For the 75th Anniversary
Sobibor was the smallest-scale facility of the six killing centers that the Nazis built in occupied Poland and until ten years ago, Russians had no idea that the place ever existed. It is interesting that Sobibor was so obscure since the camp is tied to a dramatic story of heroism: In 1943, Russian inmates led a successful escape, one of only two such occurrences during the Holocaust (the other was the same year in Treblinka).
Following the Sobibor uprising, however, the Nazis razed the camp so that there was little more than a forest clearing remaining in the area where SS guards and Ukrainians murdered 250,000 Jews. Ten years ago the Russian government led a commemoration campaign that ended this year with the 75th anniversary of the uprising and the release of this film. The two-hour Russian-language film stars Konstantin Khabenskiy, one of Russia’s best-known actors. It has an international cast and exciting visuals but what is really important is that the film goes into fine detail and nuance mores o than any other film made about the camp.
This is quite a gory film. The opening scene features hundreds of naked women in a gas chamber. There’s a rape scene, immolation, savage beatings, floggings, stabbings, a bludgeoning to the head and firearm executions. Because of this it is a difficult film to watch. In the days before the uprising, its conspirators suffered violence and feared betrayal by other inmates — including Jews who worked for the Nazis as camp police. This is evident throughout the film and informs every step of the film’s main protagonist, the partisan and Red Army veteran Alexander Pechersky (Khabenskiy) who led the revolt. and whose character is played by Khabenskiy.
The film also has a scene of a kapo practicing the Nazi salute (this refers to Herbert Naftaniel, a German Jew nicknamed Berliner. According to testimonies from Sobibor, Naftaniel was crueler to inmates than the German and Ukrainian guards. It also shows the hostility harbored by some Russian Jewish soldiers toward other Jews, whom they call “kikes” in the film).
Under Pechersky, about twelve men and a few women eliminated the Nazi chain of command by stealthily assassinating several camp officers, who were lured into a trap with promises of possessions taken from victims. With weapons they stole, the rebels then engaged the watchtower guards as more than 300 people exited through the main gate. Only 57 escapees, including Pechersky, were not murdered in the manhunt afterwards.
“Sobibor” explores the Nazi camp’s internal politics.We see that eleven German officers were killed in the uprising. Yet while these acts of bravery at Sobibor highlight the rebels’ resourcefulness and determination, they also show how Jews’ relative obedience at Sobibor created total complacency among the Nazis and we know that they were vigilant, disciplined and effective in countering threats by enemies, partisans and even prisoners of war.
We see both the dehumanization and mechanized killing and the heroism. The film also looks at perceived passivity, exploring the effect of hard labor, hunger and trauma and the deception employed by the Nazis to trick the condemned into submissively entering the gas chambers, which the killers said were showers. Pechersky, a Red Army prisoner of war who was transferred to Sobibor because he was Jewish and he soon realized that no one was meant to survive the camp. Others believed they were about to be resettled.
Sobibor showed the will to never surrender to those who want to destroy us said Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. “That moment more than any other marked the turning point in the history of the Jewish people.”
“Sobibor” generally treads lightly through politics and devotes very little to how Sobibor had Ukrainian guards or that many of the escapees were betrayed by Poles. Nonetheless, the story of Sobibor “is not only a Jewish story, but also a story about the best and the worst of us as human beings. Its message needs to be universal.”
(English subtitles not yet available)