Thursday, October 4, 2012

YES – See "In Darkness" – Even If You've Seen Other Holocaust Movies!


So many Holocaust movies: "Schindler's List," "The Reader," "Shoah," "Europa Europa."

I knew "In Darkness" would be frightening, depressing, and disturbing.

So, I didn't want to watch "In Darkness."

Big mistake. "In Darkness" is a masterpiece. It's better than "Schindler's List." Yes, it is disturbing to watch, but it is great art, and great art, even as it moves us to tears, rewards us. You already know about the horrors of the Holocaust. The gift of "In Darkness" is that it transports the viewer to a better realm, where the best of humanity shines in the worst darkness we humans have produced. That best of humanity is not just Socha, the rescuer, but the filmmakers who, through their art, tell the world Socha's story.

"In Darkness" has a verisimilitude, indeed a "darkness," that other Holocaust films do not. No one in this movie would look appropriate placed on a pedestal. Everyone here – Jews and rescuers – is a deeply flawed human being. The Jews hiding in the sewers look and act the way people hiding in sewers would look – filthy, hungry, and bedraggled; they are sometimes petty, jealous, and vengeful. The film is dark and claustrophobic. The Nazis are not sexy and thrilling. They are murderous scum. Not only do characters speak Polish, Yiddish, German, Ukrainian, and Russian, where appropriate, they also spoke Balak, a dialect typical of Poles living in Lwow. Krystyna Chiger, who survived the sewer, said she found the film so real it was hard to watch.

None of the actors are well known outside of Poland or Germany, so I was able to invest in them as the characters they were playing in a way that I could never invest in "Schindler's List," which, of course, featured big stars I'd seen in other films – Ralph Fiennes, the handsome lover from "The English Patient," was suddenly giving an Oscar-bait performance as a fat Nazi; Ben Kingsley was no longer Gandhi, but a Jew in a concentration camp.

Robert Wieckiewicz as Leopold Socha gives one of the very best, most absorbing, most believable film performances I have ever seen. Wieckiewicz is utterly believable as a petty thief who makes one right choice that leads him onto a path that awakens his soul. He starts out as a rough guy, an opportunist, who isn't ready to be as cruel as life invites him to be. The Nazis are paying bonuses to anyone who turns in Jews. Socha, already a petty criminal, who had initially helped Jews for money, could have made the choice to hand Jews over to the Nazis, for even more money. He didn't. He decided to do the next kind thing. And the next. And the next. And he becomes of the most moving, heroic people you will ever see onscreen. If Socha's entirely believable transformation doesn't make you cry … you are tougher than I am.

Benno Furmann is especially memorable as Mundek Margulies, one of the Jews who escapes to the sewers. Furmann has pale blue eyes that shine out intensely in the dark sewer scenes, communicating outrage, sorrow, panic, and caged macho. The tense dynamic between him and Socha electrifies their scenes. Theirs is a male-male relationship utterly beyond what any current Hollywood "buddy" movie could hope to portray.

Kinga Preis is quietly moving as Wanda Socha, Leopold's plump and freckled, earth-goddess wife. Maria Schrader as one of the Jewish women in hiding adds poignancy without doing anything showy. Michal Zurawski as Bortnik, a Ukrainian who does the dirty work for the Nazis, is very handsome sickening, and terrifying. You can see that Socha could have turned out like his old friend Bortnik. But, somehow, he didn't. Why? Because Bortnik was Ukrainian, not Polish – and thus treated differently by the Nazis? Because Bortnik was more handsome? We don't know. We just get the sense that before he made the one choice that set him on a path that would turn him into a beast, Bortnik was probably much like his old pal, Socha.

"In Darkness" is a feature film, not history lesson or a documentary, but for this viewer it dramatized aspects of the Holocaust, and of humanity, that other Holocaust films have failed to adequately address, or to address at all.

I've never seen a film that brought home to me so vividly the mass killings of Poles that Nazis carried out. Of course I know about these killings, but, as Joseph Stalin allegedly said, "One death is a tragedy. A million deaths is a statistic." "In Darkness" depicts a mass hanging of randomly selected Polish civilians, killed in retaliation for the death of a German. This scene was orchestrated in such a way that it grabbed me as dry statistics on the page never have.

"In Darkness" defies revisionist histories of World War Two that insist that Poles did nothing to help Jews and that Poles were enjoying the high life during the Nazi occupation. "In Darkness" makes clear – Nazis treated Poles with special brutality. Dramatic tension is never lost, even as the viewer learns something he would never learn from something like "Schindler's List."

