The Overwhelming Realism of In Darkness

Tim Snyder


Agnieszka Holland’s In Darkness, nominated this year for Best Foreign Language Film, is based on the true story of Poldek Socha, a Polish man who helped a group of Jews to escape mass murder in the sewers of German-occupied Lwów (now Lviv, Ukraine). Holland has already directed films about the Holocaust; she has made clear, in interviews about this one, that her greatest concern in presenting this story of heroism was realism. She has succeeded, perhaps better than anyone else.

Although admired here for her work on The Wire and other American television series, Holland is Polish (her paternal grandparents were murdered as Jews during the Holocaust) and this is an Eastern European film. Holland assumes that viewers will have some sense of where Lwów was, what it had already suffered, who its peoples were, what languages they spoke. By the time the Jews moved into the sewers of Lwów, the city’s inhabitants had been pressed downward for years. Lwów, a Polish city in the nineteen-twenties and thirties, was occupied by the Red Army in 1939, as Stalin claimed the lands granted by Hitler under the terms of the German-Soviet alliance that began the war. The Soviets then deported Jews who had fled to the city from German-occupied Poland, as well as Ukrainian political activists and educated Poles.

The film begins after Nazi Germany has betrayed its Soviet ally in 1941 and the Germans are in Lwów murdering local Jews. As naked women are rushed through a forest to death pits, we see the (Jewish) victims and the (German) killers and the (Polish) bystanders, immediately, as human beings. One of the bystanders to this scene is the Polish sewer worker Poldek Socha. He has just robbed a house and is making his getaway through those same woods. Here is the flawed hero who will risk his own life to save Jews. Poldek and a colleague make a deal to help shelter a certain number of Jews in the sewers, and keep at it when the Germans come to liquidate the Lwów ghetto.

Poldek has a Ukrainian friend, Bortnik, who serves as a chief of the local police. This friendship saves Poldek once, but has its risks, since among the tasks of the police are the discovery and murder of Jews. Bortnik comes to Poldek’s house late at night drunk and demands sustenance; Poldek’s little daughter, rubbing her eyes in bed, reminds her father that they were saving food for ‘the Jews.’ She then realizes what she has done, and convinces Bortnik that by ‘Jews’ she meant her dolls, which, she says, came from the ghetto. In a story of interaction between Poles and Jews, the natural tendency would be to export local evil as much as possible to the third nationality: the Ukrainians. Without at all disguising the horrible local politics of occupation, Holland carefully balances Ukrainian villains with sympathetic Ukrainian characters. One of the Jews in hiding smuggles himself into a concentration camp to see if the younger sister of the woman he loves is still alive. This heroism is enabled by a Ukrainian, who performs the indispensible logistical work and refuses payment.

Just as subtly and persuasively presented is the sociology of Poldek’s shopping. Imagine for a moment that all of the impersonal aspects of capitalism, all of the exchanges of money for goods that we take for granted, suddenly depended entirely upon trust, in the sense that each purchase could kill you and your family if it were discovered. This was Poldek’s situation. It was not only illegal to be a living Jew in German-occupied Lwów, it was illegal to shelter Jews or help them in any way to stay alive. Regular purchases of food needed to sustain a dozen people over months were indispensible and impossible to conceal. Poldek’s normal shopkeeper, a Polish woman, notices immediately that he is buying more than usual and that he has the money to pay for it. She overcharges him, taking a cut for herself in exchange for her (presumably temporary) silence about the fact that he is hiding Jews. This act was a general phenomenon throughout Nazi-occupied Europe: the Jews in hiding might be physically invisible, but the Gentiles hiding them were watched intently, not so much by the Germans as by their own acquaintances. Poldek later buys food from a Ukrainian woman on the market square who does not know him personally and who makes no remarks about his purchases.

Money is at the center of the film’s action. Although Poldek associates Jews with money, it’s certainly a major concern of his life, too. He is a family man, devoted to wife and daughter, who supplements his salary by the occasional robbery. His negotiations over the financial terms of the arrangement with the Jews are quite tough. But he does not follow the logic of the marketplace to where it usually led: to the betrayal and death of Jews. As Jan Grabowski has shown in an important book, Judenjagd, people who sheltered Jews for the profit motive generally turned them in. From an economic point of view where nothing counts except personal gain, this made perfect sense. A given Jew had only so much money, so economic rationality demanded that it be extracted as quickly as possible, and then that the Jew be handed over to the Germans for the additional reward and to end the associated risks of the transaction.

For Poldek, economic reasoning would have dictated taking all of the money at once, never exposing himself to the risks of exposure (for example, by shopping), and turning in the Jews once he had their valuables. Poldek was among those who used the money he gained to keep the Jews alive, and then, when the money ran out, chose to keep on risking his own life. Economics predicts all too well how people behave during a Holocaust; a Holocaust helps us see the moral limits of economics. As Adam Smith knew, but as people who cite him tend to forget, capitalism depends upon virtues that it does not itself generate. When the law is really greed, as it was for non-Jews during the Holocaust, we see how fragile those virtues are, how easily they can be brushed away, how much heroism is required to embody them.

