In Darkness - Polish sewer workers Leopold 'Poldek' Socha (Robert Wieckiewicz) and Szczepek Wro?blewski (Krzysztof Skonieczny) hide Jews from the Nazis in this remarkable true story © 2011 Sony Pictures Classics

This based-on-true-events drama about a Catholic sewer worker who risked his life to save Jews from persecution by the Nazis is Poland’s nominee for the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar. Set almost entirely in rat-infested sewers where nearly a dozen men, women and children spend over a year in hiding, the largely unsentimental story is a grim but ultimately uplifting testament to the human will to survive, and to the transformative power of empathy.

Holocaust-related movies have such an automatic awards-season advantage that the Ricky Gervais series Extras once mocked the fact, with a fictionalized Kate Winslet cynically noting that “if you do a film about the Holocaust, you’re guaranteed an Oscar.” (Sure enough, portraying a concentration camp guard in The Reader three years later won Winslet her first and only Academy Award.)

Even In Darkness director Agnieszka Holland acknowledges that “one may ask if everything has now been said on this subject.” But David F Shamoon’s richly character-driven screenplay (based on Robert Marshall’s book In the Sewers of Lvov) makes this project feel original and worthwhile.

Mundek Margulies (Benno Fürmann) risks his life by sneaking into a concentration camp for information © 2011 Sony Pictures Classics

That’s mainly because so many of the story’s characters are believably flawed. Leopold “Poldek” Socha (Robert Wieckiewicz) initially is interested only in how much money he can make from Jews desperate to escape the genocide taking place in their ghetto. He coldly refuses to take more than 11 of them to safety underground, leaving many others to await likely death. He also briefly shows shameful cowardice when his situation becomes dangerous.

The rescued Jews also possess failings that keep them from being unrealistically noble in their suffering. An adulterous husband brazenly cheats on his wife. Three men steal from their fellow survivors before abandoning them. Exhaustion and paranoia cause more than one of the refugees to lash out at Poldek and unfairly accuse him of betrayal, despite the incredible risks he takes by keeping them hidden and fed.

One of the few moments in the film that seems artificial involves Poldek’s young daughter making a verbal slip that nearly gives away the scheme in front of a Nazi collaborator. Her quick-thinking recovery feels more written than real, a rare misstep here. Also, having the Jews sequestered at one point directly beneath a Catholic church where services are being held smacks of easy-symbolism creative license.

Otherwise, director Holland does a masterful job of keeping this claustrophobic and nearly two-and-a-half hour drama interesting and suspenseful. The tension is highest during scenes in which Jewish alpha male Mundek Margulies (Benno Fürmann) comes out of hiding long enough to break into a concentration camp seeking information, an idea as daring as it is seemingly insane.

That plot tangent may help alleviate objections that In Darkness portrays the story’s Jews as passive victims dependent upon the kindness of Catholics — just as some viewers had concerns about The Help, in which put-upon blacks required the intervention of well-meaning whites.

In Darkness, whose title is both literal and appropriately metaphorical, offers admirable proof that unlikely heroes can be found in even the most tragic chapters of human history.

[Rating: 4 stars]

In Darkness is released in theatres on February 10, 2012

James Dawson

Jim is Film Review Online's Los Angeles based reviewer.