A producer may have pitched this as a high concept film where Kanal (Poland, 1953) meets Schindler’s List (US, 1993) without the latter’s saccharine. It’s the true tale of a Polish sewage worker who was paid to look after Jewish refugees from the Warsaw Ghetto. Robert Wieckiewicz plays Leopold Socha whose motivation, at least initially, is wholly pecuniary. It is a strength of the film that the protagonist is represented as a ‘warts and all’ human being and it doesn’t stint upon the Nazi’s atrocities. Both the lead characters are played by charismatic actors new to me, Wieckiewicz plays Lech Walesa in this year’s biopic of the Solidarity union leader; Benno Fürmann plays a German-Jew who doesn’t trust Socha.
The film’s portrayal, based on Robert Marshall’s book In the Sewers of Lvov, of people living in extreme conditions is psychologically acute. For example, the characters’ need for sex is emphasised despite them being ensconced in confined spaces with many others, including children. Jewish racism against the ‘Polacks’ is also shown. The set design, both above and below ground, is immaculate.
The pitch I imagined at the start of the article was, of course, jokey. The film took 22 years to bring to the screen – see this excellent article. The film not only takes us into the darkness of the sewers but also into the darkness of fascism (have you seen the film Mr Di Canio?); this is one of the key functions of cinema: to take us to places we don’t want to go. In doing so it not only helps us appreciate what we have got but also, viscerally (I was blubbing by the end), helps us to feel the history. It is very difficult, for example, for young people to understand the misery that Thatcherism inflicted (and continues to inflict) upon many people; as a historical figure, the first female British PM, she can seem laudable.
I realise that this is the first film I seen directed by Agnieszka Holland so I have some catching up to do. Her use of the roving steadicam in the sewers conveys the stinking claustrophobia brilliantly and although there a few longuers, in a 145 minute film, they are necessary for the portrayal of human resilience in the face of human evil.