In Darkness, Poland’s submission for this year’s Best Foreign Film Oscar, is a movie that drives home the abomination of the Holocaust in a freshly chilling way. The story, based on true events as recalled by survivors in a 1991 book, begins in a Jewish ghetto in the Polish city of Lvov in 1943, where occupying German soldiers and their Ukrainian allies are slaughtering men, women, and children in the streets with the casual barbarity that was a hallmark of Nazi derangement. Polish director Agnieszka Holland presents some of this depravity (in one scene, a Ukrainian officer takes a break from shooting Jews to exchange greetings with a friend, then happily returns to his hideous work) in an almost offhand way, as part of the day-to-day scenery in that awful time and place. This slight distancing serves to deepen our horror.
The central character is a sewer worker named Socha (Robert Wieckjewicz), a Polish Catholic who moonlights as a burglar in order to sustain his small family. Like many of his neighbors, Socha has idly concluded that the Lvov Jews must somehow deserve their fate; he has other worries of his own. Then, one night, he and a fellow burglar glimpse a group of naked and terrified Jewish women being herded through the forest by soldiers. After they disappear from view, the two men move on—and before long come upon those women again, now shot dead and clumped in piles among the trees. Later, at home with his family, Socha listens as his wife (Kinga Preis) expresses a Christian empathy for the Jews of Lvov, and is surprised to learn from her that Jesus, too, was a Jew. We feel a small light begin to kindle in Socha’s mind.
When a cultivated Jew named Chiger (Herbert Knaupe) approaches Socha for help in hiding himself and some 20 others in the city’s extensive sewer system, Socha agrees—for a price. After installing the group underground, he continues extracting money from Chiger in exchange for delivering food to them. At the same time, a Ukrainian officer named Bortnik (the superbly swinish Michal Zurawski), is encouraging Socha to join the aboveground hunt for fugitive Jews—he can collect a bounty for each one he locates. The Jews down in the permanent night of the sewers, barely surviving amid rats and excrement, in constant fear of the floodwaters that often course through the filthy tunnels, know about this bounty, too, and they fear Socha will expose them for the money of which he’s clearly so fond. But as he continues visiting “my Jews,” as he calls them, Socha becomes protective of the huddled group, and his loyalty grows unshakeable.
As was the case in real life, Socha’s Jews remain hidden in the Lvov sewers for more than a year; half of them die, including a newborn baby who has to be smothered to death before its cries give the whole group away. We see these people dangling at the farthest end of human endurance, and we shudder at the choices they’re forced to make. The movie doesn’t idealize them: one is a thief, another a rutting adulterer—their humanity is fully rendered. Confined largely to the dark, cramped sewers, the film is a triumph of camera strategy and low-level lighting, and it proceeds in a series of piercingly artful scenes. (In one of them, Socha leads a little girl from the group up a sewer ladder to a manhole cover, pushing it aside so she can peer over the rim for a moment at a peaceful, sunny street—and our hearts briefly lift along with hers.)
In Darkness runs nearly two and a half hours, and the dialogue is in subtitled Polish and German. But the actors are extraordinary—especially Wieckjewicz, whose Socha is a small man of undreamt dimensions; and the charismatic Benno Fürmann, who locates a core of heroism within a smalltime Jewish hustler named Mundek. There’s not a moment in this picture when you wish it were shorter, that it would hurry along. And when it’s over, you walk out of it feeling you’ve learned a new language of human possibilities in the face of deepest dread and despair.
Name this movie: An ace CIA operative, condemned as a rogue and now hunted by the Company, bashes and crashes his way through colorful foreign settings, pursued by heavily armed hit men, while back at Langley headquarters an inscrutable deputy director and one of his top lieutenants are arousing the suspicion of another officer, a woman, who’s starting to wonder why her two bosses are so intent on terminating this troublesome renegade.
Yes, it does sound like a Bourne movie, doesn’t it? But no, this is Safe House, with Denzel Washington taking over for Matt Damon, Sam Shepard replacing Scott Glenn as the steely Agency overseer, Brendan Gleeson in for Brian Cox as the dodgy controller, and Vera Farmiga stepping into the Joan Allen role as his straight-shooting subordinate. The picture has a familiar swarming hand-held visual style, thanks to cinematographer Oliver Wood (who shot all three Bourne films) and editor Richard Pearson (who worked on The Bourne Supremacy). At one point, an agitated spook even yelps out a demand for remote surveillance with the words “I want eyes on this!”—a line previously yelped by David Strathairn’s agitated spook in The Bourne Ultimatum.
Safe House may be faux Bourne, but for those counting the moments till the release of The Bourne Legacy next August, it might seem better than no Bourne at all. Swedish director Daniel Espinosa has a flair for action staging—the one-on-one fight scenes, agreeably many in number and often set in confined spaces, are smashingly effective. And first-time screenwriter David Guggenheim has usefully adjusted the Bourne template. Here, Washington’s character, Tobin Frost—nominally the Jason Bourne figure—isn’t an unwitting innocent being set up by his shadowy CIA masters; he’s an actual traitor who has been selling Agency secrets for nearly a decade. Washington can hold the screen with little more than a contemplative glance, but even he would have trouble selling Tobin Frost as a real hero. And so a new character has been added: Matt Weston, a low-level CIA employee, played by Ryan Reynolds, who’s an innocent in almost every way.
As the movie begins, Frost has latched onto some explosive intel embedded in a microchip he just acquired in South Africa. With the inevitable crew of murderous mercenaries soon on his trail, Frost craftily turns himself in to the U.S. consulate in Cape Town, and is quickly shuttled off to the local Agency safe house—a backwater asset glumly maintained by Weston, who spends his normally uneventful days longing for more meaningful duty. After a nasty but ineffectual bit of waterboarding, and then a sudden attack by the murderous mercenaries, Weston flees with his prisoner, jacking a car and tossing Frost in the trunk. (The wild action scene that follows—with Frost battering his way out of the trunk and into the back seat of the vehicle, then battling Weston for control of the wheel—is rousing in the best Bourne fashion.)
As Frost and Weston make their way from one bloody confrontation into another, the older man wearily schools his young captor in the unlovely ways of their chosen profession. (“Our job,” Frost says, is “to take advantage of people’s desire to believe, to trust.”) Naturally, Weston and Frost slowly join together to defeat the conspiratorial forces grouped against them. The movie’s conclusion would come as a surprise only to someone who hadn’t kept up with the Bourne pictures. Safe House lacks the inventive rush of those films—it’s an exercise in their style. But it’s a good little movie, and it does its job. And hey, it’s February.