01 October 2011

Telluride at Dartmouth: In Darkness

This post continues to chronicle my attendance at the Telluride at Dartmouth program at the Hopkins Center for the Arts. Days 1 & 2 (A Dangerous Method and Albert Nobbs) can be found here, Day 3 (We Need to Talk About Kevin) can be found here.

I resisted In Darkness because it is a Holocaust film, and that is just about my least favorite movie genre. Nonetheless, it is a genre I'm deeply familiar with, and was the subject of the first serious film book I ever read, the original edition of Annette Insdorf's Indelible Shadows, which I discovered on my father's bookshelves when I was in high school. Soon after, I saw Schindler's List and found it deeply moving in a very adolescent way (on my part, at least, and maybe on Spielberg's). Later, I realized that Schindler's List had created a sort of emotional smugness in me -- it had made me feel good about feeling all the appropriate emotions. Spielberg is one of the greatest manipulators of emotion that the cinema has ever seen, and part of the pleasure of his action films, especially, lies in surrendering to them, allowing our emotions to be played by a virtuoso. I resist this in his films about something more serious than excitement; my loathing of The Color Purple and Munich is boundless and perhaps even a bit irrational -- indeed, I may resent the manipulation so much that I tend to perceive it as worse (cinematically and morally) than it is. At the same time, I desire great art to help us understand the Nazi era and its aftermath -- Paul Celan is my favorite 20th century poet, perhaps because so much of the power I perceive in his words derives from a struggle with (and against) the representation of atrocity. The problem is that for me it has to be great art. Plenty of subjects can withstand mediocre, ordinary, awkward, or bad art. Art that takes the Nazi years as its subject and ends up, in my estimation, to be less than great feels like a trivialization, and it infuriates me.

In any case, this is the background I brought to In Darkness, and explains why I spent the first half hour or so with my arms folded and jaw clenched -- I had pretty well decided that whatever magic spells this film tried to cast, I would resist them.

In Darkness tells the story of the final liquidation of the ghetto in Lvov, Poland, in June 1943 and of a group of Jews who hid in the city's sewers to survive. They were aided by Leopold Socha, a sewer worker, whose original goals were mercenary -- in the film, he is represented as a scavenger and thief, and tension is built early on because we fully expect him to take the Jews' money and then turn them over to the Germans for a reward. This is not what happens, though, and one path of the narrative is the story of Socha's redemption.

Had that been the primary path of the narrative, I would have hated In Darkness, because using the Holocaust as a plot device for tales of redemption seems despicable to me. (Millions of people died, and thus Our Protagonist found the goodness in his heart!) Thankfully, director Agnieszka Holland had much more on her mind in making this film than the redemption of Socha, and so the redemption of Socha becomes a powerful element of the story instead of its reason for being.

Once I saw that In Darkness was not relying on the cliché emotional moves of the Holocaust film genre, I let down my guard. The characters were complex, and few of the heroic actions unambiguously heroic. Everyone is desperate, exhausted, hungry, uncomfortable, and terrified -- these are not conditions that always bring out the best in them. We may find ourselves sharing Socha's frustrations with the refugees, sympathizing with his conflicts, his desire to be free of the people he has taken responsibility for and his desire to help them. This is a brave space for the film to open up, but it is an important one for any savior story. Inevitably, viewers want to identify with the savior; we want to think we are the sorts of people who would also be good people and risk everything to save our fellow humans. Many savior stories highlight the dangers and show how fatal missteps can be, but it is much less common for such stories to show the tensions that build between people being saved and the savior. Also, the tensions between the individuals within the group -- when they are first running through the sewers, and one woman is overcome by fright and wants to return to the ghetto, we feel her sister's rage and panic, we are pushed toward terrible thoughts: Slap her! Leave her! Save yourself! Thoughts we, if we are self-consciously decent people, push from our minds -- but they were there, and their shadows remain. We learn from In Darkness how difficult it is to be a decent person in an indecent world.

