"EUROPA, Europa" director Agneska Holland returns to the Holocaust with the Oscar-nominated "In Darkness," a grueling but rewarding story of survival.

It's a fictionalized account (taken from the book "The Sewers of Lvov") of Polish Jews who lived through the Nazi occupation by hiding in the sewers beneath a ransacked Jewish ghetto, making for a drama that is every bit as grim as it sounds.

One might say it is partly an account of a righteous Gentile, but the Catholic sewer worker (Robert Wieckiewicz) who hides the Jews is not particularly righteous, at least not initially.

He extorts money and valuables for his services, and is often on the verge of revealing the Jews' location. What stops him?

The answer is complex, and revealed in the subtle performance of Wieckiewicz, who plays sewer worker Leopold Socha.

Wieckiewicz plays Leopold as an unreflective man of simple and often base appetites - he likes his wife, his son, his job. His moral view of the world does not extend beyond that.

In exploiting the occupation, Leopold sees himself as a guy making the best of a bad situation, a mildly crooked blue-collar guy who's entitled to a few extras. There is very little resemblence to Oskar Schindler.

His wife, however, is appalled (for various reasons) when she learns where the little extras come from and forces Leopold, for the first time, to consider the enormous moral import of his daily decisions.

At the same time, he develops respect for the tough-guy leader (Benno Furmann) of the hidden Jews, and sympathy for the others as well.

When the money runs out, Leopold continues to protect the hidden. His profile never rises to the level of hero, and there thankfully is no magical moment of transformation. He is, in the end, merely less callous and exploitive. His obvious flaws make him human, adding to the movie's feel of realism (despite the liberties it takes with the facts).

Holland also humanizes the characters of the Jews, in offbeat ways. It is unusual for characters in a Holocaust drama to have sexual lives, but in the long days and months living underground, human impulses are bound to surface, and "In Darkness" they do.

Holland also strikes a delicate balance here, honoring the reality of the oppressive setting while finding expressive images that elevate the spirit. There are some hauntingly good low-light compositions that manage to evoke horror and beauty at the same time.

Contact Gary Thompson 215-854-5992 or thompsg@phillynews.com. Read his blog "Keep It Reel" at www.philly.com/keepitreel.