Yesterday we saw a foreign film that has had little release in London, stumbling on it virtually by accident.
“In Darkness” , a Polish film directed by Agnieszka Holland, is a true history about Nazi-occupied Poland in 1944–1945. The film tells the story of Leopold Socha, a sewer worker in the Polish city of Lvov [now Lviv in the Ukraine], who uses his knowledge of the complex tunnels in the city’s sewer system to hide a group of Jews from the Nazis. The invading German army have decided on a new policy of ’emptying’ the city’s Jewish ghetto — either by murdering men, women, and children, en masse, and seemingly at random, or by chucking a few survivors into the local concentration camp [festooned with the famous catch phrase= Arbeit Macht Frei]. Socha has to move the Jews three times in the 14 months during which they are hiding out. A group of about 12 Jewish people survive to the end of the war [though only one is alive today] thanks entirely to his action.
What makes this film work so well, and end up so moving, is that Socha starts off as a real shmuck, but as circumstances force him to either bail out or ‘go to the end of the line’, some heart in him he never knew he had, and certainly never used, slowly step by step comes to the fore.
At increasing risk to his wife and seven year old daughter, as well as to himself, Socha cares for the Jews, having to do more and more for them. He grows into it. The external circumstances get harder, not easier, and paradoxically it is this intensifying Daemonic jeopardy and difficulty, and its unrelieved pressure, that brings out the deeper human being in this seemingly un-heroic man. He steps up, and he sees it through to the end, not funking the challenge by backing out. A younger sewer worker, a friend helping him, does back out fairly early on. Ironically, this young man is hanged by the Nazis for a crime he did not commit..
As the story begins, Socha is not nasty or cruel, not in any sense wicked, but he is small and self-serving, a petty thief robbing abandoned Polish homes, and generally an opportunist making the most of any and all the opportunities the German invasion of his country affords. He is like a jackal scavenging among the debris of other people’s tragedy. Nothing touches him initially. His attitude is a mix of indifference to all the human suffering around him, Polish and Jewish, and a certain toughness about ‘having to survive.’ Rick in “Casablanca” is similarly non-committal at the start of that film, and the changing circumstances thrown at him force him to finally take sides, but Socha seems an altogether more limited human being.. A sewer rat indeed. His ostensible Catholicism is only a cultural garment worn lightly.. He mouths all the usual prejudices against Jews, and is shocked to learn at a certain point that Jesus was a Jew. He is neither educated nor cultured.
In fact, this film is so good because it neither idealises nor romanticises either Socha or the Jews. Both are portrayed in a very human but pretty negative light as the story starts to unfold. The ‘self-preoccupation’ in Socha looking for the main chance and in the Jews looking to survive is the same ‘material’, the same heart, that later will grow and change under adversity.
The Jews change towards him, coming to realise how much he has done for them [which he never even tells them, but keeps secret], and Socha changes towards them, coming to respect and love them, and giving more and more of his heart to their plight.
At the outset, there is no love lost on either side of this ugly historical divide. Neither party likes or trusts the other.
At the end, they are ‘his Jews’, for whom he has become willing to sacrifice everything. To the Jews, he is one of the 6000 Righteous among all the nations.
Ironically, yet fittingly, though his action of heroism made sure the Jews in his care survived until the victorious Russians drove the Germans out of Poland, he was killed pushing his daughter out of the path of a Russian truck driven by a Red Army soldier who was very drunk. Such was his fate. Somehow, it makes a terrible sense that only the Russian ‘liberators’ could make his sacrifice complete.
The story of this man who ‘changed sides’ tells us a lot about the human heart and the true nature of what the Jews call Righteousness. It has nothing, absolutely nothing, to do with keeping the Law, or even being moral. Socha was neither. Righteousness is rooted in the heart, and in the heart that takes a chance with the mystery of the heart. Righteousness is rooted in faith, the true meaning of faith as gambling on the unknown, and awakening to the whisper to the human heart of a strange summons. Socha was called, in the heart, and he came.
This is heart. This is Righteousness. This is faith.. The rest is all horse shit, as we can see from the futility of religion every day.
No one chooses the Daemonic. But when the Daemonic chooses you, what you do next is make or break for fulfilling or betraying the mystery of the human heart that only you can, in your own heart, reveal.
