Leopold Socha was a sanitation worker in Lviv, Poland during WWII. As a gentile, he could go about his job more or less unmolested by the Nazi occupying power; as a profiteer, he supplemented his meager income by protecting Jewish residents of Lviv, extorting them of their money and belongings as he did so. Following the liquidation of the Jewish ghettos, Socha found himself the custodian of about a dozen men, women, and children hiding in the sewers, and—as the story goes—he experienced an Oskar Schindler-like change of heart, preserving his charges at any cost, even if it meant the dissolution of what little fortune he had cobbled together. Thirty years after the end of the war, Socha and his wife were named Righteous Among the Nations by the Yad Vashem.
It’s a rich, heartwarming story that helps us to believe in the basic qualities of human goodness. Because it’s something that really happened, allowing for a few embellishments, Socha’s actions are genuinely inspiring, especially since the choices were made by a not exactly upstanding citizen, the message being: Even the lowest among us took risks to do right by his fellow man. You might even figure that an account of “Socha’s Jews,” recounted on film by a celebrated director, could enjoy a portion of the meritoriousness earned by its subject. That the audience might experience “contact goodness” by witnessing the actions of a noble person, related without undue complication, with just enough of the vinegar of the protagonist’s liabilities to lend the story some punch—but not so much as to confuse anyone.
Such a film is In Darkness, a “Not Another Holocaust Movie” awards-grab that isn’t even distinguished by its base artlessness and indifference to craft. The director is Agnieszka Holland, a reliably terrible filmmaker whose early-1990s vogue was followed by a career flatline that spiked briefly when she was added to HBO showrunner David Simon’s stable of directors. (She was nominated for an Emmy for directing the Treme pilot, and she manned the helm of three episodes of The Wire.) Throughout In Darkness, shot after shot demonstrates that Holland has absolutely no idea where to put the camera, is completely indifferent to lighting, and almost certainly must believe that authenticity can be attained by giving her makeup artists and art directors carte blanche to pile on as much dust and muck onto the actors and sets as possible.
When Spielberg released Schindler’s List in 1993, critics and moviegoers alike breathed a sigh of relief, seeing as the notoriously “sentimental” director of E.T. and The Color Purple had made a work of estimable seriousness, without sacrificing his ingenuity as a visual storyteller. In the years since, the film’s canonization as an American classic has endured. Its popular success has also, naturally, brought innumerable detractors, exploiting every imperfection and describing the film in terms that (to my mind) seem to describe some phantom film that is Schindler’s List‘s opposite in every significant way. I would have these detractors suffer through In Darkness, which steps in every cowpie Spielberg’s film meticulously avoids, all while telling the same basic story.
Working from a script by David F. Shamoon, In Darkness is stocked with character types left over from ‘50s and ‘60s teleplays and “serious dramas” from the likes of Stanley Kramer, Edward Dmytryk, and Clifford Odets—specifically the “a bunch of miserable people in a small space” template that worked well for film versions of The Diary of Anne Frank, Ship of Fools, and (most germane to the waterlogged In Darkness) The Poseidon Adventure. Yes, there was a time when a screenwriter could concoct Jewish characters in Holocaust movies along the lines of “this one is rich and superficial” and “this one is orthodox” and “this one is a faithless husband,” kick back, and wait for the accolades to arrive. I suppose Shamoon thinks this is still that time.
As for any carryover from The Wire, Socha’s moral turpitude is a little fascinating in the film’s early scenes, as he and his partner Menduk (erstwhile Speed Racer Inspector Detector Benno Fürmann) patrol the city’s back alleys, basements, and sewer passages like Chris and Snoop wandering across Baltimore’s barren landscape in the American television series. It’s the rare film that should not introduce new story elements or characters past its first act. In Darkness, a garbage movie applying for unlimited credit on the most meager collateral, is that film.