Tuesday, 24 April 2012
The title of this film works on different levels. It graphically and painfully portrays the human capacity to act in ways which are inhuman. It depicts the darkness that hope sometimes requires us to stumble through if we are to come out the other end. For the most part the film is set within the darkness of the sewers under the Polish city of Lvov.
Set in World War II as the Nazi's purge the ghetto in Lvov, the film follows a group of Jews who in desperation break into the cities sewers in the hope of escape and survival. They are unaware of the harshness of the environment they are about to enter - raw sewage, darkness, lack of food and water, loss of privacy, plagues of rats and the constant threat of being discovered.
The Nazi's offer 500 Zloty for each Jew betrayed - for some this was to become a lucrative business. For the city's sewer Inspector, Leopold Socha (Robert Wieckiewicz) the prospect of earning multiples of that sum for the Jews that have invaded 'his sewers' is an appealing prospect - once he has taken all the money the Jews have in the first place. What begins with the coldness of a business transaction prior to betrayal, gently transforms into an heroic act of defiance that affirms the good that resides in human nature. Socha is no easy pushover. The film graphically depicts the open racism and hatred of the Poles towards the Jews - and others. A hatred and distrust that is all too often reciprocated.
With his unique intimate knowledge of the sewers, he moves a small group of them to a more secure location leaving the others to fend for themselves. Not knowing how long the ordeal will last they live from day to day. Socha places himself and his family in extreme jeopardy and time-and-time-again they come close to being discovered. News of the war on the Eastern Front is the only comfort they receive.
This is a kind of 'Schindler in the Sewer' type film. There is despair and the need for the most basic human drives to find expression, but there remains hope. An older member of the group continues to pray, chanting in rocking motion to the sewer walls - they are even able to celebrate Passover with some Matzos Socha rescues from the ghetto. What reinforces the utter bleakness of the group's condition is that they have with them two young children who in different ways become traumatised by their experience. One of them - the last remaining survivor of the group has published her memoires in The Girl in the Green Sweater.
I won't spoil the story by disclosing any more detail. Whilst this is not easy viewing, it repays the investment of time and emotional energy. There is no romanticised Hollywood cinema here. The Polish Director Agnieszka Holland was born a decade to the day before me. The daughter of a Catholic mother and Jewish father. Her mother was active in the Polish resistance and the film carries an authentic shadow of personal family experience. I was born in West Germany in the continuing aftermath of the war - its shadow still looms large over several generations. I hope we can all remember the pain and choose not to reinvent it again - anywhere. We need to hear stories like this one - we need to be shocked into our right senses. The heroism of Socha and others like him needs to be celebrated as collectively and vicariously they offer a way from darkness to light. Let us remain in light.
A brave, intelligent and compelling film. I'll give it 8.5/10. If you have the stomach for it - watch it.