Socha is like the sinner David. He is nothing like Moses. May everything religious die, if that is what it takes, for persons of heart like Socha to step up. This is a day of trouble. It is no different to then. The summons to the heart is the same today as then. Righteousness as faith in the God ‘behind’, ‘within’, and ‘ahead’ of, the mystery of the human heart has not changed.
Watching the film, I understood something new about the God who underwrites the human heart with a promise, a vow, a commitment– and then seems to abandon our heart to a fate that is absurd in its woundingness.
We see Socha living off the misery of others.
We see the Jews, who know their ghetto is about to be ‘swept clean’, scrambling unceremoniously for a way out.
One family in an old house digs under the floor boards and succeeds in opening up a hole down into the sewers; they allow some other Jewish families, probably living in the same house, to use the escape hatch. Their aim at this moment of crisis is just to avoid the Nazi death squads; what their next move will be, they do not seem to have considered. There is a lot of fear, jostling and shoving, among these escaping Jews as they hastily clamber down into the labyrinth below. Once in the underworld, terror of the dark sets in, and of course nausea at the smell.. They have escaped. Yet they are now lost. What next? One young woman endangers everyone because she cannot stand the confined space, and will not stop crying; she turns back and ends up in the concentration camp.
By accident, Socha and his younger workmate are in the tunnels, where they hide their ill-gotten loot, and see the Jews. A deal is struck, after much mistrust on both sides is voiced sotto voce. If the Jews will pay Socha so much money a week, he will lead them into a safer part of the complex sewer system, and regularly bring them a little food, to keep them going. At this point, Socha is making money, and the Jews are barely surviving their ordeal. There is no natural leader, and they are fragmented among themselves.. There is little mutual trust, or solidarity in suffering. The group is further split by class rivalry, and jealousy due to a husband’s adultery with a younger woman whom he insists on making love to within an arm’s distance from his sleeping wife and child– and obviously they wake up and watch the spectacle. At a certain moment, some of the group object when a religious Jew tries to pray aloud. ‘God is not here’ they tell him with fierce anger.
We see tensions in the Jewish group. They cling on to life in impossible conditions. We see Socha making hay while the sun shines. There is nothing glorious.. It is just human.
Soon, however, pressures mount on Socha. He runs into a Ukrainian friend — with whom he had been in prison — now a Nazi officer. This man wants Socha to check the sewers for any run-away Jews! The Germans will pay good money for every Jew caught.
Socha panics, and goes underground to the Jews, telling them he can only protect a smaller number in a smaller, and more remote, part of the sewers. This causes outrage and consternation among the Jews, understandably. Who will stay? Who will go? Three men in the group had already made a run for the countryside previously– and later we learn they were killed. Those not going to the new place likely will die as well.. At any rate, Socha is looking out for his own skin when he moves a smaller group of about 12 Jews into a more cramped place only accessed through a small turning off a main tunnel which would usually be overlooked by anyone not knowing it was there.
About this time, his young workmate bails on him. Socha continues, ostensibly for the money. But there is a sense, deeper down, that he is on a journey that he has no conscious understanding of, but is like a train that, once it has left the station, he does not want to jump off.
A second, and worse, near miss occurs. Other Jews are killed in the tunnels, and when Socha learns of it, he has to rush his group to an even more unlikely place. It is accessed only by a very narrow passage hard to crawl through and is right under the town’s main church.
By this time, the Jewish group has begun to knit together, and Socha is bringing them books, toys for the children, and candles and the elaborate Jewish candlestick with which to pray. A tragedy happens. The mistress of the adulterous man — one of the three men who ran away and were killed — gives birth to their baby. The group says they are all the baby’s parents, and the mother jokes that one set of parents is bad enough.. However, the baby won’t stop crying, and so to save the group, and out of exhaustion and despair, the mother kills the baby. Socha had persuaded his wife that they should take him, so when he shows up and finds the new-born dead, he is very upset. He leads the group out to a hillside, where he insists the baby has a proper burial. Socha, and the Jews, both pray for the dead baby in their respective ways.
By this time, the money has run out, but Socha gives the weekly amount to the Jewish professor who pays him in front of the group. In this way, pride on both sides is maintained.
A final crisis happens when a great rainstorm strikes, and the sewers fill up with rain water. Socha leaves his daughter’s first communion in the church just above the Jews because he knows they will all drown. Going into the sewers, he is waylaid, and nearly killed, by the Ukrainian ‘friend’ who has figured out what he is up to, but the floods of rainwater washes the quisling away, and drowns him. Socha is also nearly drowned, but his last act before going under the rushing water is to knock open a key drain-cover on a street that allows the flood waters to pour out.. The Jews later tell him it was like a miracle, for just as their cramped compartment was nearly filled up, the water just receded.. Even here he does not tell them what he did.
