Vienna, post-World War II. The nefarious Harry Lime escapes his pursuers by utilizing the cavernous sewer system that is linked throughout the city, allowing him to bypass checkpoints and the international police seeking his capture. Remember the amazing richness of the black and white labyrinth of 'The Third Man?' Did it seem a little too sanitary and expansive for your imagination? Did you ever wonder about the stench, or the possibility of getting lost? What would it have been like if the scene were dark, damp, dirty, and excessively tight and sinister?
In the Academy Award nominated 'In Darkness,' from director Agnieszka Holland, based on the novel In the Sewers of Lvov by Robert Marshall, the truth about the dangers of these sewer systems is brought to life. One of many unsung yet extraordinary stories from WWII, this film pays tribute to a contrasting group of heroes and survivors of the Nazi campaign to eradicate the Jews, making the tales of living beneath floorboards and in closets for years seem like a vacation.
Already cast into a cordoned off ghetto, a group of Jews seek to escape their doomed fate at the hands of the German occupation by tunneling into the sewer system to make an escape. Their plan isn't fully realized, and immediately hits a number of snags, including being witnessed by a pair of sewer inspectors (Robert Wieckiewicz as Leopold Socha, Krzysztof Skonieczny as Wroblewski) who seek financial benefits for not reporting their whereabouts to the Nazis, as well as the sheer number of escapees presenting a problem with hiding spaces and food. For fourteen months, a group of Jews survives thanks to the charity of Socha, all the while living in constant fear of being discovered.
'In Darkness' isn't your typical horrifically depressing holocaust film. There's no emotional blackmail, no graphic cruelty. Most of the violence is implied, rather than dwelled upon, with the focus lying on the ugliness of trying to survive, the inevitable changes in personality. The obstacles faced are daunting, yet believable, the entire premise is constantly filled with white-knuckled tension, with cutaways to the Socha family's hardships in helping their Jews to keep viewers from getting overly depressed and anxious (a problem 'The Divide' and its constant nightmare bore). The extreme conditions portrayed in this feature would be incredibly unbelievable if they hadn't been true, another one of those "the truth is stranger than fiction" moments.
'In Darkness' is a difficult film to swallow, due to the claustrophobic setting, changes in tone, and borderline disgusting material it portrays. It's a lengthy film, and even though it's perfectly paced to make time fly by, the runtime does wear on a viewer due to the subject matter and the unflinching depiction of the circumstances. As such, this is most definitely not a film for everyone. This dark, brooding feature has its rewards and payoffs, but the path getting there may be to much for some viewers. While history is warped ever-so slightly for dramatic intension, there is no denying that this is a fitting, powerful tribute to the Sochas and Wroblewskis, and the Jews they harbored in the harshest of times.
The Disc: Vital Stats
'In Darkness' comes to Blu-ray from Sony Pictures Classics on a Region A locked BD50 disc, with typical Sony menu and pre-menu content (including trailers that load one at a time and must be skipped as such) and no packaging frills or additional format options (such as a DVD or Digital Copy).
If you saw the trailer for 'In Darkness,' you may have noticed the incredibly dark, poorly lit, tight spaces that comprise the Polish sewer system. You may have been concerned as to how said setting would equate to Blu-ray, where not all incredibly dark films look as great as 'The Strangers. Sony Pictures Classics' 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 encode is not perfect, but it definitely laid to rest my concerns about how the material would translate, and in many sequences, proved to be borderline astonishing in how well it presented the gloomy, moody picture.
My biggest concern, crushing blacks, did not play any part in why this disc didn't earn a perfect score. The inky blacks do help create a sense of claustrophobia, but they don't eat any detail, no matter the setting. Color saturation in exterior shots is superb, as is picture depth, and textures are out of this world amazing, really putting you into the worn down, decaying town. Clothing has a fantastic worn in touch, and the prevalent presence of dust mites and debris turns mundane shots into rivetingly intricate moments. Edges are absolutely perfect, grain is untouched, and there are no banding artifacts to speak of on this disc. What knocks down this stunner of a transfer is a few moments of motion stutter, a small amount of nuclear bright whites, and a handful of dark shots that blur dramatically, even if briefly. If you want to see an amazing looking, grimy, gothic looking period piece, there may not be a better option than this Blu-ray release.
The audio on 'In Darkness' is another diamond in the rough, with a wondrous DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track that puts you right in the tunnels. Dialogue is constantly localized, from beginning to end, helping envelope you in the happenings, while other effects (gunfire) also localize lightly. Directionality is top notch, sprinkles and gussets of water fill the room at any given time, and dynamics are impossible to beat, with the great way resonance pierces through numerous moments in the hollowed out tunnel system. Bass isn't a frequently utilized tool, but the bombings overhead when the Russians make their presence known, as well as the engine roar of Nazi troop transports really pack a punch. A few sequences (mostly raids) hit with such randomness and confusion, you are thrown in the midst of the chaos, never knowing where the screams are coming from, amplifying the terrifying visuals on screen. That's what a great audio track does: makes the movie all the more believable, putting you in the setting and letting you sweat it out. While it cannot compare to summer action blockbusters, 'In Darkness' is a perfect translation of the material, and deserves the highest of marks.
There is an option in the menu for previews to other Sony titles, but seeing them before the menu, in a "skip them one at a time" fashion, is more than enough for most of us.
If you want to see a World War II film that you can literally smell, 'In Darkness' is for you. The visuals are infinitely strong, the message deep, yet the film experience doesn't feel manipulative like it would be if it were made in Hollywood. A solid disc, albeit a tad short on extras, plus a competitive price (a rarity among Sony Pictures Classics releases) makes this an easy title to recommend.