In Darkness

The last, I swear, of the Academy Award movies that The Boy and I are going to see for 2011 is the Polish film In Darkness, the story of a Polish sewer inspector who hides Jews in the nooks and crannies of the sewers he knows so well.

I mean, during WWII. From the Nazis. It’s not like Jew-caching is some kind of weird hobby for him.

That’d be a hell of a movie right there. I picture Will Ferrell shoving Ben Stiller into tiny alcoves while Stiller protests ineffectively and, I dunno, finds a civilization of sewer gnomes who torment him at first but eventually he becomes their hero as he saves them from The Great Flush.

But I digress.

This is a serious movie, and it’s a damn good one that’s been rather harshly reviewed.

The lead character is a Pole, who is anti-semitic and greedy, and in fact a thief. The movie opens with him robbing from the houses of Jews who have been sent away by the Nazis. He negotiates with a wealthy family of Jews to hide them—for a price. When the kał hits the fan, and he ends up with a bunch more Jews than he bargained for, and he shows no particular generosity.

He’s also constantly being challenged as far as the money goes. Given what he risks, he has to constantly re-evaluate whether it’s worth the money, whether he can possibly get more out of them, whether he should just rip them off and turn them in and, as I said, you don’t really know which way he’s going to go.

Also, as secluded as the sewers are, they’re not all that well insulated. Noise travels upward and outward. And the Jews themselves are not a happy group.

This particular aspect felt really true to life (and this is based on actual events, and a biography written by one of the survivors). There is snobbery and class-ism, cowardice, pride, licentiousness, and so on. They don’t know how bad the camps are, and so they don’t realize that this is the end of the world for them.

How bad are the camps? At one point, a guy who’s been living in a sewer for nine months sneaks out with the intent of infiltrating the nearby camp and finding a missing family member, only to be spotted by a Nazi who says he’s too healthy to have come from the camps.

That’s bad.

Another great thing is that the lead character’s wife is a fascinating creature by herself. A plump woman who blows everyone’s mind by telling them Jesus was Jewish (this made me laugh a lot, because they would all say “Really?”) and who chides her husband for his greed and bad behavior on the other hand hardly embraces his scheme.

She’s a wildcard.

This is a long movie, but even The Boy didn’t object. “It was immersive,” he said. And it’s true; it’s an expert piece of film-making that manages to convey a tremendous claustrophobia and fear. I guess the New York Times criticized it for being a perfect story that’s already been told before, but I think the fact that it works—and despite my snark at the start of this post—without exciting yawns or ridicule is indicative of how effective a film this is.

Maybe I’m wrong, but it seems like the WWII films getting more attention these days are films where the Nazis are more sympathetic (like The Reader). While there’s enough veniality to go around, there’s no doubt who the villains are in this film. And this is done without making the villainy cartoonish.

No, it all feels very real, and we both liked it greatly. I actually prefer it to the Academy Award winner, A Separation, because it was more gripping, but I’d note that these were two of the best films of 2011, and way better than the nine English-language films nominated for Best Picture.

It’s also, despite my swearing, probably not the last of the 2011 Oscar noms, since the other foreign films probably won’t make it to theaters for another couple months.

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