Much of this story of individual virtue is told through language. The actors speak Polish, Yiddish, Hebrew, Ukrainian, Russian, and German. The use of language is never so simple as a marker of the good guys and the bad guys, or even of the different groups. German is, of course, the language of the occupiers and the major killers, but it is also the preferred language of the wealthy Jewish family that pays Poldek and of the courageous young man who leaves the sewer for the concentration camp and returns. There is no one Jewish language. The middle classes of Lwów would have generally spoken Polish, as they do in the film, and perhaps some Yiddish. Tradesmen and Jews from the countryside would have spoken Yiddish, as they do in the film. Hebrew was the language of religious observance, which becomes more important as time passes in the sewers.

So Jews communicate with Jews not only in what they say, but in what language they say it. An argument with Yiddish on one side and German on the other has such obvious class overtones that it hardly needs translation. Poldek, realistically, knows enough Yiddish to follow a sentence or two. He understands Ukrainian perfectly, which is also plausible, and can say a phrase or two when useful. His own way of speaking Polish is inflected by Ukrainian, just as the Ukrainian of Lwów was inflected by Polish over centuries of contact between these two Slavic languages. When a Ukrainian speaks Polish to a Pole, or a Pole some Ukrainian to a Ukrainian, it is a gesture of friendliness or ingratiation. Much of the dialogue in this film is between people who are speaking different languages. The characters reveal who they are by their code-switching from one language to another: not because one language is really theirs, or reveals who they really are, but because when you code-switch shows how you see the world around you.

This is the rich and complex world that the Germans destroyed, with some help from the Soviets. The mass murder of the Jews was an unprecedented assault on a group defined zoologically; it was the extinction of life of millions of individuals, but it was also a successful attack on an old world that, although full of the hostility and prejudice that Holland fearlessly presents, nevertheless defied a homology of race, nation, and culture. The Jews who emerge from the sewers at the end of the film remain in Lwów for only a short moment; if they had not left they would likely have been deported by the Soviet power that wanted ethnic simplification. Eastern Poland was annexed for a second time by the U.S.S.R. and added to the republic of Soviet Ukraine. Lwów was to be a city for Ukrainians, first under Soviet rule for more than four decades, now in an independent Ukraine these past two.

In Holland’s retelling of the history of wartime Lwów, we have more than an account of individuality and of group relations in the most horrible of conditions. We have a story that strives, and succeeds, in presenting the Holocaust as universal in a way other than the conventional. The universalization of the Holocaust usually proceeds by distance and abstraction, through clean geometrical symbols and black-and-white footage, through architecture which casts shadows and the flattening of linguistic variety into modern English. Holland’s account of the Holocaust presents us with what it is easiest to forget and perhaps most important to remember: the human limits of the victims and of everyone else. Although this is a film about an unusual case of heroism, the hero is no simple man, and nor are the people he saves. We care about the survivors as Jews, because their special collective plight is so realistically presented, but we also care about them because they themselves are so realistically presented: flawed, like us.

The central moment of the film is the birth of a child in the sewer. It is an intense example of Holland’s ability to engage our emotions through sight and sound, but also of her unsentimental humanity. The father of the child had left his own wife and daughter without shelter during the liquidation of the ghetto and taken up with his girlfriend in the sewers, and has since died after robbing his fellow Jews and unsuccessfully trying to flee. The mother of the child seems not to have any deep connections with any of the others with whom she remains. They nevertheless try, very hard, to treat the child as belonging to all of them.

Poldek is afraid that the child’s cries will bring attention and thus death to everyone involved. But his wife, whose attitude about her husband’s risky enterprise touches all extremes, decides that they can take the child. By the time Poldek returns to the sewer with this news, the baby boy has been smothered by its mother. That this all physically happens beneath a Roman Catholic Church where Easter is celebrated is just one of several ways that Holland suggests that the infant is all of ours. We have brought our own children into this same world. Not, of course, that the circumstances in which our children find themselves are comparable to those of a Jewish infant born in filth and doomed to die at the hands of his mother while millions of other Jews are killed at the hands of strangers (or neighbors). But that we have chosen to bring children into a world where such a thing has already happened, irrevocably happened, where that short life, and all the other too-short lives, mark our earth.

The scene of the child’s burial is anguishing without being forced. Holland overdoes nothing. She does just enough, and the consequence is an extraordinary work of art that brings us closer to the reality of the Holocaust than we will be comfortable going.

First published in New Yorker blog on 22 February 2012. Reproduced by permission of the New Yorker  and Professor Timothy Snyder.