It is inevitable that that this film will be compared to Schindler's List, since it tells the story of a man who saved a group of Jews from certain death, but to my mind this is far superior. It was directed by Agnieszka Holland, who made another wonderful Holocaust movie called Europa, Europa.
This, like Schindler's story, is based on real life. A group of Jews in Lvov, Poland, who were trapped in the ghetto, dug a hole down through the ground into the sewers. Their plan was to escape, but given the maze-like nature of the tunnels, they would probably have died down there. However, they came across a Pole called Poldek and his mate, whose job was to maintain the sewers. Poldek was a man with his eye to the main chance, and told them that he would help them – for ready cash.
I'm wanting to avoid giving too much away, such as the impossible decisions that they faced, and the eventual outcome, but I can tell you that Poldek's greed and his innate dislike of yids (as he calls them) is inevitably dispersed, and he comes to see them as his own family, even though the risk to his own family is so great. This risk is exacerbated by his encounter with an old friend from prison who is now an officer working with the occupying Germans. He becomes suspicious of his old friend, and there are numerous close calls.
And that is one of the successes of the film. Although it runs for the best part of two and a half hours, there is barely a moment when you are not consumed by it. It is extremely tense, while at the same time never losing sight of the human dimension. The relationships between the main characters are skilfully drawn, with an ongoing tension between Poldek and Mundek, the leader of the Jews, neither of whom trust each other an inch. Poldek and his wife Wanda's marriage is also beautifully depicted, as she struggles between her loyalty towards her husband, and the fear and anger she feels as a result of the danger she has put them in.
I could go on, since nearly every part of the film is beyond reproach. The acting is outstanding, the settings, especially in the sewers, are entirely convincing, and the sense of period is never shaken. Yes, you could point out that there always seems to be enough light underground for us to see what is going on, and the torches they carry keep running for months even when they're dropped in the water. But it is a minor quibble in the face of Holland's achievements.
Rather than compare this to Spielberg's movie, I would put it alongside other great European films on the same subject. The Czech film, Divided We Fall, has a similar theme (though with more humour), and the Hungarian film, Fateless possesses a similar quality of spiritual luminescence. And as I said above, Holland's own film Europa Europa, made over 20 years ago, has something of the same magnificence. In Darkness is not a film that you're going to go and see for a relaxing night out with your girlfriend, but when you're ready for something beyond the ordinary that will both depress and inspire you, then make the time to see it. While A Separation deserved to win the Best Foreign Film Oscar, this film (which was also nominated) is its equal, and would have been an equally worthy winner.
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