Such moments let the film earn its emotional rewards. Experience is different from manipulation. If 100 viewers of the film were to chart their emotional responses to it, there would be some overlaps at climactic moments, but there would be significant deviations as well.

I discovered I had fully surrendered to the film when a relatively small moment brought on uncontrollable tears. It was a simple moment of ordinary humanity: Socha allows one of the children, who has become catatonic from fear and exhaustion, to look up at the sunlight and taste the air. That's all. But up to that moment, we, too, as viewers have not had much chance to breathe -- we have spent a lot of time with the refugees in the sewers, our eyes have grown accustomed to the dark, we have experienced our own fears for their safety: our fears that Socha would give in to his worst impulses, our fears that the group would destroy itself from carelessness or weariness or frustration. We have spent enough time looking at the darkness that the sudden bright light is blinding, but it is also welcome.

It is not a simple emotional moment. Of course, the kindness of Socha is touching. But it's a small act compared to many of his others, ones that aren't as deeply affecting. We, too, have yearned for sunlight and fresh air. We have felt a sliver of what the refugees have felt -- and if we think about it, we know it is a sliver, a grain-of-sand-sized feeling compared to all the pain and fear of the refugees, and that opens up whatever capacity we have to empathize, but though we empathize, we know our empathy is not equal to their experience.

This, it seems to me, is exactly what films about atrocity should do. They should make us empathize and at the same time they should confront us with the inadequacy of our empathy. Like Celan's poems, they should strive for language while knowing that such experiences defeat language. The work should bear the scars of its impossibility. The work should not encourage us to feel good about ourselves; rather, it should show us all the terrors we contain.

In Darkness earns our joy in its characters' heroic acts because it is honest about what all those acts must overcome. The Nazis are a clear enemy, the metonym for evil. We are good at hating them and at rooting for their opposition. The Nazis are other than us, something we would never be, because we are good and decent. They're the most convenient, least controversial bad guys wherever they appear. Hating Nazis and feeling pity or even sympathy for their victims is a worthwhile feeling, but it is not a difficult or complex one, and it trivializes the agony when art encourages us to use the Nazi era for easy feelings proudly felt.

There are few easy feelings in In Darkness, and some you will not be proud to feel. We are rewarded with a mostly happy ending, an ending that is very much a relief, even perhaps a purgation in the Aristotelian sense. (There is even one moment that is an unexplained miracle.) The ending, at least in general terms, is true to history. Many other stories of escape from the Nazis did not end happily, despite even the most selfless heroism, and In Darkness includes that fact in a way that is more powerful than most other Holocaust savior films I've seen. Much of this comes from how well Holland shows us that the group is, at the end, a small one. We move from the relative largeness of the ghetto to an overfilled living room to the crowded sewers to, finally, one tiny section of the no-longer-crowded sewers. We saw how this small group was created, and we remember the faces of the people who were not able to be part of it.

Our knowledge of the refugees as individuals grows throughout the film, but we also know why it grows: the group becomes smaller and smaller and smaller. Our joy at their survival, then, is attached to, even dependent on, our knowledge of how few survived, and what it cost to survive.

For me, then, In Darkness joins a small group of films that represent the suffering of the Nazi era in a way that is complex in what it asks us to know and feel. The only film I've seen this year that even approaches it in such complexity is The Tree of Life, a work so different from In Darkness that I find them impossible to compare except in their effect on me as a viewer: leaving the theatre, I felt more aware of the potentials and limits of my own humanity. Stating it in such a way -- trying to capture rich emotions in ordinary words -- sounds like hyperbolic praise, but I am only pointing to one of the reasons we seek out art beyond entertainment or beyond aesthetic pleasure. We spend our lives trying to understand what it means to live, what it means to know history, what it means to feel. It's an impossible quest, but great art lets us know, at least for a moment, that the quest is worthwhile.

Such words are grandiose, so I will end instead with Celan:

above the grayblack wastes.
A tree-
high thought
grasps the light-tone: there are
still songs to sing beyond

--trans. by Pierre Joris