IN DARKNESS (2011)
Running Time: 145 mins. Rating: x Stars/5 Stars
MPAA Rating: R
Director: Agnieszka Holland
Language: Polish, Ukrainian, Yiddish and German w/English subtitles
Distributor: Sony Classics
Cast: Robert Wieckiewicz, Benno Furmann, Angieszka Grochowska, Maria Schrader, Herbert Knaup, Marcin Bosak, Krzysztof Skonieczny, Milla Bankowicz, Oliwer Stanczak, Kinga Preis, Weronika Rosati
I don’t remember if it was more than one critic who complained: “What, another Holocaust film?” It got me to thinking; just how many Holocaust films are there and how often do they come out? I mean, are there as many as there are zombie films or vampire films or serial killer films or hitman films? I asked a non-cineaste friend and he ventured to guess “three.” I said what about Anne Frank films and he said he thought that only films about the concentration camps counted as Holocaust Films.
What is a Holocaust film? The earliest examples were about the readjustment of the survivors, such as 1948’s THE SEARCH, 1953’s THE JUGGLER, or 1960’s EXODUS. The most famous Holocaust movie of all time, 1958’s THE DIARY OF ANNE FRANK, was about hiding from the Germans. It wasn’t until the next year’s KAPO by Pontecorvo, that the inside of a concentration camp was the subject of a film. KAPO was denounced as an exploitation film at the time. There was no flood of films about the Holocaust until the ‘80s when there were 20, including those with any reference to the Holocaust. Every film about Hitler counts as a film about the Holocaust. (Apparently the list: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_Holocaust_films is not too reliable.)
Since then there have been 20-30 films per decade with few of them circulating even in art houses, with the actual commercially distributed films numbering less than ten per decade. Sometimes the stories are played straight like DEFIANCE, about Jewish resistance in the Eastern European forest, or as gimmick, as in THE READER, which only uses the Holocaust in telling its story about lost innocence. AU REVOIR LES ENFANTS and SOPHIE’S CHOICE are both listed as Holocaust films as are THE PIANIST and MAN IN THE GLASS BOOTH and TO BE OR NOT TO BE and THE MUSIC BOX.
Even at 20-40 films per year is there a broad, almost limitless number of stories to be told about one of the seminal and defining events of our time. Not everyone agrees, especially the anti-Semitic film critics. To wit: “Holocaust culture has proven to be essentially infinite—almost 70 years since the end of World War II, and untold stories of decimation and survival are still hitting the mainstream. Agnieszka Holland’s new film, IN DARKNESS, opens a scab perhaps only familiar to Holocaust Museum devotees…” Hmmmm, “Holocaust Museum devotees…”
Well, anti-Semitic critics aside, IN DARKNESS does have something different to say. We have had GONE WITH THE WIND told from the POV of the slaves and THE WIZARD OF OZ from the POV of the witches and this is the Holocaust told from the POV of those who witnessed it and became involved by circumstance. By POV I don’t mean totally subjective, as say Robert Montgomery’s LADY IN THE LAKE, but that generally the story unfolds along the lines of what one person or a group of persons would be able to know.
The film opens with a couple of men looting a house but being chased out by some Nazis. In their effort to escape through the forest they stumble across an einsatzgruppen rounding up naked Jewish women in order to murder them. It turns out that the men are both sewer workers who steal to add to their meager incomes. Leopold the sewer man lives in filthy poverty with his wife.
The Ghetto is merely another source for loot, finding abandoned goods from those deported on the transports. They are all living such marginal lives that even though they recognize the terrible things happening to the Jews they are too committed to their own survival to think much about it.
When the Ghetto is finally scheduled for liquidation a group of Jews break through the basement of a house and enter into the sewer. There they are discovered by Leopold and his assistant. They are tempted to turn the Jews in for a hefty bounty but are persuaded to accept a weekly stipend to be hidden and to be supplied with food. I heard someone after the screening of the picture complain that they couldn’t distinguish between the hiding Jews. That was because the focus was on the sewer men. Eventually the Jews are fleshed out and individualized but the film is about the man who hides them.
Eventually his pose about just being in it for the money drops away and he shows a concern for what he later calls “his Jews.” There are picturesque adventures along the way, but everything resounds for effect through Leopold. When the Jews went into the sewer one woman became hysterical and eventually left and was taken to the local concentration camp. The woman’s sister forces her lover, Mundek, to bring her back and he left the sewer to find out if she was still alive. When Mundek goes out on to the street he is confronted by a German soldier who is going to summarily execute him but is killed by Leopold. Though they aren’t caught, in retaliation the Germans hang 20 people, chosen at random in the street, among whom is Leopold’s assistant. (I just remembered that Pat Buchanan thought that the US should have fought on the side of the German’s in WW2.)
