Most of the time when you say “exploitation film” you’re talking about something lowbrow. Some genres, though, come across as highbrow, and usually we don’t point out how they exploit their subjects to draw a voyeuristic audience. But one genre that I’m starting to weary of is Holocaust porn, like Poland’s Academy Award entry from this year, In Darkness.
Now, I know that I’m going to upset some people so let me be clear: the Holocaust was a terrible thing. It is important to never allow ourselves to forget what happened, and movies — as our culture’s current medium of choice for telling each other stories — have an important role to play in remembering. But movies like this are not so much about remembering the past as about using a subject that’s guaranteed to bring in an audience to watch a story they’ve heard dozens — if not hundreds — of variations on before.
In this variant, we have a gentile protagonist helping a group of Jews escape or survive the horrors they endure. Leopold Socha (Robert Więckiewicz) is initially ambivalent, which is pretty much par for the course since if he were wholly sympathetic to the Nazis he wouldn’t be a protagonist, while if he were unalloyed in his opposition he’d likely join up with some group of partisans. As it is, when Germany invades Lwów he continues his work in the sewers, and just to be sure we understand his ambivalence he uses them to sneak into abandoned Jewish homes and steal what jewelry and money he can.
But one day he and his assistant, Szczepek (Krzysztof Skonieczny) stumble upon some Jews who have broken through the foundation of their house in the ghetto above, seeking to hide away in the sewers below. He agrees to hide them and bring them supplies, but for a steep price. When the liquidation comes, he is only able to shelter about a dozen of them in a cistern, tucked away from the main tunnels.
This is based on a true story — one of the survivors even published her own book about it after the film was already in production — but the group reads as a collection of stereotypes. There’s the rich Chiger family; Ignacy (Herbert Knaup) pays Socha, worried about what will happen when his stockpiled cash runs out, while Paulina (Maria Schrader) takes care of adorable moppets Krystyna (Milla Bańkowicz) and Pawel (Oliwer Stańczak). There’s the strong-jawed leader, Mundek “Pirate” Margulies (Benno Fürmann). There’s the very pretty Klara Keller (Agnieszka Grochowska), worried about the fate of her sister who went to a camp rather than live in the sewers. There’s the shifty Yanek Weiss (Marcin Bosak), who comes with his paramour Chaja (Julia Kijowska) rather than his own wife and daughter, and whose infidelity somehow doesn’t disqualify him as untrustworthy. And there are a few others who fade into the background, except as “guy who still puts on tefillin” and “guy we catch shooting up”.
So how am I so sure this is exploitative and not just a lesser retread of Schindler’s List? I’ll skip over the obsessive cataloguing of Nazi brutalities, rendered in gorier detail than usual, and put it bluntly: it’s the sex. Either there’s something about living in a river of excrement and being hunted like animals that’s some sort of aphrodisiac, or this is just a series of incredibly tone-deaf decisions on the part of director Agnieszka Holland. That it happened in one case is important to the plot, but to show it, dwell on it, and return to it is purely gratuitous.
Yes, what these people went through was awful, and yes, Leopold Socha did a great thing. But this movie stumbles and fumbles its way into cheapening both.
Worth It: no
Bechdel Test: fail