'In Darkness' a Poignant Piece of 'Defeated Art'

Article excerpt


I'm of two minds about In Darkness, a film about a Polish sewer worker who shelters a group of Jews from the Lvov ghetto during the last days of the Nazi occupation in 1943. Based on a 1991 nonfiction book by Robert Marshall, the film, an Oscar nominee for best foreign film, places its emphasis on a sliver of feel-good anecdote that threatens to diminish the larger history it taps.

It's a moving story, made more poignant by the transformation of its protagonist Leopold Socha (Robert Wieckiewicz) from anti-Semitic con man to selfless humanitarian. Yet it's exactly the sort of movie anticipated (and dreaded) by Elie Wiesel in his moving 1989 essay, Art and the Holocaust: Trivializing Memory. The Holocaust, Mr. Wiesel wrote, defeated art, because just as no one could imagine Auschwitz before Auschwitz, no one can now retell Auschwitz after Auschwitz.

While In Darkness isn't literally about Auschwitz, it is an effort to locate a grain of heroism amid the most catastrophic failure of moral courage in human history. The camera cannot convey the unspeakable reality of the Holocaust, and even if it could, such a film would not make a fit subject for commercial cinema. Instead, we get films like Schindler's List and Life Is Beautiful, which, with noble intent, mix kitsch with horrific imagery. The result invariably softens and sentimentalizes the subject matter for human consumption. In Darkness is squarely in this camp.

The film has other flaws. For one thing, the civilian population is depicted largely as callous but nonacting bystanders to the depredations visited on the Jews of the Lvov ghetto. Instead, Ukrainian troops backing the Nazis are depicted as some of the worst and most ruthless hunters of Jews. It is one of these, a Ukrainian officer named Bortnik (Michal Zurawski), who knows Socha and promises him bounties for recovering any Jews that might be hiding in the Lvov sewers. …