It's a tale that seems to proffer a narrow window of uplift through which to see an era filled with horror, a mini "Schindler's List" set at the Polish-Ukrainian border. But Holland's film is extraordinarily generous with its characters in ways that take the story beyond being a historical fable of altruism and endurance. "In Darkness" doesn't let those on screen fall into easy divisions of savior and saved -- it allows its Jewish characters to be complex and imperfect, and clears plenty of space for its protagonist to grow and change without shunting aside the sometime terrible costs of his actions. There's nothing innately heroic or remarkable about Socha, played by Robert Wieckiewicz -- he's earthy and amoral, a cheerful worker who with his young partner Stefek (Krzysztof Skonieczny) moonlights as a robber. He lives in a cramped but cozy apartment with his wife Wanda (Kinga Preis) and their daughter, and while he doesn't like the Nazis he isn't about to put himself in danger combating them. It's clear that he and his family would be fine riding out the war as they are, and when he and Stefek encounter a group of men from the ghetto digging through to the sewer tunnels in which the pair are traveling, the deal they strike is purely a business arrangement.
Cinematographer Jolanta Dylewska (who also did amazing work with "Tulpan") shoots half of the film in the near dark, finding texture and contrast in the gloom -- the images aren't prettied up, the griminess of the setting never in doubt, but there are still moments of poetry. The actors' pale faces swim forward, luminous in the little light there is, a love scene between two of the characters who get together while in hiding lit only by the faintest slivers of sun. It's beautiful, but their pallid forms in the murk echo an earlier scene of carnage in which a group of naked women run, screaming, through the woods, their bodies bright against the trees just before they're gunned down by German soldiers. Above ground, Socha finds his relative freedom to walk in the daylight hemmed in by the arrival of an old colleague, Bortnik (Michal Zurawski), who's become an officer and who's very eager to hunt down any remaining Jews in order to collect a reward. It's impossible to pinpoint when Socha turns, when he decides he's going to save the people he's been protecting even when they can no longer give him anything in return, which speaks to the deliberate pace of his reluctant transformation. There's no bolt of lighting, just his slow realization that he's not going to walk away -- which is why the closest the film gets to a dramatic Hollywood moment feels, while not unearned, unnecessary. The accrued small acts of generosity and courage are worth more than a grand gesture of saving the day. [A-]