[EDITOR'S NOTE: Fearless Sarah D. Bunting of Tomatonation.com is making it her mission to watch every single film nominated for an Oscar before the Academy Awards Ceremony on February 26, 2012. She is calling this journey her Oscars Death Race. For more on how the Oscars Death Race began, click here. And you can follow Sarah through this quixotic journey here.]
Leopold Socha (Robert Wieckiewicz) is a sewer inspector in Nazi-occupied Lvov; he's also a thief, robbing abandoned houses to provide for his family, and he and his partner Szczepek (Krzysztof Skonieczny) hide the spoils in the watery catacombs beneath the city. One day in 1942, the burglars run into another group in the sewers: Jewish families who have dug down through the floor of an apartment in the ghetto, knowing that going literally underground is their only chance to survive. Socha agrees to help them, but only a dozen of them, and only for $500 a week.
The tension derives from the larger situation, of course, but also from the way it's filmed. When you're in the sewers, it's dark, and you can't see much; the violent deportation of the ghetto's other occupants is merely heard from below, which makes it harder to bear. (Also heard, and seen, continuously: sewer rats. The children in the group eventually make pets out of them, but if this is something you're sensitive to, be warned.) And the final rainstorm sequence is filmed and edited flawlessly. The submerged screams, the belongings floating by, the deafening water are an impressive build to the ending, but also nearly intolerable.
It's a truly well built story, frustrating and thrilling, controlled but not rigid. I don't think it wins its category, but it's very fine work.
Sarah D. Bunting co-founded Television Without Pity.com, and has written for Seventeen, New York Magazine, MSNBC.com, Salon, Yahoo!, and others. She's the chief cook and bottle-washer at TomatoNation.com. For more on how the Oscars Death Race began, click here.