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In Darkness

(2011) *** 1/2 R
144 min. Sony Pictures Classics. Director: Agnieska Holland. Cast: Robert Wieckiewicz, Benno Furmann, Herbert Knaup, Maria Schrader, Michal Zurawski, Krzysztof Skonieczny.

/content/films/4349/1.jpgAs cinema audiences turn to summer escapism, the very opposite comes to home video in Agnieska Holland's superb In Darkness. In its narrative, In Darkness is all about escape: in occupied Poland during WWII, Jewish refugees take to the sewers and rely on the kindness and/or profit motive of gentile sewer workers. But audiences will have to gird themselves for feeling trapped over two hours of literal and figurative darkness.

Covering a fourteen-month period, the script by David F. Shamoon derives from the fact-based book In the Sewers of Lvov by Robert Marshall. Holland opens the film with the images of a model train and wind-up toys, but this isn’t child’s play. In short order, multifarious horrors are replayed, first among them the massacre that drove Jews from the ghetto to instant death, concentration camps, or the sewers (during the massacre, Strauss’ “Radetzky March” ironically blares). With straits at least as dire as those in The Diary of Anne Frank (and moral dimensions far more murky), In Darkness deals with survival at whatever cost, including compromise of personal principles.

The central figure of In Darkness, Leopold Socha (Robert Wieckiewicz), has gotten to know the sewers intimately for his job; now, off the books, he collects money and trade from those he hides there. As the Nazis press to round up any stragglers who eluded the massacre and roundup, Leopold feels an increasing burden of fear and pressure, from his fretful wife (Kinga Preis) and work colleague Szczepek (Krzysztof Skonieczny). But he's an opportunist who considers the windfall worthwhile, and as the days wear on, he cannot help but be moved by the desperate plight of his patrons. They comprise an Anne Frank-esque collection of characters, including young children, a young man (Marcin Bosak) and his pregnant mistress (Julia Kijowska), wealthy couple Ignacy and Pauline Chiger (Herbert Knaup and Maria Schrader), and ex-criminal Mundek Margulies (Benno Furmann), who determines to sneak out of hiding to rescue his sister from a concentration camp.

With the steady turning of screws, true character emerges. Rats abound, including those of the human variety, and racial and class distinctions come to the fore. Holland keeps the audience so intent on moment-to-moment concerns that she effectively conceals an obvious concern, the biggest threat to survival coming from an unexpected—but, in hindsight, obvious—source. Holland's film works as well as it does due to well-observed mise-en-scène and focused performances, but above all, a sincere dedication to getting the details right. In Darkness proves steadily devastating, from its first scene to its end titles, which provide historical context and a tough-minded editorial comment.

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Aspect ratios: 1.85:1

Number of discs: 1

Audio: DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1

Street date: 6/12/2012

Distributor: Sony Pictures Home Entertainment

In Darkness gets a very nice hi-def special edition from Sony, which continues to show top-tier commitment and execution to Blu-ray releases of both mainstream Columbia releases and off-the-beaten-path Sony Pictures Classics titles. Aside from some to-be-expected crush in the sewers, the hi-def transfer lives up to the Sony standard with a totally faithful image distinguished by its carefully calibrated color and contrast, its sharp detail and palpable textures. The lossless DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 mix couldn't be better, delivering dialogue with absolute clarity (it does, of course, also come with optional English subtitles), the rare musical cue with rich fullness, and the surround field with precision and thoughtful you-are-there ambience.

Bonus features include two enlightening in-depth discussions—“An Evening with Agnieska Holland” (29:23, HD) and “In Light: A Conversation with Agnieska Holland and Krystyna Chiger” (28:01, HD)—that provide a broader historical context for the film (and its making); Chiger is the only still-living survivor of the events depicted in Holland's film. Also here is the film's “Theatrical Trailer” (2:02, HD). In Darkness didn't get much of a push—or, indeed, much of a domestic release; though overshadowed during awards season, the film gets a much-deserved second chance at an American audience with this fine Blu-ray.

Review gear:
Panasonic Viera TC-P55VT30 55" Plasma 1080p 3D HDTV
Oppo BDP-93 Universal Network 3D Blu-ray Disc Player
Denon AVR2112CI Integrated Network A/V Surround Receiver
Pioneer SP-BS41-LR Bookshelf Speaker (2)
Pioneer SP-C21 Center Speaker
Pioneer SW-8 Subwoofer

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