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Watched the film “In Darkness” this past weekend and it has given me much to reflect upon. The 2011 Polish film directed by Agnieszka Holland is based on a true story that takes place in the Second World War in the then Polish city of Lviv (now in Ukraine).  This is a story of a sewer worker and petty thief, Leopold Socha, who inadvertently shelters a group of Jews from the Nazis using his knowledge of the sewer system and his heart to guide his actions. In my opinion this film is well deserving of its nomination for the Best Foreign Language Film at the 84th Academy Awards.

Although the subject of the film is not one that is easy to watch in any case this film left me with a more expansive view of this significant act of aggression in our human history (World War II and Hitler’s attack on the Jewish people). It also left me with a seemingly misplaced feeling of joy after viewing the film.  It got me thinking about the capacity of the human spirit to rise above even the most cruel and unbelievable situations. The film highlighted a number of the concerns I have about how we currently live in our world but more importantly also highlighted the significance of the many factors that keep us human and able to survive. These are the factors that contribute to our health and well-being although seen as being outside the mandate of our well-funded “health care system”.

The more I thought about the movie the more that emerged. The film was very clever in its portrayal of the story and its careful inclusion of both the “not so good stuff” and the “good stuff”.

what lies beneath

The not so good stuff

As with any other Holocaust or war film this one makes quite clear the insanity that can arise from the misuse of power in pursuit of misguided goals. Goals and values that do not make sense (that one person is better than another because of race, color or creed) and carrying out these goals in extreme acts of aggression makes the situation difficult to deal with on all accounts.  These aggressive harsh goals are truly not understandable from a human perspective. Putting them into action is difficult without also a loss of rationality thus creating some level of insanity. What I am saying is that these acts like the “final solution” of Hitler and his followers are based in dangerous insanity. Actions that in saner more rational times would be considered absolutely ridiculous and unconscionable are required of those individuals who have been forced to participate along with those who have chosen to be part of the team.

The film also showed how money and the acquisition of the same has come to trump our humanity and has allowed us to deny our connection with other humans such that we choose to take the money for our own benefit over protecting someone’s else’s life.

The depiction of war and the corresponding aggression upon the population demonstrated that the value placed on a human’s life is based on arbitrary criteria: country, race, and creed in this case and all other wars for that matter.  Observing these actions from afar, as we do when we look back in history, we are easily able to see that the application of these criteria is ludicrous.

The confusion created in and by war was obvious in this film. There are no neat and tidy sides in this or any other war. It was not at all clear who would do what to whom. A person’s language, cultural background, socioeconomic status, political affiliation, or any other measure was not what determined their choices and therefore what they did. Rather it was their capacity to be human or their choice to ignore their shared humanity that resulted in what choices they made. The main character “Socha” held all the prejudices about the Jews that were ingrained and expected at this time and in this place yet he was able to see beyond these prejudices and to do the right thing.  

The film did a marvelous job at illustrating the one thing that everyone in that insane war situation shared and that is “fear”. It did not matter whether you wore a uniform or if you did what rank you were or if you were one of the persecuted Jews or a Catholic or what language you spoke, the fear caused by the insanity of it all was shared by all. You could see it clearly in the eyes of the hunted Jews and the leaders of the Polish or Ukrainian militia.


staying together

Now after all that you might be wondering where I was able to find any good stuff in this story and this film.

The good stuff

This film provides an illustration of the positive human action that can be found in any situation even one as terrible as this crazy war. The highlighting of the positive does not in any way negate the depressing and harmful parts of this situation as I have described above.  However, it is also important for us as humans to see that we have the ability to go through difficult circumstances and come through it rather than be destroyed by it.

For me the film highlights the significance of the many factors that keep us human and able to survive and in better times contribute to our overall health and well-being.

I saw cooperation evolve among a group of people brought together in non-ideal circumstances. These were people who would not normally choose to be with each other and who found it difficult to get past their feelings of separateness. Yet put in this situation they learned to care about each other. They quickly began to support each other and realize that the pain of the others in the group was really their pain as well. Allegiances shifted beyond familial ties to everyone in the group. They developed a system of mutual support that allowed them all to survive. It was made clear that if each of them remained at the individual level they could not survive.

In this story I saw an understanding of our fundamental connection as humans as being more important than anything else including personal safety and acquisition of money. This understanding was significant for the life outcomes for this group of people.  One individual’s calm common sense recognition and reminder that the Jews were first and foremost humans and that we are all alike and that we should remember that Jesus was also a Jew shifted the thinking of key individuals in this drama. Bringing awareness to the connection that all people have as humans regardless of culture, race or creed brought the actions to a more humane level. Realization of this connection had a major impact on the choices of individuals in this story.

Through this connection and cooperation, a true sense of community developed. The value of diversity was evident in how each person began to take on a role particularly suited to them and to the survival of the community. One character in the drama was depicted as a shyster yet it is this person who turns out to have the strength of character to be able to take risks for the group. He had the courage to care enough to put the importance of the lives of others before his own.

I saw compassion in the small yet significant actions of the individuals risking their lives and survival on behalf of others they saw in greater distress. Being brought to a basic human level of survival and to a level of understanding of the importance of connections and the need for cooperation amongst the group also brought forth compassion that was not likely to have surfaced otherwise.

The group of Jews who ended up in the sewer system showed the foresight to see what was happening around them and then showed that they were willing to make active choices (digging into the sewer system) to be able to attempt an escape from an impossible situation (there was nowhere else to go). Although not necessarily a pleasant choice it was nonetheless a choice to take responsibility for their well-being (and that of their family and friends). Others in the film demonstrated that as Martin Luther King Jr. said “it is always the right time to do the right thing” in this case even if it put one at risk. Love and concerns for others wins every time.

It is incredible that the capacity of the human spirit is strong enough to allow people to survive impossible unbelievable conditions (being in a stinky, dirty, dark sewer infested with rats). This shows that the human body, mind and spirit are capable of more that we think. Put in this situation we become cognizant of what is important, what is not and how we need each other to be able to survive. We lose sight of this in better times.

Albeit this was an unusual situation the choice to be altruistic resulted in many benefits for the individual who had made this choice. All the risk, the fear and concern were well worth it in the end and the feelings of accomplishment were well deserved.

Even at the most basic level of survival we can still find beauty and culture as important. These simple acts can be one of the only ways to draw our attention towards the value of life and away from that which is life-draining and leads to our decline.


The story and film In Darkness was powerful in its portrayal of the radiance of the human spirit. The importance of cooperation, connection, community, compassion, active choice, love and concerns for others, altruism, beauty and culture, in defining the capacity of the human spirit was clearly evident even amidst the horrors and the insanity.

Irene McDermott © 2012