"In Darkness" focuses on a Pole who rescued Jews. This defies popular uses of the Brute Polak stereotype to rewrite World War Two history.

Never for one minute, though, does "In Darkness" stop being a big, involving, tense, movie-movie. You care about the characters. You are swept along by the action. You hold your breath during scenes of suspense. You root for success. You tear up when things go wrong. After all that has gone before, the final scene, as humble as it is, is overwhelming. This is just a great film. See it.


  1. Brian Koralewski (Brian Lewski)October 4, 2012 at 10:27 AM

    Great review - I still have not yet seen it. I will have to certainly.

  2. Found this in an Amazon review:

    "The movie's script almost seemed to whitewash and/or ignore Catholic Pole and Ukrainian Nazi collaboration.

    I am wary of stories that paint a simplistic and generalized "black and white" portrait of human nature and in this case to show all the German soldiers as sadistic, if not evil, killers unusually frequently of women and children"

    There you have it, ladies and gentlemen.

    Must not, MUST NOT, depict Poles as heroic.

    Must not depict Nazis as "sadistic" or "evil."

    Wow, what hogwash.

    I responded:

    Teslovich, your review is utterly false. There is no way that Agnieszka Holland, daughter of a Jewish father, "whitewashes" anything, as you accuse. Shame on you.

    In fact, Holland dedicates the film to her good friend, Marek Edelman.

    Your comment is disgraceful and if you had any intellectual integrity or personal honor you would delete it.

    1. The person who wrote the "review" you mention will give not two hoots about Holland's Jewish ancestry or the person to whom she dedicated her wonderful film. Let's quote the relevant section from his or her review in full:

      "Negatives: I am wary of stories that paint a simplistic and generalized "black and white" portrait of human nature and in this case to show all the German soldiers as sadistic, if not evil, killers unusually frequently of women and children, and then to show the Jewish population as almost saintly. Albeit, the atrocities of the Holocaust permit some liberties in retelling that period. Be that as it may, that license seems to have carried to our present times in the subjugation and impoverished strangulation of the Palestinians by Israel. Irony of ironies!"

  3. "The movie's script almost seemed to whitewash and/or ignore Catholic Pole and Ukrainian Nazi collaboration.

    Dear Goska...actually, I would like to swear right now,but will refrain from doing so. First of all-I really have started to stop seeing any point in being moral.Why? Well, because the human psyche is inherently sick.What is adored? Not kindness,no,not at all-rather,it seems to be seen as some sort of weakness or stupidity. Being rich and powerfull (unfortunately, the Germans became that after the war, thanks to the Cold War and the US.for which,I dare say,they are quite anti-American) is being adulated while being moral is being ignored.Also- S.o one MUST for everything evil,so Poles become the new Jews.And no one seems to realize the irony.

    About:I am wary of stories that paint a simplistic and generalized "black and white" portrait of human nature and in this case to show all the German soldiers as sadistic, if not evil, killers unusually frequently of women and children"

    Yes.And showing Slavs as subhuman evil creatures is,of course,completely acceptable and in NO way "simplicistic".Name but one movie (a Hollywood one!) where Poles are depicted as heroes. Cant think of one? Me neither.

    This reminds me of my German teacher said to me-back then, I just thought it to be weird and forgot about it.Now, I understand it-When the movie "The Pianist" was shown in cinemas she said to me along the lines of "why did Roman Polanski show the Germans as monsters? That is so black and white..." I told her,well,probably not all Germans were "evil" but murder is evil and thats what Polanski depicted... Of course,there was no concern for the 200 000 plus murdered Varsovian Poles (who were murdered by German Wehrmacht and SS),no concern for Polish suffering-but only,HOW DID HE MAKE US LOOK?! Bad,HOW could he! Personally, I think we need more movies like this-To get Germany to acknowledge the horrible crimes commited by Germans against the Polish Nation,without it,there will be no healing and no friendship. The horrible part is-as f.e most Americans are quick to adore Germany ("Fahrvergnugen" "Oktoberfest")the Holocaust, which arose from specific GERMAN phenomenons (like voelkisch rascism,completely not heard of in "uncivilized" Poland) is treated like an accident at work and all negative feelings are transfered towards us. I think this would be an interesting topic for a psychologist to explore,it has cognitive dissonance written all over it.

    1. Hanna, why be moral. one answer:

      People are often unreasonable, illogical and self centered;
      Forgive them anyway.

