March 5, 2013 -- A friend dropped off this DVD for me to review. I had no idea what the movie was, but I had the uneasy feeling that watching this would be like a homework assignment. Unfortunately, that is the way it turned out. The film is dark, depressing and filled with the worst possible human behavior. It is slow-moving and overlong. On the plus side, it is based on a somewhat uplifting true story I had never heard before. So, like a worthwhile homework assignment, I learned something from it.
Leopold Socha (played by Robert Wieckiewicz) has a job few want. He works in the sewers of Lwów (now named Lviv in the Western Ukraine), a Polish city occupied by the Nazis in World War II. When the German Army liquidated the Lwów ghetto in June 1943, Socha saw a chance to make some money by hiding a small band of Jews in the sewers under the city. The Jews called Socha, and his friend, Szczepek Wróblewski (played by Krzysztof Skonieczny) “pirates.” Socha told the Jews he could hide only 11 of the many hiding in the sewers and they had to pay him daily a sum of money to cover his expenses and profits from the venture. The other Jews in the sewers were left to die.
This grim tale of survival goes on far too long, as the film lingers on the Jews living in terrible conditions in the sewers, fighting disease, hunger, thirst and madness. As time goes by Socha's co-worker, Szczepek Wróblewski, abandons the project and refuses to help. Socha has to take serious risks to keep the authorities from discovering those hiding in the sewers. He ends up killing a German soldier, which results in terrible reprisals against the Poles.
As time goes by, however, Socha's determination to save his small band of Jews gets stronger. He identifies with them more strongly and risks his life for them time and again. He is particularly fond of the children in the group. One of those children, Krystyna Chiger (played by Milla Bankowicz) would eventually grow up to write a book about her experience, “The Girl in the Green Sweater”). The movie is based on another book, however, “In the Sewers of Lvov: A Heroic Story of Survival from the Holocaust,” by Robert Marshall.
My favorite scene in the movie has Socha shoving a wad of money into the hands of one of the Jews he is hiding, Ignacy Chiger (Herbert Knaup) and instructing him to make a big show of paying him the money the next day. He did not mind continuing to help the group of Jews he was hiding for no money in return, but Socha was desperate to maintain the fiction that he was still getting paid to help them. Socha's character is a fascinating one, he starts out with contempt for the Jews he is hiding, but ends up risking everything for them. At one point Socha and his wife, Wanda (Kinga Preis) offer to adopt one of the hidden children.
This film was nominated for a best foreign film Oscar. The spoken language is Polish with English subtitles. The film is well-acted and the production values are high. The main problem is with pacing and editing. It moves too slow and it goes on too long, at two hours and 24 minutes, which seems like an eternity. A half hour could have been cut from it without losing anything vital. Seeing one person crawl through a small tunnel is enough, adding six more shots of others doing the same thing is just redundant. The effect of all this slow-moving redundancy is like “Schindler's List” on sleeping pills. This film, while noble in purpose, made me feel like I was doing penance. It rates a C.
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