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In Darkness IMDB description: A dramatization of one man’s rescue of Jewish refugees in the German-occupied Polish city of Lvov.
Atlantis IMDB description: A soldier suffering from PTSD befriends a young volunteer hoping to restore peaceful energy to a war-torn society.
Why I took them off the list: To stand in solidarity with the Ukrainian people during this dark time, I decided to spotlight some Ukraine-set cinema that talks about the country’s past and its possible future. The first entry in this double feature review, In Darkness, is a film that I’ve had on my watchlist for many years. It first came to my attention following its nomination for Best Foreign Language Film of the Year at the 2012 Oscars.
I put off watching it for a long time due to its grim subject matter. But realizing that it is set in the Polish city of Lvov, now Lviv in present-day Ukraine, I thought that it was a good time to learn about some of the history of a city that I didn’t know very much about and that is now once again receiving international attention due to the Russian invasion.
The second film, Atlantis, came to my attention after I read an article about the best films to watch to understand the current situation in Ukraine, and thought it could be a good counterpart to the first as it talks about the hypothetical future of the country. It also seemed to be incredibly timely to me as it talks about the long-term after-effects of a devastating conflict.
Review of In Darkness
In Darkness is in many ways a familiar narrative about the horrors of the holocaust and the inhumane injustices inflicted upon the Jewish people during the Nazi invasion of Poland. Its story of desperate survivors hiding in the ruins of a ghetto and attempting to avoid attention shares many similarities with The Pianist, and the fact that they are helped by an initially reluctant benefactor is heavily reminiscent of Schindler’s List.
But the film has some unique qualities that make it stand out among its many similarly-themed forebearers. For one, it digs in to the complex relationship between the ethnic Ukrainians and Poles under the strains of the occupying Nazis’ orders. It’s a morally grey story and the behavior of the residents of Lvov is depicted as far from black and white, both among the persecuted and those complicit in their repression.
The characters are not uniformly brave and noble and make selfish, questionable decisions, as one would imagine people would in such horrendous and difficult situations. And the main protagonist, Leopold Socha, is presented as even more morally ambiguous than Oscar Schindler, initially only agreeing to help a group of desperate Jews to hide out in the sewers for monetary gain. This allows for a satisfying character arc when he gradually comes to see his ‘clients’ as more than a source of income.
Ultimately Uplifting Despite All the Grimness
The biggest achievement of In Darkness is the incredibly convincing reproduction of the Jewish ghetto and streets of 1940’s Lvov, and particularly the grimy and claustrophobic sewer system where much of the story takes place. Some of the set pieces where the characters find themselves in peril due to the unsanitary conditions and rising water levels are harrowing and almost unbearably tense.
One area where I thought that the film fell down a little was in the characterizations of the Jewish survivors. Much of the film’s runtime is devoted to fleshing out the character of Socha, his wife, and his accomplice, and the background and inner lives of those who he is rescuing are not really fully explored. They are only afforded one or two defining characteristics at most and don’t really stand out as individuals.
However, some of these characters do begin to be more defined and make more of an impact towards the end of the film. This was perhaps intended as a comment on how they were essentially dehumanized during their ordeal, and only really regain their identity when they inevitably make it out of the sewers at the end of the film. Indeed, it is incredibly cathartic when they do make it out into the light and are once again afforded the basic human kindnesses they had been deprived of for so long.
Final Score: 8/10
Worth Checking Out?
Yes, In Darkness is often an uncomfortable watch due to both the claustrophobic and grim setting and the desperation and questionable actions of the characters. But its willingness to dig into moral grey areas during desperate times is certainly admirable, and it rewards those willing to stick with it to the end with a cathartic finale.
In Darkness (2011)
Directed by Agnieszka Holland
Review of Atlantis
Set in 2025, this sci-fi-tinged drama imagines a future Ukraine where the country has won a lengthy war against Russia and where the broken survivors are attempting to pick up the pieces against a ravaged industrial landscape. The film explores the daunting task of a PTSD-afflicted population to move on after so much destruction and the methods by which they might try to find some peace and closure.
The film smartly casts real soldiers, veterans, and aid volunteers in the central roles, and charts an affecting story of one shell-shocked factory worker who begins to move on with his life by helping in the process of recovering and identifying corpses left behind on the battlefields. As well as through his relationship with a fellow volunteer.
Visually Striking But Sparse in Narrative
The intentions of Atlantis are unquestionably noble, but at times it can be unbearably slow going. The film is composed of a series of long static shots, many of them lengthy sequences of forensic workers and military men just going about mundane tasks.
Things pick up around the halfway mark and the story begins to somewhat advance as the tentative central relationship begins to grow. Nevertheless, at times it feels like the film is working with an incredibly slight story that could have been better served by a short.
What is undeniable is that Atlantis is visually stunning, and the photography tells a story in itself. The way that the film morphs from a grim dystopian aesthetic like something out of a Terry Gilliam film to more naturalistic visuals as the protagonist begins to find his feet is a great choice. As is the decision to use a thermal camera to spotlight the loss and then the reemergence of human warmth that bookends the film.
Final Score: 6/10
Worth Checking Out?
It depends. If you’re prepared to be challenged by its slow-burn of a story, Atlantis is a noble exploration of the aftermath of war and recovery from trauma that rewards with some beautifully bleak and creative visuals.
Written and Directed by Valentyn Vasyanovych