Thursday, February 16, 2012

In Darkness

We all know there's a world of difference between a movie's being "based on a true story" and being honest in all its particulars. "In Darkness" exemplifies that difference. It recounts the real-life saga of a mercenary small-time Polish crook and sewer worker who, for a steep price, shielded a dozen or so Jews in the maze of sewers under Nazi-occupied Lvov. But the details are dramatized in cliche ways. When one of the Jews chooses to return to the ghetto to inquire after a loved one's whereabouts, none of the Jews he asks knows the woman until the very last man happens to. A flash flood threatens to drown the hiding Jews in a well-staged late sequence; then, at the last minute, the water simply "goes away." The effect of a compelling story is not enhanced but cheapened by artificial aggrandizement.

"In Darkness" is better than director Agnieszka Holland's most famous film, 1991's torture-to-sit-through "Europa Europa." Robert Wieckiewicz, who plays Socha, the harborer, has an adorable, expressive punim; we'll watch him do anything. But the character of his wife, Wanda (doe-eyed Kinga Preis), vacillates wildly from scene to scene, most of which end with her giving hubby the silent treatment and storming off, often for diametrically antithetical reasons on consecutive occasions.

More troublingly, Holland never fleshes out the individual Jews Socha hides; each has at most one defining trait, and too many of these are simply physical distinctions. There's not much here in the way of character development. Similarly, Holland never gives us a strong sense of the layout of the sewer system we spend most of the movie stuck in. There's neither a coherent geography to it (we don't know whether we're covering wide swaths of the city or simply a few blocks, and it's unclear from scene to scene just how far underground we are and how easy or difficult it would be to climb up) nor an oppressive "Das Boot" claustrophobia; too often, the sewer seems stagelit, like we're seeing a filmed play. And while there's lots of nasty shit in a sewer, Holland must have had an incident with a rat in her childhood, because she can't go two scenes without putting one in a money shot.

Holland ends the movie with a sanctimonious end title card that gives away the show and dispels her pretensions of artistry. At that point, my problem with the movie went beyond Michelle Orange's in Movieline - "Frankly, it's boring as shit" - though she's right about that. As a Jew, I feel I can say this: I'm sick to death of Holocaust movies whose primary artistic "virtue" is their subject matter, made by filmmakers who jack off to two and a half hours of Holocaust porn and then applaud their own righteousness.

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