The game is now up. Socha has had to show his hand. Everyone knows what he is doing.. But again fate intervenes strangely. The Russian tanks roll into the city and the Germans flee.
There is more incident to the film. This is the merest sketch.. The last scenes are very touching. Socha guides the Jews up into the light in what looks like the backyard of the church. The Jews can barely see. They are dazed.. Everyone is in tears. Socha proudly introduces his wife Wanda, who has made cake for the survivors. Some of the Polish people walking by stand and gawp. Socha tells them to move on! He tells them, happiness and tears bursting from his chest, ‘These are my Jews. This is my work.’ He did not want to hide it any longer. He wanted the world to know he had changed sides.
In almost Plains Indian language, he was announcing, I came here, I did this.
He wanted witnesses. There must always be witnesses to the heart deed that came to a hard place, on a day of trouble, and did an action of heart beyond the ordinary, and indeed partaking in the mystery.
‘I came here, I did this’ declares a fact truthfully, but it does more, it also declares a truth factually. It points to a mystery which has been made real.
It says, I came to a hard place on a day of trouble, and instead of letting that excuse me, I staked myself to this ground on this day, in order to trust the mystery of the human heart.
I came here, I did that, means, I accepted a summons and leaned on a promise. My heart found it was real.
I grew from small heartedness to this. I trusted a mystery, and it proved real.
Watching the film, and going through all the hells of heart it depicted, I realised with terrible force why we feel abandoned by the God who forged our heart in fire, and calls our heart to live that fire in the world that is cold to it.
On one level, the heart is indeed abandoned by the one who made it, and gave it to us. Each heart is in hell. All hearts are in tragedy.
My personal detestation of religion is because that ‘simple fact of life’ is denied, and its deep pain in us dismissed as if it did not matter. It does matter. It matters more than all the rest..
You don’t need the callous cruelty of six million dead Jews to tell you this. You have the callous cruelty towards 100 million dead Indians in the Americas to tell you this. As Ivan says in ‘The Brothers Karamazov’, the callous cruelty towards just one innocent child, made to suffer unbearably, tells you this.
The pious say, God never punishes anyone. That misses the whole point. Where is God when the punishing of humans is carried out? Why doesn’t God stop it?
Then something hit me, as I watched Socha grow in heart, at first slowly, and then by leaps and bounds.
God does put humans into the hands of other humans. But there is more to it than this. God does not intervene= a breach is opened. There is no one. We feel abandoned.
But that is too easy. It suddenly hit me, very hard, that God steps back, and opens up a breach for us to step into. By stepping into the breach, we become God in that situation.
It seems impossible, far too daunting, until you do it.
When you step into the absence left by the God who is not present, you become the presence of God, and becoming that, against all odds, you know, and the people you give and sacrifice your heart for also know, God is present. The mystery of the heart is not abandoned by God.
But you do not know that until you act.
If you do not act, the mystery of your heart remains abandoned.
When you act, in stepping into God’s absence, you answer a call, and you prove the presence of God’s heart in the mystery of the human heart exceeding its limit.
This is what it means, I came here, and I did this.
In this hellish place, on a day of trouble, I trusted my heart in the absence of God’s heart, and in trusting my heart, I proved God is present, in me, with us.
These are my Jews. This is my work.
Thank God for Leopold Socha. Only when we thank God for the Righteous can we give thanks to God for his presence.
Do not tell me you lost your faith in God because of the six million Jews, because of the 100 million Indians, because of the one innocent child tortured and murdered in its cot.
It comes down to you much more personally in the mystery of your own heart.
Where did you go, what did you do?
Did you go to the hellish place, on the day of trouble?
You will find out there is a God of heart, and that he is present in your human heart, only when you step into the absence, and become the heart present for others hurting from the absence of all heart in a punishing, cold, callous, world.
If you are waiting for personal reassurance before you make your move, you are going to wait a long time.
I came here, I did this.
It means, when I acted from the mystery of the human heart, for the first time I entered the real world, a world of glory and grief, a world whispering my name and summoning me to an absence of God where I am the only heart that can make a difference.