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The Polish drama "In Darkness," one of this year's Oscar nominees in the foreign-language category, reads like "Schindler's List" in miniature: A gentile of dubious morals reluctantly comes to the aid of Jews threatened with extinction during the Holocaust, and becomes ennobled by the effort.

In the hands of director Agnieszka Holland (who previously explored the Holocaust in "Europa, Europa" in 1990), "In Darkness" is a thoughtful and harrowing drama about the lengths people will go to survive — and the changes of heart that one person undergoes to help them.

When we first meet Leopold Socha (Robert Wieckiewicz), he's a full-time sewer worker and sometime thief in Lvov, Poland, at the start of World War II, scraping by on a meager salary as he tries to support his wife Wanda (Kinga Preis) and their daughter. With the Germans occupying Poland, Socha and his co-worker Stefek (Krzysztof Skonieczny) sometimes find and stash gold and jewels left behind by those forced into the Jewish ghetto. When the Nazis clear out the ghetto, Socha and Stefek discover that dozens of Jews have found their way into the sewer system, and are trying to hide there.

Socha offers to find a safe hiding spot for about a dozen of these Jews. At first, Socha does this for money, taking a weekly payment from a wealthy couple (Maria Schrader and Herbert Knaup). Over time, and as the Jews' money runs out, Socha perseveres to protect them for free. To do so, Socha not only must outwit the Nazis and their Lithuanian Army helpers, but overcome Wanda's qualms and his own prejudices against Jews.

Holland and first-time screenwriter David F. Shamoon (adapting Robert Maxwell's book In the Sewers of Lvov), captures the life-and-death uncertainty of the Jews' underground lives, as they learn to tolerate rats, filth and the stench — along with the worries for loved ones who may still be alive above. The scenes have a claustrophobic tension, as characters live, argue and even love with the knowledge that someone above might hear them.

The film's bleak atmosphere — which Holland augments with staccato bursts of violence, depicting the Nazis' cruelty — is held together by Wieckiewicz's central performance, which shows Socha's hard-bitten pragmatism slowly softened by the tenderness and respect he feels for the Jews under his protection. It's through Socha's transformation that "In Darkness" finds its way to the light.

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'In Darkness'

Director Agnieszka Holland brings thoughtfulness and tension to this tale of Jews surviving the Nazis in the sewers of a Polish city.

Where • Tower Theatre.

When • Opens Friday, March 30.

Rating • Rated R for violence, disturbing images, sexuality, nudity and language.

Running time • 144 minutes; in Polish, German, Ukrainian and Yiddish with subtitles.