Then Mundek smuggles himself into the concentration camp for a day (work parties of the ashen, hulking, indistinguishable men, men circulate through the ruins of the city, and he changes places with a man who wants to look for his wife in his old home). However, he has forgotten his cap and is singled out to be shot, but for the intervention of the camp commandant who shoots the man next to him in the head because Mundek is still strong enough to work unlike the unlucky dead man whose corpse supplies the needed cap. I did mention that Pat Buchanan thought we should have been the Nazi’s allies, didn’t I?
By the end of the picture there was a torrent causing the sewers to flood, and finally the retreating Germans planting explosives in the sewers to delay the advancing Russians. It was the special pleasure of the Germans upon retreating to blow up everything, especially but not limited to buildings of cultural value, 13th Century churches, town halls, guild halls, schools, etc. They even did this when they retreated from their ally Finland, putting every structure to the torch. I’m sure I mentioned that Pat Buchanan wanted us to fight on the Nazi side in WW2.
The Germans are thwarted in their scheme by the arrival of the Red Army and Leopold comes to bring the Jews out of the sewer and they are feted with plates of food and glasses of alcohol and, most significantly, Leopold crows to anybody who will listen, that these are “his Jews” that he personally saved. This of course means that there was a general awareness of the German’s genocide, and that hiding Jews was a heroic achievement.
I don’t know how Spielberg handled this scene in SCHINDLER’S LIST, not having seen it, but in IN DARKNESS it is witnessed as a small, localized, neighborhood event. It is a mere fractal in a far larger picture but within it all of the ramifications dealing with life and death, morality and ethics, right and wrong, and good and evil under the German’s terror, are examined.
Then there is the issue of people who object to the very existence of films about the Holocaust. “What, another one?” they complain. This despite the fact that films are naturally categorized by subject, called, after the French, “genre”; because there are very few films so individual that they are considered a category unto themselves. So by their very nature, films are made and distributed on subjects that have already been made into films in the past. The question is why do Holocaust films make some people feel so uncomfortable? Is it because, as with Pat Buchanan, they are unregenerate anti-Semites and secretly root for the Nazis? Are these the people who long for a world where the highest value is order?
When I researched reactions to RED TAILS on the IMDB message board I found many entries, usually from people who didn’t see, or pointedly stated that they refused to see the film, defensively denying or stating that they didn’t care if they were characterized as racist, but…. and they went on to either point out certain specific historical facts or their exhaustion with the fashion of political correctness that forces the subject matter in front of their faces.
The same exact criticism appears on the IMDB message board for IN DARKNESS, with the common complaint that they object to the reflexive accusation that they’re anti-Semitic because they think there are too many films about the Jewish Holocaust in WW2. One doesn’t see any objection to yet another Rom Com, chick flick, vampire/zombie, raunchy guy comedy, cop buddy, FX Sci Fi epic, etc. It’s only films based on racial injustice where there is a howl of “enough.” Why?
I’ll tell you what I think. The election of Obama caused the hardcore racists to rear their ugly dormant heads from out of the slime and shit they’ve been hibernating in. They’re not being “racist” but “political.” They feel they can now get away with being openly racist because Rush does. Because Republican politicians do. We live in a time where racists feel comfortable outing themselves, always opening with the proviso: “I’m no racist but…” and usually hiding behind a plea for Holocaust films about other victims of the Germans, as if they didn’t already exist. “Sure, its one of the defining events of the Twentieth Century but enough of the Holocaust. Why don’t we just get more movies about robots gone wild?”
Just a notice of some self interest here. I wrote a Holocaust screenplay 25 years ago that was not produced. The story I tried to tell was that of the children who survived the destruction of the Warsaw Ghetto. Of course the purpose of every legitimate Holocaust film is not to draw attention to suffering. I imagine people in the camps facing certain death would have wanted their stories told so that it wasn’t possible for that to happen again.
People, open your eyes to what is happening! Holocaust films always have a didactic purpose. I thought of my film as being a word of warning to children who took the assuredness of a comfortable existence for granted, about how fragile that existence might be. When I was writing the script there was the massacre of Palestinians, especially children, in the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps in Lebanon by the Christian Phalangist militia. Ten years after I wrote the script there was widespread murder of children in Bosnia by Serbian militias AND the Rwandan Genocide of Tutsis by Hutus.
So, Holocaust movies are not just clumsy weep-athons, but important instructional guides. Apparently nobody is going to these films and nobody is listening because it keeps happening over and over. The amazing thing was that after each massacre, General Stroop in Warsaw, Ariel Sharon in Israel, and the Serbian press, all gave similar justifications for mass murder, especially of children. They blamed it on “history.” If you don’t watch these Holocaust movies, you’re letting them select “history” for you.
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