Dir. Agnieszka Holland
Whenever there are people in desperation, there's good money to be made. This capitalist truism perhaps was perhaps never more exacting than during the Holocaust, where well-off people were willing to part with anything in order to help their families survive. It also happens to be a maxim subscribed to by a middle-aged Pole named Socha (Robert Wieckiewicz), the hero of director Agnieszka Holland's true-life Holocaust story; though when we say 'hero,' it certainly takes the man a while to come around to the concept.
Socha is a Polish sewer inspector in the occupied Polish city of Lvov, a simple man, a bit rough around the edges and always playing the angles. It helps that he's in tight with a Ukrainian commander, Bornik (Michal Zurawski), tasked with hunting down Jews after the Lvov ghetto is wiped clean, and making good money on their heads in the process. Unbeknownst to Bornik, however, his good friend has already made a side deal with a pack of desperate Jews, who managed to dig into the sewers under the city and pay him good money to bring them food and to keep his mouth shut. Initially, that's all Socha is interested in. He sees profit lines that exceed the danger he's putting himself and his family in, while harboring Jews underground. Over the course of 14 grueling months, a hearty pack of survivors soldier on in the darkness, while above ground, Socha finally comes around to the idea of helping them not just for his own financial profit but for his spiritual one as well.
It's a curious conundrum with many Holocaust stories, true or fictional: How do you represent the absolute, randomized horror of the situation -- human beings at their absolute most vile and untethered by basic moral codes -- and yet still manage to insert the remnants of traditional narrative without, in effect, reducing the true impact of the event in order to fulfill the standard promise of the three-act form? Holland's film does superbly when it's focused on the actual situation the surviving Jews find themselves in: Trapped underground, surrounded by sewage, forced to rely on a suspect Pole for their very lives, even as they are wiping out their collective savings in order to pay him. Less effective is the Scrooge-esque redemption story of Socha's soul. He goes from racist, conniving thug to resolute humanitarian in short order, without much in the way of convincing him any differently that what he's already witnessed hundreds of times. If we are to believe this (mostly true) account, we would have to believe in the power of human goodness even in the face of the ferocious evil of the Nazi party in full effect. Isn't it pretty to think so?