In 1993, Steven Spielberg cracked the code to the Holocaust film genre with his Academy Award-winning Schindler’s List.  Maybe the great director’s finest film, Schindler’s List mixed graphic violence with honest sentiment about as well as any movie I can imagine; Spielberg never spared viewers the horrors that occurred at the death camps, but he also created a sense of emotional catharsis with his great end sequence, which showed the real-life “Schindler Jews” visiting the grave of their unlikely savior.  Schindler’s List demonstrated to the Hollywood community that filmmakers could document the Holocaust without cheapening the survivors’ pain and – perhaps most importantly – that they could turn a tidy profit as well (it won seven Oscars and grossed over $300 million worldwide).

The floodgates soon opened.  Mother Night. The Truce.  Life is Beautiful.  Jakob the Liar.  Sunshine.  Apt Pupil.  The Grey Zone.  Conspiracy.  The Pianist.  Everything is illuminated.  Black Book.  The Reader.  The Boy in the Striped Pajamas. Some of these are very good; some are less-than good.  Now, I don’t think money solely motivated the sudden explosion of Holocaust-centric films; I think that filmmakers finally felt comfortable, after Schindler’s List‘s global success, using the Holocaust for their artistic canvases.  The downside is, the novelty has worn off – we get so many Holocaust movies that it takes more than the subject matter alone to distinguish any particular entry.

That issue is the biggest one plaguing director Agnieszka Holland’s Holocaust drama In Darkness.  Holland is a distinguished artist – previous efforts include Europa Europa and three episodes of HBO’s “The Wire” – and In Darkness, if nothing else, is a well made, compelling piece of cinema.  Nominated for the 2011 Best Foreign Film Oscar (it lost to A Separation), the picture centers on Leopold Socha (Robert WiÄ™ckiewicz), a Polish sewer worker who finds himself aiding local Jews as the Nazis raid Poland.

The big theme here is one of adaptation.  Socha is a lowly sewer worker, his days confined to rooting through Lvov’s waste tunnels, but he turns this degrading work to his advantage; the sewer tunnels allow Socha access to nearly every place in the city, and he is able to carve out a lucrative side-profession as a thief.  But Holland doesn’t stop there, and I liked how she demonstrates the micro and macro levels of how human cope with hardships.  As Socha takes a greater interest in the sewers to benefit his criminal operations, he develops an innate working of their geography and hiding spots, making him the ideal person to shelter Jews from the Third Reich.

Socha and Oskar Schindler’s respective character arcs share more-than-a-few beats; like Schindler, Socha begins the film as an opportunist – he only agrees to help Lvov’s beset Jewish community (and not report their actions to the Nazis) if they pay him $500 a week.  But after spending time helping them and seeing, first hand, the levels they’ve sunk to under Nazi rule (they only find security wading through filth, a neat point that Holland never makes explicit), Socha has a change of heart and devotes himself to ensuring their safety.

WiÄ™ckiewicz’s performance is engaging – he never courts our sympathies, making his conversion that much more powerful – and Holland fills the picture with tense setpieces where only Socha’s pluck separates the Jews from annihilation.  Yet it never held me in thrall the way that Schindler’s List or The Pianist did, and part of that is Holland’s style.  She keeps the viewer slightly at arms length, affecting a vérité camera to record the happenings above and below ground, so we never grow that attached to the Jewish characters.  I don’t know if Holland could have avoided this problem; In Darkness has a huge cast of actors and only a 140-minute runtime, so the flitting from person to person might be a necessary evil.  Furthermore, her objectivity does give the movie interesting dimensions that it might not otherwise have – she’s not afraid to make the Jews look morally unattractive to show the extent of the Nazi’s dehumanization tactics (In Darkness‘ queasiest scene shows a father having sex with his mistress less than two feet away from his horrified wife and daughter), nor does she make the ethically promiscuous Socha a total rotter (we see him doting over his sickly daughter).  Nevertheless, we never feel the movie in our guts.

But ultimately, the comparisons to Schindler’s List bog it down the most.  In Darkness might offer innovation in its subtle details, but the broad strokes belong to that earlier film.  I don’t question Holland’s technical mastery, nor do I take issue with her looking to the facts for her story; the sewer escape was a real-life incident, one first told in the novel In the Sewers of Lvov, and you can’t just change the facts.  But you can get ‘em on-screen first, and in that regard, Holland comes up short.

Sony’s In Darkness Blu-ray presents the film in a strong HD transfer.  Holland and DP Jolanta Dylewska shot the piece digitally, and they often employ some interesting camera effects to convey the harshness of their world (many of the sewer scenes have an eerie, grainy/strobey quality).  The 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio track alternates expertly between clean dialogue and more active moments of violence.

Bonus supplements are few in number but excellent in quality: critic Anne Thompson moderates a wonderful half-hour discussion with Holland, and the disc also throws in an equally lengthy and insightful interview between Holland and Lvov sewer survivor Krystyna Chiger.  Both of these are well produced and informative; it’s a terrific little Blu-ray.

In Darkness is a compelling and intriguing slice of Holocaust history, but it isn’t novel, and that’s its chief crime.  You’ve just seen this story before, no matter how good a job Holland does of gussying it up.

In Darkness streets on June 12th.  Click HERE for Amazon’s listing.

Culture Movie Review: Interesting, Well Made IN DARKNESS Is Just Too Familiar