      If you are kind, people may accuse you of selfish, ulterior motives;
      Be kind anyway.

      If you are successful, you will win some false friends and some true enemies;
      Succeed anyway.

      If you are honest and frank, people may cheat you;
      Be honest and frank anyway.

      What you spend years building, someone could destroy overnight;
      Build anyway.

      If you find serenity and happiness, they may be jealous;
      Be happy anyway.

      The good you do today, people will often forget tomorrow;
      Do good anyway.

      Give the world the best you have, and it may never be enough;
      Give the world the best you've got anyway.

      You see, in the final analysis, it is between you and your God;
      It was never between you and them anyway.

  4. Hello Danusha and Hanna, yes, I do endorse Danusha's reply to you Hanna. As you know we (us JWs) would say, please, please, don't let "the world's" attitudes affect you, or shape you in any way. You have a strong sense of justice and fairness - please don't let anything or anyone rob you of that.

    Because there will be true justice on the earth when God's will is done on it - when God's Kingdom is ruling over us.

    I have just read your review again Danusha, Bitter experience has taught me to see and read nothing about WW2 (beyond what my small involvement in Polish media issues requires), but, as its your review. I have always said that you could have made a living reviewing movies.

    I didn't see Schindler's List, and am not planning to. I try to avoid the product of Hollywood, and that goes double for Hollywood on the subject of WW2.

    This obviously was very different - in some ways - a heroic Pole - who does not shoot Bambi's mother... I hope the Scriptwriter isn't languishing in a re-education camp even as I write. But i am uneasy about a Ukrainian being the villain. From what you say, it's more nuanced than that, but i am still uneasy.

    Interesting that the Nazis are not glamorous. They usually look very good in movies. And do many people look below the surface, especially in the Designer Label and Plastic Surgery world we live in?

    You note a comment that the film has elicited: "The movie's script almost seemed to whitewash and/or ignore Catholic Pole and Ukrainian Nazi collaboration." It certainly is unusual if it didn't point out that it was us Poles who shot Bambi's mother (and the rest).

    But I hope that Ukrainians are not going to be moved into the "Baddie" seat, given all the horrors they have been through so recently.

    Is it time to stop making movies about WW2 - given that we, the children of Adam, seem to have failed to learn any lessons from constantly memorialising it?

  5. Bieganski lurks in many of these critic's reviews:

    NPR: "Craftily played by Robert Wieckiewicz, whose snapping eyes and cratered features seem made to suggest multiple motives, Socha keeps the bedraggled band of Jews fed and watered — for a handsome fee — while he ducks and feints through a forest of perils that include German retribution, the festering resentment of fellow Poles and Ukrainians — whose casual anti-Semitism needs little encouragement from the Third Reich — and the wavering trust of the refugees themselves"

    "The elephant in the room of any discussion of Poland and the Jews is that country's less-than-glorious record of betrayal and collaboration with the Nazis."

    NYT: "...What they see — a group of naked, terrified women being chased and shot by German soldiers — serves as a haunting reminder of the fact, amply documented in Claude Lanzmann’s “Shoah,” that ordinary Poles knew what was happening to their Jewish neighbors..."

    it's amazing, but these people really believe the things they write.

  6. Hello Danusha, I was trying to publish a further comment on this movie - but it has suddenly disappeared. If I pressed the "publish" button by accident, please ignore it and publish this comment (if you want to). I have had one of those nights where you go to bed exhausted but can't sleep, so am not at my best this morning.

    What I wanted to say, and probably have said before, is that I do wonder if the British TV comedy series "Allo, Allo" didn't capture some aspects of life in an occupied country very well. It was set in Nazi-occupied France, and it beautifully nailed every cliche of the post war black and white movies about WW2 - which i saw back then and loved, as they made it all seem exciting and heroic...

    "The Cruel Sea" was good, by the way, and the book was brilliant. That shows war as it actually must be, as its author, Nicholas Monsarrat, was on the Russian convoy ships, as was one of my uncles.

    Of course Allo Allo is not set in a country whose inhabitants are targeted for extermination. Hitler had nothing against the French, or millions of them would have died too. Obviously, the situation in Poland was quite different. "On August 22, 1939, on the invasion of Poland, Hitler gave explicit permission to his commanders to kill "without pity or mercy, men, women, and children of Polish descent or language".[6] Genocide was conducted systematically against Polish people:" (Wikipedia).

