Evil may never be more horrifying than when it becomes the norm. There’s a scene in the Holocaust drama "In Darkness" in a concentration camp where a group of Jewish men are lining up for inspection. One of the men has lost his cap, and a guard prepares to execute him.
But then a superior officer intervenes, noting that the prisoner is strong and able-bodied, a worker that the camp can use. The officer takes a cap off the prisoner next to him, gives it to the first prisoner, and shoots the second prisoner instead. A small smile appears on the officer’s face, a smile of satisfaction that he solved a logistical problem.
The Polish film "In Darkness," which was nominated for an Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film, is based on a true story, and doesn’t spare us the horror of the Nazis. In the movie, the Jewish population of a town is rounded up, captured and massacred as martial music plays over loudspeakers. Most of the non-Jewish population look the other way, and pretend their Jewish neighbors never existed. Some even try to profit off of their plight.
The movie’s unlikely hero is one of those profiteers, a sewer worker named Leopold Socha (Robert Wieckiewicz) who uses the maze of tunnels under Lodz to sneak into the Jewish ghetto and steal valuables left behind by their captured owners. After the ghetto is raided, a few refugees manage to sneak into the tunnels, and Socha figures he can make even more money hiding them in the tunnels.
It’s a disgusting place, damp, rat-infested and full of disease, and the only food comes from the scraps that Socha is able (and willing) to smuggle to them. The situation serves as a powerful metaphor of the moral chaos under a totalitarian regime; as the good hide in the darkness, the evil strut around freely in the daylight.
But it’s life, at least, and one of the central questions the movie poses to the audience is: How much would you endure to keep living?
Director Agnieszka Holland ("Europa, Europa") captures the claustrophobic squalor of the sewers effectively, fading to blinding white rather than black at the end of some scenes. He also effectively conjures up the sense of danger — from snooping Nazi guards to people overhead who might hear the hiding Jews, even one of their own, and betray them. But there are moments of humanity amid the horror, like when one of the refugees sneaks out for a quick breath of fresh air and sunlight, or a moving scene in which they have a quiet Passover ceremony as, above their heads, an Easter service takes place in a church.
Moving between lightness and darkness is Socha, who convincingly evolves from a self-interested mercenary into a caring individual who feels responsible for the refugees. "My Jews," he calls them, and fiercely protects them to the end.
"In Darkness" is a powerful film about those who refuse to yield, either to certain death or to complicity with evil.