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In Darkness – Agnieszka Holland

Scene from "In Darkness", dir. Agnieszka Holland. Source: Sony Pictures
Scene from "In Darkness", dir. Agnieszka Holland. Source: Sony Pictures 

2011 Oscar nominated film based on a true story recounts the story of Leopold Socha, a sewer worker and petty thief in Lviv (then Poland, today Ukraine) during the Nazi occupation. Written by Robert Marshall, an existential tale of the volatility of the human spirit. 

One day Socha encounters a group of Jews trying to escape the liquidation of the ghetto. He hides them for money in the labyrinthine sewers beneath the bustling activity of the city above. What starts out as a straightforward and cynical business arrangement, turns into something very unexpected, the unlikely alliance between Socha and the Jews as the enterprise seeps deeper into Socha's conscience. The film is also an extraordinary story of survival as these men, women and children all try to outwit certain death during 14 months of ever increasing and intense danger.

In spite of the fact that the subject of the Holocaust has been tackled by several different directors in numerous genres, the award-winning director has strived to devise an original take on the Holocaust. Holland has said of her efforts:

2009 brought a number of new Holocaust stories in books and films. One might ask if everything has now been said on this subject. But in my opinion the main mystery hasn't yet been resolved, or even fully explored. How was this crime (echoes of which continue in different places in the world from Rwanda to Bosnia) possible? Where was Man during this crisis? Where was God? Are these events and actions the exception in human history or do they reveal an inner, dark truth about our nature?

Exploring the many stories from this period uncovers the incredible variety of human destinies and adventures, revealed in the richest texture of plots and dramas, with characters that face difficult moral and human choices, exercising both the best and the worst in human nature.

One of those stories is about Leopold Socha and the group of Jews from Lviv's Ghetto, whom he hides in the city's sewers. The main character is ambiguous: seemingly a good family man, yet a petty thief and a crook, religious and immoral at the same time, perhaps an ordinary man, living in terrible times. During the story Socha grows in many ways as a human being. There is nothing easy or sentimental in his journey.

The group of Jews he saves is not entirely angelic. Fear, terrible conditions and their own selfishness make them complex and difficult individuals, sometimes unbearable human beings. But they are real and alive, and their imperfections give them a stronger claim to their right to life than any idealised version of victims could.

Agnieszka Holland explains:

I immediately liked the story, liked the potential of it, the characters, and the script. The biggest and the most exciting challenge for me as a filmmaker was the darkness. They live in the dark, stink, wet and isolation for over a year. We knew we had to express it, to explore this underground world in a very special, realistic, human and intimate way. We wanted the audience to have the sensory feeling of being there. And to maintain tension as the viewer slowly becomes attached to the story. The dynamic of the film is built on inter-cutting the worlds of the two leads, Socha and Mundek. These two worlds come together to be one, in which they must work together to survive.

Most of the main cast and crew are Poles, speaking in a mix of Polish, Ukrainian, Yiddish and German. Asked why the film was not in English, Agnieszka Holland told Melissa Silverstein writing for Women and Hollywood:

The script was written in English by a Toronto screenwriter and it is much easier to finance when it is in English. I don't believe it reaches an audience really well except really big movies made by very famous filmmakers and very famous stars and having wide American distribution. But small middle budget films in English some way slip between the TV movie and the movie for no one, so I know it will not help the film to reach an audience by the fact that it would be in English, but it would be certainly easier to finance. International English speaking films are easier to finance than Polish films with Yiddish and Ukrainian and German thrown in. The producers have been very brave that they followed my concept and I think the film wouldn't have the power that it does if it were in English. I deeply believe that.

Even before its release, "In Darkness" received laudatory critical reviews. Wall Street Journal's Joe Morgenstern reported from the Telluride Film Festival in Colorado:

Any mention of movies and sewers brings to mind 'The Third Man", but Ms. Holland's brave epic could not be farther from conventional entertainment; the suspense here, derived from a true story, is excruciating and inspiring in equal measure. The hero, Soha (a perfect performance by Robert Wieckiewicz) brings Oskar Schindler to mind because he's a Gentile who decides to save Jewish lives. Otherwise, Soha's story is singular and superbly dramatic, the evolution of an obtuse anti-Semite into a guardian angel.

Todd McCarthy writing for the Hollywood Reporter also saw the film at the Colorado festival and called it a "robust and arduous drama, Agneska [sic.] Holland's Holocaust tale should be well received by the considerable art house audience partial to the subject matter".

The film was a 2012 Oscar contender in the Best Foreign Film Category. It also garnered a nomination for the 2012 Critics' Choice Awards in the same category.


  • September 2012, Grand Prix in the International Feature Film Competition at the Batumi International Art-House Film Festival 2012
  • In Darkness takes home the Golden Lion at Poland's biggest Film Festival - the Gdynia Film Festival 2012. Additional awards for Robert Wieckiewicz and Agnieszka Grochowska for Best Male and Female Roles
  • Agnieszka Holland wins Best Director for In Darkness at the Valladolid festival in Spain in late October 2011
  • In Darkness received the Golden Teeth award for most interesting feature film - the audience jury prize in Chicago, as the best foreign production, at the 23rd Polish Film Festival in America in Chicago in Nover 2011.
  • Genius award for outstanding performance for Robert Wieckiewicz for his role of Socha - at the 23rd Polish Film Festival in America in Chicago in Nover 2011.

In Darkness, Poland / Germany. Directed by: Agnieszka Holland; screenplay by: David F. Shamoon; cinematography by: Jolanta Dylewska; starring: Robert Więckiewicz, Benno Fürmann, Agnieszka Grochowska, Maria Schrader and Herbert Knaup; music by: Antoni Komasa-Łazarkiewicz; production design by: ErwinPrib; costume design by: Katarzyna Lewińska; editing by: Michał Czarnecki. Co-produced by: SCHMIDTz KATZE FILMKOLLEKTIV, Zebra Film Studio and The Film Works. Distribution: Sony Pictures Classicss

Release: 9th of December 2011 (US, limited); 30th of January 2012 (Poland).

Joanna Lenartowicz

Tags: in darknessagnieszka holland

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