    Hard to make a comedy out of that. Although didn't the movie "Borat" make a comedy about the general "unterness" of us Eastern Europeans? I haven't seen it, as I believe it contains what the Bible calls "obscene jesting", and the idea of "uber" and "unter" is completely opposed to what the Inspired Scriptures, from Genesis on, teach us about our origins.

    But the point about Allo Allo is that it all centres round the French cafe owner Rene and his frantic attempts to keep his cafe going through it all (and, I regret to say, his equally frantic efforts to hide his affair with the beautiful waitress Yvonne from his middle-aged wife). But, as he doesn't know who is going to end up winning the war, he has to keep trying to satisfy the competing agendas of the occupying Germany army, the Gestapo, the Italian army, the French Resistance, the Communist Resistance, and the Brits, who expect him to hide their fallen airmen and use his house as a base to send mysterious coded radio messages to their secret agents.

    I should imagine it was pretty much like that. Most people just kept their heads down and hoped to be on the right side when the war ended.

    Of course, and here is the big problem for followers of Christ, especially my brave brothers and sisters in Germany at the time. They could not even "Heil" Hitler, let alone join his army, his SS, his Gestapo, or make arms for him. Nor could they do any of those things for the other side. So they were targets wherever they were, and suffered a great deal - at the hands of both sides.

  7. Dont worry,dear Goska,It just so happened that I am thoroughly incapable to long-lasting hatred or major evil.To be honest, I would be incapable of even sending Nazi murderers to the gallows (instead, sentencing them to life-imprisonment in Polish labour camps).Im just being cynical here :-)

  8. Hmm,Sue, do You know the Willmersdorfer Erklaerung? Or what was happening at that time in Switzerland? Of course, I do not denny that the rank-and-file members were incredibely brave...

  9. Dear Anonymous,
    They NEED to I believe! Its like this-Germany is today very high up one the list of "nation branding". Associations with Germany are generally favourable-its a part of "the West",cars,technology ect.They do spend a lot of money on creating a good image for themselves,also indirectly.An example-Do You know the movie "Iron Sky"? In my humble opinion, it is a rather cheap shot against American Republicans and aestheticizes Nazi Germany (also,through one of the main characters,Renate, being extremly likable).Guess what? Among others,paid for by the Deutsche Filmfoerderung.This,of course, begs the question-what about German atrocities? Bieganski explains it really well, I would just like to add more psychological.I believe this to be,also, about cognitive dissonance.We like Germans,but they did this.No,"nazis" did this, the German people is innocent,they knew nothing (both not 100% true),so blame is transferred to the Poles (see for Yourself,its mostly about "nazis" and "Poles being involved" and "Polish death camps").Unfortunately, Poland is a nation destroyed by Soviet social engineering.Today,just check the family background of the so-called "elite" (this holds true for other such countries as well):Their (grand) parents were fighting (and murdering) against "fascist-hitlerian" bandits (=Doomed Soldiers,patriots,great people like Fieldorf,Pilecki,ect),today,they are continuing the fight-this time against the alleged demons of "Polish nationalism" and "Polish antisemitism" "Polish-Catholic homofobia" and "Polish rascism"-of course, this is really untrue,just ask Jewish Poles or imigrants to Poland.The effect is-they are continuing to preach a culture of shame,thus depriving Poles of the strongest weapon against being made the scape-goat for everyone else: National pride.

  10. Hello Hanna, Thanks for responding. Yes, I do know about the Wilmersdorfer Statement. The Society was truthfully making the point that we are not seditious, we are not a political or a military threat to any government, including that of Nazi Germany. We will obey whatever government we live under, except when it asks us to disobey God's laws. Then we must not obey it, as God's laws must come first. Now I know from our own Yearbooks that some did compromise under the terrible pressures. And when under stress, we have our own imperfection like a traitor within the camp. I know only too well that a bit of stress and my new Christian personality can turn out to be a very flimsy garment indeed. So I would never ever judge them. But the point is that they knew that, as Christians, they could not Heil Hitler, nor join his Nazi party, or fight in his army. And they knew that a Christian cannot divide the human family into "superior" and "inferior". How different would it have been if everyone in Germany had known that?

  11. Just posting to say that I left a comment left on Michael Atkinson's review of this film, a review which includes the false claim that Poles were considered "Aryans". The comment was, of course, deleted.

    I know you talk about the futility of angry letter writing, but these distortions can't go on uncorrected.


Bieganski the Blog exists to further explore the themes of the book Bieganski the Brute Polak Stereotype, Its Role in Polish-Jewish Relations and American Popular Culture.
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