For better or worse, English speakers tend to view the near-genocide of European Jews through the prism of an us-against-the-Nazis conflict, a view supported by 70 years of fine filmmaking. This perspective has the advantage of putting good guys in the story, along with some indisputably bad guys, from Hitler on down.
That's all fine, but as Yale University professor Timothy Snyder pointed out in his acclaimed 2010 book Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin, much of the violence against Jews and other minorities took place beyond Germany. In Eastern Europe, downtrodden people—Polish or Lithuanian or Ukrainian gentiles, say—were all too happy to vent their fury on another poor population in their midst. From 1933 to 1945, about 14 million noncombatants were murdered in Eastern Europe under the Nazi and Soviet regimes.
It's hard to feel anything but sadness and shame in the face of such facts, but the veteran Polish filmmaker Agnieszka Holland forges ahead anyway with the aptly titled In Darkness, which was among the Oscar nominees for best foreign film. The movie opens in what seems like hell on earth, the Nazi-occupied Polish city of Lvov; prior to the war, it was a sophisticated, multicultural city (today it's in Ukraine and called Lviv). By now it's 1943, and we're getting hints that the tide is turning against the Nazis, who in turn are "liquidating" the remainder of the city's Jewish population. But the Jews can't look to their fellow Lvov residents for help or sympathy—they're too busy scooping up the Jews' belongings and claiming their apartments.
In desperation, some Jews flee to the city's sewer system, where they're discovered by a Polish bottom-feeder named Socha Leopold. He's a thief and scavenger who nonetheless manages to support his family with his meager gleanings. He's also just as anti-Semitic as everyone else, but his instincts are mostly mercenary. Turning in the Jews would bring him a handsome bounty, but these refugees have enough money to buy his protection—for a limited time. (His anti-Semitism probably leads him to believe they have hidden storehouses of baubles, which they don't.)
Thus begins an increasingly harrowing tale in which this petty figure gradually examines his conscience. As played by the veteran Polish actor Robert Wieckiewicz, Socha is unsympathetic, unattractive and uneducated. (It's news to him that Jesus was a Jew.) Meanwhile, the fugitives are a fractious lot, riven by their own social prejudices and familial and sexual tensions.
Holland does what she can to bring grace to the saga, even if it means including a sexily lit coupling underneath a shimmering underground waterfall, along with a rather melodramatic finale. In Darkness is an unhappy portrait of humanity flailing about in the sewers, and things didn't get much worse than Poland and Ukraine in those days: Virtually all of the 200,000 Jews in the vicinity of Lvov were annihilated.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Darkness all around."