have taken on the subject of the Warsaw Rising since. (Warsaw '44 (Miasto 44), was directed by Jan Komasa in 2014 but for some reason has not had any British showings I'm aware of.) But although it takes place in a different city (Lwów, now in Ukraine and called Lviv), Agnieszka Holland's film In Darkness inevitably recalls Wajda's film in that a large part of the running time takes place underground in sewers, though those hidden there are Jews rather than Polish resistance fighters. There's a further link in that Holland began her career as an assistant to Wajda in the 1970s and made her first films for his company. Since the banning of her third feature, A Woman Alone in 1981, she has lived abroad and worked internationally, including on television episodes of The Wire, Treme and others.

In Darkness is the story of a man whose heroism was if anything despite himself, rather like the more famous Oskar Schindler whose saving of large numbers of Jews came from at first mercenary motives. Socha is is persuaded to hide the Jewish fugitives in exchange for a fee. Much of the film lives up to the film's title: dark, with occasional light from torches, and convincingly claustrophobic and filthy. But over time, he became closer to the Jews he was hiding, many of them remained in the sewers for fourteen months, at risk from the slightest slip. It's a gripping though often grim story, though fortunately freedom comes with the Russian's liberation of the city. Leopold Socha died in 1946. In 1978 he and his wife Magdalena were recognised by Israel as Righteous Among the Nations.

Based on a book by Robert Marshall, David F. Shamoon's script was originally written in English, but the film's dialogue is in the actual languages that would have been spoken by the people concerned, namely Polish, German, Yiddish and Ukrainian. In Darkness was Oscar-nominated for Best Foreign-Language Film, losing to Iran's A Separation.

In Darkness shows in a 35mm print on 14 April at 8.15pm and 19 April at 6.00pm at the BFI Southbank, London, as part of the 14th Kinoteka Polish Film Festival in its Agnieszka Holland retrospective.

Overall

8

out of 10