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Originally published Thursday, March 8, 2012 at 3:01 PM

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Movie review

Holocaust drama 'In Darkness': An unlikely hero rises from sewers

A movie review of Poland's "In Darkness," the third Oscar-nominated Holocaust drama from director Agnieszka Holland. It's based on the true story of Leopold Socha, a Catholic Polish sewer worker who hid a group of Jews in the underground tunnels of Lvov.

Special to The Seattle Times

Movie review 3 stars

'In Darkness,' with Robert Wieckiewicz, Benno Fürmann. Directed by Agnieszka Holland, from a screenplay by David F. Shamoon. 145 minutes. Rated R for violence, disturbing images, sexuality, nudity and language. In Polish, German, Yiddish and Ukrainian, with English subtitles. Seven Gables.

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Agnieszka Holland has consistently earned Oscar nominations for her complex dramas about the paradoxes of the Holocaust. "Angry Harvest" (nominated as 1985's best foreign-language film) deals with a repressed farmer who becomes obsessed with a Jewish woman he's hiding. "Europa Europa" (a 1991 screenplay nominee) focuses on a Jewish teenager who is so successful at camouflage that he winds up in the German army.

Holland's latest nominee in the best-foreign-film category, "In Darkness," is based on the true story of Leopold Socha, a Catholic Polish sewer worker who hid a group of Jews over a period of 14 months in the underground tunnels of Lvov.

Vigorously played by Robert Wieckiewicz, he's an anti-Semite and a walking contradiction: a grouchy small-time thief who finds himself absurdly and almost accidentally playing the role of a lifesaver. He's never a saint and far from rational.

But when it comes to keeping the Nazis at bay, Socha is more effective than almost anyone else. When his own life is threatened, and it looks like the enemy has become hopelessly ruthless, the tension becomes almost unbearable.

Much of the movie takes place in the sewers, where rats rule, sexual inhibitions are gradually dropped and ever-present shadows cover up many sins. It's often a challenge for Holland and her actors to establish the vitality of the characters and escape visual monotony.

In the process, they manage to remove all hints of underground romanticism (this is no "Phantom of the Opera"). Even a scene in which a woman tries on a victim's abandoned shoe, hoping that it will fit Cinderella-style, establishes a surprising gravity.

Note: Cecilia Benzaquen, the daughter of Klara Keller and Mundek Margulies, two of the survivors portrayed in "In Darkness," has lived in Seattle for the past 27 years. After watching the film for a fourth time at a local press screening, she said she and her husband, Rabbi Simon Benzaquen, are joining with the Polish government "to erect a monument in the center of the city of Lvov to honor the memory of Socha and his heroism." She will be present at the 8 p.m. show Sunday for a Q&A at the Seven Gables.

John Hartl: johnhartl@yahoo.com

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