Leopold Socha (Robert Wieckiewicz), a sewer worker and petty thief in Lvov, a Nazi occupied city in Poland, one day encounters a group of Jews trying to escape the liquidation of the ghetto. He hides them for money in the labyrinth of the town’s sewers beneath the bustling activity of the city above. What starts out as a straightforward and cynical business arrangement turns into something very unexpected, the unlikely alliance between Socha and the Jews as the enterprise seeps deeper into Socha’s conscience.

Complex characters carry WWII drama.

Holland’s great strength is her rapport with actors, and she garners uniformly strong performances here

Having alternated for some years between her native Poland and the United States—where, in addition to directing 'quality’ feature films like Washington Square (1997) and Copying Beethoven (2006), she’s helmed episodes of prestige TV dramas like The Wire and Treme—this feature sees Agnieszka Holland return home, to dramatise one of her country’s darkest historical incidents, the wartime treatment of Poland’s Jews by its Catholic citizenry.

In wartime Lvov, a whey-faced sewer worker, Socha, is enlisted by Bortnik, a Ukrainian Nazi commander, to search for any Jews who might have eluded the round-ups to concentration camps. Inevitably, he finds some—yet he chooses, for reasons both selfish and obscure, to shelter them, rather than turn them in. For more than a year they remain underground, trapped in the dark, freezing, rat-infested sewers...

Nominated this year for an Academy Award for Best Foreign Film (where it lost to Iran’s A Separation), it’s the kind of film the Academy tends to favour: well-made, solid, dealing with Big Themes in a suitably grave manner.

But Holland’s inclination toward the mainstream, honed by all those hours of episodic television, actually serves her well here: what could easily be preachy and sanctimonious—this is, at heart, a fairly standard drama of moral conversion, a flawed man’s journey toward grace, a la Oskar Schindler—is instead couched in the guise of a thriller, imbued with a brisk pace (despite its gruelling 140-minute running time) and a refreshing moral ambiguity, as evinced by its unlikely choice of protagonist.

Initially, at least, Socha’s decision to aid the people he finds comes, not out of the expected stirrings of a moral conscience, but from simple greed (the Jews, he discovers, will pay him more to hide them than he’ll make from the Nazis to bring them in)—and, later, from vanity: hiding them, he knows more than the strutting occupiers of his city. A nobody, a lumbering prole in a disgusting job, he suddenly finds himself with power: the Jews are his, either to save or to betray; their fate lies in his hands. As played by Robert Wieckiewicz, his slow, almost unwitting drift toward heroism is beautifully depicted.

Equally refreshing is Holland’s decision (along with her screenwriter David Shamoon) to accord the same degree of complexity to her Jewish characters. Who are far from noble ideologues—in the manner of, say Preminger’s Exodus—but instead squabbling, selfish, by turns mercenary and selfless, frightened and defiant. They are, in fact, richly detailed and admirably diverse, human in every respect.

A workmanlike visual stylist, Holland’s great strength is her rapport with actors, and she garners uniformly strong performances here from her German and Polish cast. The result is a Babel of languages—not only Polish and German, but also Russian, Yiddish and Hebrew—that seems intended to reflect the friction between Jewish and national identities.

That title, it should be noted, is literal: much of the action here takes place underground, amid the sewers, in sequences lit almost entirely with flashlights—a piece of historical fidelity which only adds to both the stifling sense of claustrophobia and dread, and the nightmarishness of their predicament. The effect recalls one of Polish cinema’s greatest achievements: Andrzej Wadja’s 1957 Warsaw Uprising drama Kanal. If this film lacks the unrelieved fatalism of that one (which began with the following voiceover: 'These are our heroes. Watch them closely in these, the remaining hours of their lives"), it’s perhaps because time has passed and, in passing, soothed—even a little—the pain of these wounds.

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2 hours 25 min
In Cinemas 26 July 2012,