Suitably traumatising melodrama based on a real-life WWII survival tale.
The intrinsic problems of telling a story which largely takes place in an antiquated sewer system are overcome with relative ease by Polish director Agnieszka Holland in this suitably traumatising melodrama based on the real-life heroic escapades of one Leopold Socha.
Set during the final years of World War II at a point where human life was beyond expendable in the eyes of trigger-happy Ukrainian invaders (working for the Nazis), the film concerns the efforts of Socha, a wheeler-dealing sewer inspector who decides to listen to the voice of his inner altruist and conceal eleven Jews in the sewers of Lvov.
A militantly straightforward tale of benign humanism at work, the film has two aims which it achieves with commendable efficiency: The first is to depict the horrendous suffering and humiliation experienced by the Jews at the hands of the Nazis. Holland locks her focus on the central ensemble, but supplies a broader context by offering glimpses of the murder and torture occurring elsewhere in the town, sometimes visually, and sometimes with atmospheric sound design.
The other is to present Socha’s credible transformation from self-serving, sexed-up goon into bona fide hero willing to sacrifice himself and, potentially, his wife and kid to save the lives of this small band of persecuted men, women and children.
Actor Robert Wieckiewicz does a sterling job in making Socha’s actions appear at once reckless, unmotivated and entirely compassionate as he slowly begins to understand that he would prefer a future with the people underground more than he would with the vile, pillaging bastards up top.
Holland, who has spent the last few years gathering her directorial marbles in the world of top-flight television (Treme, The Wire, The Killing) following a lengthy run of, frankly, appalling duds (Total Eclipse, Copying Beethoven), manages to extract the primal particulars of the story without ever doing anything markedly exciting, innovative or new.
Regularly switching between the events occurring above and below ground, Holland is happy to ramp up the in-the-moment pain and suffering (fights, arguments and a big set piece where the entire sewer system floods), than she is to build up any sense of spontaneity of tension.
It’s hard to be totally down on such a noble and unpretentious enterprise, yet, with the familiarity of the wartime melodrama you can’t help but have wished Holland would’ve played a bit faster and looser with the rules. So, a film to file alongside Edward Zwick’s Defiance rather than a subterranean masterpiece like Emir Kusturica’s Underground.
A Best Foreign Language Oscar nomination has placed this WWII survival tale on the map.
Does very little wrong, but then it keeps the risk-taking to an absolute minimum.
A very robust piece of work that never truly gets under your skin.